After two decades of drastic neoliberal reconfiguration, Peruvian elites approached the April 2016 general election comforted by the fact that ten of the twelve candidates shared — albeit with some minor differences — the same economic strategy.
But against all expectations, leftist Veronika (“Vero”) Mendoza’s third-place finish in the first round forced a ballotage between the favorite Keiko Fujimori and Pedro Pablo Kucynski, who until then was considered a dark horse. Scheduled for early June, the presidential runoff turned into the hardest-fought campaign in recent Peruvian history.
Fujimori, daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori, imprisoned for human right abuses and embezzlement, was twenty points ahead of Kucynski — a former investment banker, World Bank functionary, and state minister — in April. But in a remarkable victory Kucynski won the June election by just 42,597 votes.
In April’s first-round election, Kucynski was neck and neck with Mendoza, the Frente Amplio (Broad Front, FA) candidate. But a frantic last-minute media blitzkrieg against Mendoza — dubbed by the right-wing media as the “last forty-eight hours to save Peru” — pushed Kucynski into second place.
Public figures from the political to the entertainment world — including first lady Nadine Heredia — joined the attack. Some argued that Mendoza’s environmental stance would be detrimental to mining investments. The archbishop of Arequipa — the second largest city in the country — said it would be “a sin” to vote for a candidate who favored abortion rights and same-sex civil unions. Others demonized the FA candidate as a “radical leftist,” or worse as a terruca (the Peruvian pejorative term for terrorist), whose ultimate goal was to turn the country into a “chavista Venezuela” or a “communist Cuba.”
The assaults halted Mendoza’s momentum. When the dust settled Kucynski got 21 percent of the valid vote — ahead of Mendoza’s 19 percent but behind Fujimori’s 40 percent.
Kucynski’s newly formed political party Peruanos Por el Kambio (a play on its presidential candidate’s initials) won eighteen seats in the 130-seat legislature. Keiko Fujimori’s Fuerza Popular won seventy-three, and the FA won twenty.
It was a victory for the Peruvian right who celebrated the fact that two candidates, who the Washington Post declared, differed only “in style,” would compete in June.
But while the media smugly painted the Left as anachronistic in an age after “the end of ideologies,” the FA would prove decisive in the presidential election. After intense internal discussion, Mendoza appealed to her followers to vote for Kucynski in order “to stop the advance of fujimorismo.” Without the support of the seven southern regions — FA’s stronghold, where Mendoza won the first round election with comfortable margins — Kucynski would have lost.
Mendoza’s reluctant endorsement also let loose a floodwater of resentment against Fujimori’s candidacy. The youth collective ¡No a Keiko! — No to Keiko — planned massive demonstrations.
Established in 2009 as a loose network of young people, human rights activists, mothers of the disappeared, and daughters of the women sterilized during President Fujimori’s 1990–2000 rule, ¡No a Keiko! threw its support behind Kucynski in order “to prevent a second fujimorato … and to demonstrate that the majority of Peruvians still have memory and dignity.”
¡No a Keiko! has played an important role in keeping alive the memory of the abuses, deaths, and corruption scandals that Alberto Fujimori’s ten-year reign brought to Peru.
Marching behind a large banner inscribed with the slogan “No olvidamos, No perdonamos, No a Keiko” (“We do not forget, We do not pardon, No to Keiko”), thousands of members of labor unions, student federations, neighborhood associations, human rights groups, women’s organizations, and LGBT collectives, as well as popular artists and intellectuals overwhelmed downtown Lima four days before the vote.
Coordinated actions also took place in seventeen other cities across the country and in Europe and the Americas, including New York, Madrid, Santiago, Berlin, and Florence. These demonstrations and their wide social media coverage was considered pivotal in convincing undecided voters and those leaning toward a protest vote to instead cast a “critical vote” for Kucynski as the most effective way to stop a fujimorista takeover of the executive office.
Lesser of Two Evils
While many observers consider Kucynski and Fujimori to be interchangeable for all intents and purposes, there are differences between them.
Following in her father’s footsteps, Fujimori espouses an authoritarian populism while Kucynski favors liberal democratic practices. Campaign polls also showed that voters considered Kucynski to be less deceitful and more straightforward than Fujimori.
Whether this assessment is accurate is debatable. The seventy-seven-year-old Oxford- and Princeton-educated Kucynski has always been upfront about his orthodox neoliberal positions, boasting about his credentials as a Wall Street investment banker and World Bank functionary.
But during the campaign he downplayed his previous role in cutting taxes and deregulating labor and environmental standards to entice multinational investment and the expansion of extractive industries.
