December 10, 2020
This article doesn’t pretend to find the causes of the current political crisis in Peru, but seeks to point to the most recent events that caused a series of unprecedented protests. It would take more than a book to understand and analyze the colonial legacy and the fragility of the institutions that brought into existence our great country.
I also want to start by emphasizing that two young students, Bryan Pintado and Inti Sotelo, were murdered by police officers while exercising their right to protest peacefully showing once again that Peru’s democracy is still “muy jodido.”
I think of the protests as the climax of a series of events that involve a rivalry between the legislative and the executive branch of the Peruvian government. The 2016 election had Keiko Fujimori, daughter of former dictator Alberto Fujimori and Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (PPK), portrayed as the less evil as the biggest contenders. The results were a close win for Kuczynski; however, the celebration wouldn’t last long for our president. The opposition party Fuerza Popular had won a vast majority in the congress. As you can imagine, they were not happy that their fierce leader Keiko Fujimori hadn’t been elected president.
Later that year, fiscal investigations led to the unveiling of multiple corruption networks across Latin America (and some African countries) that involved the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht. This series of investigations eventually led to the arrests of former president Ollanta Humala, Alejandro Toledo, the suicide of former president Alan Garcia and the arrest of 2016 election candidate Keiko Fujimori. The investigation also found evidence that connected PPK with some shady bank accounts that received money from a special branch of Odebrecht.
Congress did not hesitate to start the impeachment process against PPK. Surprisingly (but not really), Congress voted against the impeachment after the president gave amnesty for former dictator Alberto Fujimori. After, a congressman released videos that showed how PPK’s impeachment votes were negotiated. The scandal led the president to give up on his position. Constitutionally, the vice president had to take power, and this is how Martin Vizcarra became the first non-democratically elected president in Peru in 18 years.
This transitional government did not attempt to make fundamental changes to the country. Certainly, Vizcarra was a low-profile figure that appeared in public merely when it was necessary. Yet, this government changed radically when the pandemic hit the nation. Vizcarra was seen by the populace as a proactive president, who tried to change the course of the pandemic early on by establishing lockdowns or mandating the use of masks in public spaces. This approach to the pandemic at first gave Vizcarra an approval rate of approximately 87 percent — which came to deteriorate by September and October when, despite all the precautious mechanisms the country was ranking among the worst in terms of deaths per capita caused by the virus.
Amid all this chaos, the press and especially Congress were invested in finding a reason to impeach the president. In their search, they found the name of Richard Swing or Richard Cisneros. This person, in the middle of the pandemic, was receiving $50,000 USD to allegedly give motivational speeches for workers in the Ministry of Culture. The press and Congress made a huge deal out of this, and they called it “The Swing Case.” This scandal became stronger once Edgar Alarcón, a congressman, leaked audios of Vizcarra negotiating with Richard Swing. There, Vizcarra seemed to be asking to be disassociated from Swing and to frame someone else as responsible for those contracts in the Ministry of Culture. Despite this being considered a “low profile” case of corruption by Peruvian standards, Congress saw the opportunity to start an impeachment process. The first time failed due to their lack of organization. The second time, once Congress had negotiated favors in exchange for votes, they succeeded with merely one party voting against the impeachment: The Purple Party. In this way, in the middle of a pandemic that had taken more than 30,000 lives and had led many people into poverty, Manuel Merino along with Congress decided to take over the government and appoint as many people related to him as possible to secure his unconstitutional and deceitful government.
At the time of the impeachment, I was sitting in front of my desk feeling frustrated and defeated — observing how my country got robbed in front of everyone’s eyes, how democratic processes were eroded and how, in the middle of a pandemic, the entire Congress, from far-right to moderate left, decided to destabilize government for their benefit. For Peruvians, this was the biggest representation of how corrupt our institutions had become that showed no mercy even when the country was at its worst. Yet, we were not hopeless. As soon as Merino got elected, people came out to the streets to show their rejection and rage towards this corrupt government. The first night of protests was more subdued, but in the second one, a new movement had begun. That night would be remembered as one of the biggest peaceful protests that Peru had ever witnessed — people united in almost every district, province and city. Everyone protested in whichever way they could: some by being on the frontlines of protesters that marched to Congress and confronted the police that reacted violently towards peaceful protesters, and some other, from their houses, hit pans with a spoon on their windows to show that they were also participating in the protest but because of COVID or any other reason, could not be out on the streets. At this point, all the way from St. Paul, I felt like a part of this protest. I kept track of everything that was happening on the streets as well as constantly posting on social media to show my support.
These protests against the government of Merino lasted for five days. During those five days, the police showed all their violent methods against peaceful protesters. They excessively used tear gas bombs, shot pellets into peoples’ faces and other parts of the body and hit people with batons. The police had no restrictions or regulations on their violence since the government supported them, so they also began arbitrary arrests of anyone who was participating or contributing to the protest. This violence took a radical turn when Bryan Pintado and Inti Sotelo died at the hands of the Peruvian police. During the protests of Nov. 14, the police shot Brian Pintado Sanchez, who died immediately by bullet wounds to his head, face, neck, arm and thorax. Inti Sotelo was confirmed dead later by a pistol shot — the police claim that they don’t know where the shot came from, but all the evidence suggests that it was the police themselves who shot that bullet. A day after their death, due to the internal pressure, Manuel Merino resigned from the government and established a new process to appoint a new transitional president. The Purple Party, the only one who voted against the impeachment, with votes from congress, appointed Francisco Sagasti as interim president of Peru. The population accepted Sagasti as interim president, but they remain skeptical as well as constantly aware of what he does. There is a phrase that has resonated all the way to the Presidential Palace: “Sagasti, the Peruvian people remain vigilant of your actions.”
Even though Sagasti has attempted to reconcile the executive branch with the Congress, there is still political opposition aiming to undermine his credibility. It seems like the main purpose of this political war is to prevent any political party that is not part of the traditional and corrupt political sphere from gaining legitimacy. This tension intensifies even more as we approach the April general elections. In spite of the political uncertainty with respect to the results of the elections there is for sure some hope as the new generations have proven that they are resilient when demanding justice even at the cost of their lives.