Peru’s protests offer a cautionary tale for democracies


Peru is experiencing some of the worst political violence in recent decades, but protesters’ grievances are fresh; They reflect a system that has failed to deliver for more than twenty years.

After the overthrow of former president Pedro Castillo last month, some of the fiercest protests have erupted in Peru in the south of the country where dozens have been killed in violent clashes with security forces over the past few weeks.

This region, around the Andes mountain range more than ten thousand feet above sea level and home to some of Peru’s most famous archaeological sites such as the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu and the city of Cusco, is also one of the poorest in the country.

In recent days, protesters from these other rural areas of Peru have begun traveling towards the capital, Lima — sometimes for days — to air their grievances with the country’s leadership and to demand that the current president, Dina Boloart, step down.

Their anger highlights a much deeper democratic crisis. After years of political hoopla, Peru is a country that has fallen for democracy: both the presidency and Congress have been widely vilified and viewed as corrupt institutions.

A 2021 poll conducted by LABOP, a survey research lab at Vanderbilt University, found that only 21% of Peruvians said they were satisfied with democratic governance, the least of any country in Latin America and the Caribbean except for Haiti.

Worryingly, more than half of the Peruvians who participated in this poll said that a military takeover of the country would be justified given the high degree of corruption.

At the heart of the crisis are demands to improve living conditions that have not been achieved in the past two decades since the restoration of democratic rule in the country. Peru is one of the smallest democracies in the Americas, with free and fair elections only restored in 2001 after the ouster of right-wing leader Alberto Fujimori.

Peru’s economy boomed under Fujimori and in the years after the restoration of democracy, outpacing almost any other economy in the region thanks to strong exports of raw materials and sound foreign investment. The term Lima Consensus was coined, after the Peruvian capital, to describe the system of free market policies promoted by Peruvian elites to fuel economic prosperity.

But while the economy rebounded, state institutions were inherently weakened by a governance philosophy that reduced state interference to a minimum.

As early as 2014, Professor Stephen Levitsky of Harvard University highlighted a particular Peruvian paradox: while in most democracies public opinion reflects the state of the economy, in Peru presidential approval ratings have fallen consistently through the first decade of the 21st century, even as Growth, he wrote in Revista Magazine.

Levitsky has highlighted chronic shortcomings in security, justice, education and other basic services from successive Peruvian governments as threats to the sustainability of the young democracy.

Security, justice, education and other basic services remain under-provided, leading to pervasive perceptions of government corruption, injustice, ineffectiveness and negligence. This is a major source of public discontent. Where such perceptions persist, across successive governments, public confidence in democratic institutions is likely to erode,” he wrote, an observation that today seems prophetic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this structural weakness at the heart of Peruvian society. While many countries have expanded social safety nets to counter the devastating economic impacts of lockdowns, Peru has had no one to fall back on.

According to the United Nations, more than half of Peru’s population lacked adequate food in the months of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the virus spread across the country. Data from Johns Hopkins University also shows that Peru has the world’s highest per capita death rate from the coronavirus.

The country’s economy is back on track after the pandemic shock — Peru’s GDP grew by a staggering 13.3% in 2021 — but public trust in democratic institutions has collapsed, just as Levitsky predicted.

People who traveled from different parts of Peru to protest against the Poluarte government take a rest on January 18, ahead of the protests on Thursday.

A poll published in September 2022 by the IEP showed that 84% of Peruvians disapprove of the Congress’s performance. Lawmakers are not only seen as pursuing their own interests in Congress, but also associated with corrupt practices.

The country’s frustrations were reflected in her years-long revolving-door presidency. The current President Bulwart is the sixth head of state in less than five years.

Her predecessor, Castillo, rose to power in the 2021 general election, modeling a man of the people who would make the country a fresh start. But the polarization and chaos surrounding his presidency—including allegations of corruption and multiple impeachment attempts by Congress, which Castillo dismissed as politically motivated—only exacerbated pre-existing tensions.

Most of the protesters who spoke to CNN on Wednesday said the country needed a fresh start and demanded new elections across the board to restore a sense of legitimacy to public institutions.

But Boulwart and lawmakers have so far resisted calls for an early general election. On Sunday, the president declared a state of emergency in the regions of the country hardest hit by the protests, including Lima. The measure is set to last until mid-February, but that hasn’t stopped more people from taking to the streets.

Meanwhile, the Peruvian Attorney General opened an investigation into Boulwart’s handling of the disturbances.

The current President Bulwart is the sixth head of state in less than five years.

But even if the current leadership is gone and another politician is elevated to the presidency, the root causes of the unrest in Peru remain.

As in many other regions of Latin America, addressing these issues requires structural change in terms of social and economic equality, addressing the cost of living crisis and fighting corruption.

Across the region, the pandemic proved to be a reality check after years of economic and social development under democracies that gave the impression that Latin America had finally put the era of coups, dictatorships and revolutions behind it.

Today’s Peru may be a cautionary tale for any democracy that fails to advance the interests of its people and turns in on itself.

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