Moreover, Kucynski’s professed respect for liberal principles and basic democratic rights and liberties didn’t stop him from endorsing Fujimori in the 2011 presidential election to avoid a “victory of chavismo” allegedly represented by Ollanta Humala’s centrist and nationalist platform.
But in the end it appears that voters were willing to look past these contradictions when faced with Keiko Fujimori’s impending victory. Fujimori’s international team of media consultants — paid for by the largest campaign fund of all the candidates — had worked hard in the years following her failed 2011 presidential run to build her a new, moderate image. At the same time, she invested time and money into building a political organization based around her father’s old clientelistic networks.
As the campaign heated up, she attempted to establish a sharper difference with the other candidate, turning her attention to corruption and the rampant criminality associated with Peru’s drug economy and judicial system. She promised to lead with a “mano dura” — a “firm hand” — against corrupt functionaries, to mobilize the army to keep streets safe, and to impose the death penalty for those charged with violent crimes.
But her anti-corruption stance was demolished when a news story, published a few days before the election, revealed that the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was investigating Sergio Ramirez — her party’s secretary-general and her campaign’s largest financial contributor — for money laundering and close ties to drug trafficking.
The timely — no doubt intentionally so — release of materials included a recorded phone conversation between Ramirez and a US DEA informant, where Ramirez boasted that he had laundered €13 million for Keiko Fujimori in 2011 and that he had several key judges “in his pocket.”
Fujimori’s delayed response to the scandal and Ramirez’s late resignation — three days after the disclosure — reminded voters of her father’s administration’s darkest days, when everything — government contracts, concessions to extractive industries, arms deals, prison sentences, congressional votes, court decisions, newspaper and media editorial lines, and campaigns against opponents — were negotiated in backroom deals and paid for in wads of dollars by Vladimiro Montesinos, chief of the National Intelligence Service (SIN) and Fujimori’s right hand.
Terror, Corruption, Privatization
Memories of corruption and violence fueled the anti-fujimorista forces, fearful that the younger Fujimori would reproduce the politics of fear that characterized her father’s ten-year reign.
Alberto Fujimori oversaw one of the most pervasive and predatory neoliberal regimes in Latin America. Facing a deep economic crisis, skyrocketing inflation, a mounting terrorist offensive from the bloody and sectarian PCP-Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrilla insurgency, widespread social discontent, and popular mobilization, Fujimori adopted a two-pronged strategy: an IMF-inspired “economic stabilization program” and a counterinsurgency campaign informed by the Cold War “national security doctrine.”
In a now-familiar pattern that Naomi Klein has described as “disaster capitalism,” Fujimori announced a severe austerity program — known as “Fujishock” — a few days after taking office in early August 1990. The package eliminated price subsidies and social spending while drastically raising interest rates and taxes.
A majority of Peruvians were thrown into absolute poverty, and only 8 percent of the adult population remained fully employed. Farmers in the tropical valleys on the eastern slopes of the Andes turned to growing coca as a way to survive.
Fujimori also introduced new legislation that allowed employers to fire striking workers, eliminated job security, and curtailed collective bargaining. Land reform was overturned, paving the way for the establishment of massive new estates. A banking law deregulated interest rates and opened the financial sector to foreign investment. State-owned mining and oil companies, ports, railroads, airports, power plants, and public airlines were slated for privatization.
The legislative onslaught was coupled with an authoritarian turn. In rural areas, military “death caravans” raped, tortured, and executed citizens; college professors and students disappeared from dormitories; peasant villagers were corralled into strategic hamlets; thousands of citizens endured daily police harassment and arbitrary detentions; journalists, lawyers, and relatives of alleged subversives were executed, arrested, or disappeared.
In response the Shining Path escalated its vindictive violence, turning on all those who would not pledge allegiance to their “people’s war.” Car bombs and drive-by shootings — meant to enforce the insurgency’s armed strikes — became a daily occurrence.
Fujimori’s government attempted to rein in the insurgents by redefining terrorism as a special crime subject to military jurisdiction.
Any perceived act of “apology or support” for the Shining Path became prosecutable as a terrorist act. Grassroots leaders and elected officials from the Izquierda Unida (United Left) coalition — until the early 1990s the country’s second most important electoral force — were prosecuted under these new laws.
Emboldened by the retreat of popular opposition and the collapse of the institutional left, Congress granted Fujimori extraordinary legislative powers to further reorganize Peru’s state and economy.
Inspired by the Southeast Asian “tigers,” Fujimori made more than seventy decrees relating to economic reform: he eliminated all barriers to foreign investment, dismantled the entire state sector, and privatized all public and social services, including state enterprises, public services and facilities, the cooperative sector, and pension funds.
All capital export restrictions on foreign and multinational companies were removed, as well as basic rights such as the eight-hour workday and job security.
On April 5, 1992, Fujimori surprised everyone by launching an auto-golpe (self-inflicted coup) supported by the military. In a televised message to the nation, he announced the establishment of an “emergency government of national reconstruction.”
Blaming “chaos and corruption,” he dissolved Congress, dismantled twelve regional governments, reorganized the judiciary, and suspended all articles of the constitution “not compatible with government goals.”
The vast majority of political leaders from left to right opposed the coup, but Fujimori had secured the support of the country’s most important entrepreneur and industrialist associations. Shortly after the coup he appointed the acting president of the National Confederation of Business Institutions of Peru (CONFIEP) as minister of industry and commerce.
Peruvians were exhausted by the Shining Path’s violence and the country’s economic woes, giving Fujimori broad leeway to overhaul Congress and the judiciary purportedly in order to fight terrorism and corruption, and — more importantly — to provide foreign companies with the economic efficiency they needed to invest in Peru’s war-torn economy.
To achieve these goals Fujimori formed SIN — a centralized system of intelligence gathering — and put Vladimiro Montesinos, a former CIA collaborator and drug-connected lawyer, in charge.
From his seat of power, Montesinos founded a string of sensationalist tabloids designed to attack the opposition through psychological warfare, blackmail, and control over the country’s media.
To put a liberal-democratic face on his neoliberal military dictatorship, Fujimori called Constituent Assembly elections. The single eighty-member chamber, subjected to presidential veto, was charged with writing a new constitution subject to approval in a national plebiscite.
The main right-wing and centrist opposition parties abstained from participating while the Left was disqualified after failing to obtain the minimum 5 percent of the vote required in the previous election.
Tailored to institutionalize the authoritarian power Fujimori acquired in the auto-golpe, the new constitution created a more centralized state, dominated by a powerful executive branch that presided over a unicameral congress with few checks on presidential authority. It also legalized secret military courts for terrorism trials and authorized a presidential election, clearing the way for Fujimori’s candidacy in 1995.
Despite these moves Fujimori barely won in 1995. Undaunted, he pushed his congressional lackeys to pass another law that enabled him to run for a third consecutive term — contradicting the 1993 constitution he had drawn up.
But Peruvians had had enough. When serious fraud allegations against the president came to light in 2000 widespread popular mobilizations pushed both Fujimori and Montesinos to flee the country.
Normalizing the State of Emergency
A provisional government, led by Valentin Paniagua, took over after Fujimori’s fall. It repealed most of the anti-terrorist legislation, including the death penalty and the secret military courts.
It also established the Comisión de la Verdad y la Reconciliación (The Truth and Reconciliation Commission) to investigate “the facts and responsibilities” of the terrorist insurgency, the paramilitary groups, and the state armed forces during the internal war.
Panigua also oversaw the dismissal of all military officials involved with or connected to Montesinos and created a commission to supervise the reorganization of the judiciary branch and to investigate — and discharge — corrupt functionaries and judges.
These were positive measures to be sure. But the fundamental aspects of Fujimori’s constitution remained intact. While rejecting its more antidemocratic aspects, all subsequent Peruvian presidents — from the progressive-centrist Alejandro Toledo (2001–6), to the social-democrat Alan García (2006–2011), to the most recent nationalist Ollanta Humala (2011–present) — have embraced the neoliberal foundations of the Peruvian state established by Fujimori.
More revealingly, all of these leaders have fully accepted the permanent state of emergency. For both liberal and authoritarian elites, the new constitution was the most convenient instrument to legalize the predatory and exploitative measures demanded by the expanding national and multinational corporate extractivist and financial interests, while also criminalizing citizens’ democratic resistance to the loss of their individual rights and freedoms, their communal and territorial resources, and ultimately the sovereignty of their nation.
This continuity with, rather than break from, Fujimori’s authoritarian neoliberal program complicates the simplistic narrative of the 2016 presidential election — the narrative of a country split between fujimoristas and anti-fujimoristas. Peru’s map of socio-political and economic power has been shaped by two decades of globalization, privatization, and financialization and remains complex and unsettled.
Long before “Fujimori’s economic coup” — in the words of Peruvian economist Francisco Durand — “wiped out the national bourgeoisie,” the national-developmentalist legacy of General Juan Velasco Alvarado’s government (1968–1975) — which called for land reform and nationalization to create an economy based on state, cooperative, and private business sectors, favoring local industrial development and the expansion of a national bourgeoisie — was defunct.
Fujimori’s policies cemented rising inequality and benefited various sectors of the Peruvian economy: old-money elites continued to prosper, but so did a new bourgeoisie that capitalized on foreign investment and the narcotics trade.
Privatization, free trade, deregulation, and globalization de-nationalized and restructured the Peruvian economy. The country’s twelve most powerful entrepreneurs centralized their power by establishing their own banks and financial institutions, and by diversifying investments in manufacturing, food processing, export crops, and agro-industries.
Today multinational corporations and foreign economic conglomerates (mostly Chilean) dominate the upscale urban markets, using local entrepreneurs as junior partners.
Huge Brazilian corporations have monopolized infrastructure projects, including highway, pipeline, dam, and energy plant construction. Extractive industries, particularly mining — the driving force behind the country’s macro-economic growth — have come under the almost absolute control of multinational corporations.
Rising demand for services, construction, and mass consumer goods in the interior of the country also created opportunities for a new layer of entrepreneurs. Unlike their peers in the above-mentioned sectors — who are mostly male scions of old oligarchic families or descendants of nineteenth-century European immigrants, born in Lima or coastal cities and educated abroad — this emergent bourgeoisie comes from humble origins, is often of Andean descendant, and includes many women.
The expansion of the global narcotics and luxury consumer goods trade, coupled with financial, labor, and environmental deregulation, prompted the unprecedented growth of narcotic, tropical hardwoods, and alluvial gold exports. American-led anti-narcotic campaigns in Colombia, Mexico, South Florida, and the Caribbean transformed Peru from a producer and exporter of coca into a manufacturer of cocaine.
This industry is highly destructive both to the environment and to Peruvian communities. But it is also highly profitable and has become an important source of jobs and income. Although officially illegal, the narcotics industry complements the operation of the legal economy.
Sonia Medina, Peru’s anti-drug public attorney, says Peru has a “narcotized economy (economía narcotizada) to a degree that we don’t know which economic activity is genuinely legal and which one is a cover for the narcotics industry.”
For the subaltern classes, the intensification of Peru as an “exporter of nature” has had cataclysmic consequences. The “new mining” operations practice what David Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession,” a predatory form of appropriation sustained through the blatant theft of rights, resources, and territories from the poorest social groups.
Unlike older mining developments, “new mining” uses massive open-pit extraction, employs a small, unskilled labor force, and profits from large-scale exports that do not aggregate value.
These extractivist industries — mining in the highlands; oil, gas, and lumber in the Amazonian jungle — have turned peasant and indigenous territories, ecological reserves, communal and public lands, water, and biogenetic resources into commodities.
With vast sections of their territories controlled by extractivist corporations, the highland and Amazonian jungle provinces that host these operations are also the poorest in the country. During recent years, conflicts over territory and natural resources have become more frequent and militant.
The Observatory of Latin American Conflict Mining ranks Peru as having one of the highest number of socio-environmental conflicts in Latin America as well as the largest degree of militarized mining operations and criminalized social protest.
Despite their demonization in the right-wing media, these movements have effectively redrawn the landscape of popular opposition. Socio-environmental movements have not only resisted extractivism, but have also played a crucial role in demonstrations against free-trade agreements and in defense of democratic rights and national sovereignty.
And the labor movement is gaining strength, too, despite massive setbacks. The working class is mostly composed of self-employed workers, day laborers, and artisans who work in family-owned micro- and small enterprises.
They make below the minimum wage and have no — or in the best case, minimal — benefits. Even in the formal sector, seven out of ten laborers work on temporary contracts. But government efforts to further normalize precarious work have met with unforeseen resistance.
In late 2014, claiming they needed to make young people “more attractive” to business in order to generate jobs, Congress approved a new package of laws called the Youth Labor Laws. This legislation would further open Peru to extractive industries and make what little formal work remains in the country more precarious.
After four months of intense campaigning, including four huge demonstrations in Lima and other large cities led by unemployed and underemployed youth and students, Congress relented and repealed the legislation.
Empowered by their success, the movement morphed into a national network of youth collectives that, in alliance with similar grassroots groups and organizations, coalesced into the ¡No a Keiko! movement.
¡No a Keiko!
Popular and citizens’ movements emerged as a decisive factor in the recent presidential elections, and with two years until municipal and regional elections, the stakes are high for FA, ¡No a Keiko!, and the popular anti-fujimorista opposition.
Peru’s dominant coastal elites are likely to align themselves with the fujimorista crony capitalists, illegal miners and loggers, and drug capitalists if faced with an organized opposition resisting territorial and resource expropriation, increasing labor precarity, human rights violations, and nationalistic defenses of sovereignty.
But if the FA and left-wing grassroots groups can figure out how to transform a heterogeneous protest movement into a radical challenge to capital fitted to the realities of twenty-first century they may be able to develop a serious left-wing alternative, broadening the spectrum of possibility beyond saying “no” to fujimorismo.