- Interview by
- Nicolas Allen
The streets of Peru erupted in protest on November 9 with the news that then-president Martín Vizcarra had been impeached for the crime of “moral incapacity.” On the surface, this was another episode in an ongoing power struggle between the Peruvian executive and Congress that has become familiar to the nation’s citizens. Ever since 2018, when the legislature forced the resignation of President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, Peru has seen a series of reprisals and counterreprisals between the two branches of government, each accusing the other of corruption.
Since that time, the country has been rocked by a deepening crisis of political authority — coming to a head November 10 when congressman Manuel Merino, backed by the Peruvian far right, seized on the presidential vacancy and took office with the probable intent of holding the post beyond the 2021 general elections. It was a bridge too far.
While Vizcarra was still a modestly popular figure at the time of his removal, the sudden and emphatic outpouring of indignation across the country has felt more like a sweeping indictment of the system than any particularly intense support for the outgoing president (although he has his supporters).
What brought Peruvians into the streets — and kept them there in the ensuing weeks — is a list of basic grievances: they have grown weary of the state’s capture by corporate interests, and they have been left to fend for their own in the midst of one of the world’s worst pandemic crisis — compounded by the growing economic crisis — while the government busies itself with palace intrigues.
The Peruvian people are no strangers to social protest, but the current nationwide wave of street demonstrations feels different. Verónika Mendoza, left-wing presidential candidate for Juntos por el Perú, is emphatic on that point. The current demonstrations, she says, have in their sights the entire neoliberal order that has corrupted Peruvian democracy and produced the nation’s seemingly endless legitimacy crisis. The only solution, adds Mendoza — who is currently a strong candidate for the presidency — is to scrap the constitution imposed during Alberto Fujimori’s dictatorship.
Peru now joins neighboring Colombia and Chile in a growing trend that has seen the region’s “model economies” come under heavy contestation. Nicolas Allen of Jacobin América Latina spoke with Mendoza to discuss the reasons behind the crisis, the tasks that lie ahead for the Peruvian left, and the possibility of initiating a process that would result in a more democratic, popular constitution.
Recent days in Peru have been tumultuous, to say the least. Starting on November 9, former president Martín Vizcarra was impeached in what amounted to a legislative coup. That was followed by the contentious appointment of right-wing congressman Manuel Merino as interim president. Only five days later, he resigned under pressure from massive street demonstrations.
Peru is now on their third president in little more than a week, with center-right congressman Francisco Sagasti acting as caretaker until general elections in April 2021. Can you talk about the lead-up to this massive political upheaval?
As you’ve pointed out, what triggered the crisis was the impeachment of Martín Vizcarra. Those proceedings were carried out by a congressional majority under the pretext of corruption, although the same members of congress pushing for Vizcarra’s ouster are themselves notoriously corrupt.
Now, former president Vizcarra does have to answer to some very serious corruption charges. But the majority of Peruvian citizens felt that with only five months until general elections, and in a country that is currently one of the worst affected by the pandemic, it would be better for him to serve out his term while investigations are being conducted. After that time, he should be forced to stand trial, and, if found guilty, pay the price.
Instead what happened was the congressional majority going forward with impeachment proceedings, pursuing its own corporatist and mafia-like interests behind the backs of the Peruvian people. I should stress that this impeachment basically amounts to a coup. It may not have been a traditional military coup, but the members of Congress are not elected to choose the president as they’ve done. In that sense, it was completely justified to call Merino and the members of congress that appointed him golpistas.
Why did they impeach Vizcarra? They wanted to guarantee their immunity against pending legal investigations, and to pass laws that would benefit their own business interests — which they did the day after Vizcarra’s impeachment. Perhaps most importantly, these same members of Congress are wildly unpopular — Congress has only 32 percent approval rating. What that means is that the impeachment was really about trying to derail an impending electoral process that begins on April 11.
It’s against that backdrop that Vizcarra’s impeachment provoked such widespread and intense indignation. But at the same time, this was a general expression of popular outrage that was a long time coming. Peru’s political class turned its back on its citizens a long time ago, and its decomposition is not a novelty to this crisis. It has been decades in the making.
Would it be fair to describe Vizcarra’s ouster as an attempt by the more conservative right to seize power from the center right?
Absolutely. And even though Merino and Prime Minister Ántero Flores only lasted six days in office, they clearly acted with the backing of the Peruvian radical right. The far right in Peru is united in a group called the Coordinadora Republicana, and the entire coup was plotted by this group in an attempt to wrest control of the state from the more moderate right represented by Vizcarra.
Of course, the impeachment of Vizcarra is actually just another episode in a prolonged crisis of political authority that stretches back to 2018 with the impeachment of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski.
Some might argue that what we are actually seeing is a terminal crisis of a certain neoliberal order inherited from the Alberto Fujimori dictatorship — a uniquely authoritarian form of neoliberalism that, thirty years later, seems to remain in place. Do you agree with that assessment?
That’s precisely right. Every single living former president of Peru has been indicted for corruption, to say nothing of their ministers, regional governors, or their business associates in the country’s largest companies. Today in Peru, sixty-eight of the one hundred and thirty congressional representatives — that is to say, half of Congress — are currently facing corruption charges.
This is the same political class that for decades has been assuring its citizens that everything is going great, that the country is achieving prosperous development, and that our economic growth is sustainable in the long term. It’s true that national economic figures over the last couple years have been superficially positive in Peru, but that same process has been guaranteed at a great cost to the institutional strength of the Peruvian state.
During these same years, we’ve seen the state reduced to its most minimal expression: the complete commodification of health care and education, the almost complete elimination of any kind of public pension system. The withdrawal of the state means that 70 percent of Peru’s economically active population is working in the informal sector. In a word, the system just can’t go on like this anymore.
This is a deep crisis that requires equally profound change. And that in turn means that we can’t allow for a repetition of the year 2000, when the Peruvian people were similarly mobilized. Then, we were successful in bringing down the Fujimori dictatorship, but, unfortunately, the entire neoliberal scaffolding was left intact. The rules of the game were left untouched and the neoliberal regime imposed by the dictatorship survived.
Now, by contrast, what the Peruvian people are questioning is the neoliberal model, as such. And in that sense, the youth are the ones leading the way and calling for the beginning of a constitutional process in which they would play a crucial role.
But as you mention, even widespread mobilization in the past has fallen short of questioning the underlying economic model. What specifically do you think is different this time?
The Peruvian people fully grasp the severity of this crisis. They see that nothing will be changed by simply swapping one president for another, as has happened so many times in the past. Peru needs a new kind of radical change, and they’ve abandoned the idea that this can be achieved with the current political class. Radical change can only be brought about through the active participation of the people, by allowing the Peruvian people to become political protagonists.
Once more, Peru’s youth are leading the way here. They’ve been in the streets day after day, first to throw out the illegitimate Merino administration, and second, to guarantee that the ensuing process be steered by a transition government and a congressional committee that explicitly excludes the forces behind the coup. These same youth remain in the street, where they are now leading the call for a new constitution. In that sense, this crisis is absolutely singular and could very well be the beginning of a new chapter in Peruvian history.
And I say all this despite the brutal repression that we’ve seen in the last weeks, which included the death of two young Peruvians, today remembered as champions of democracy. Going forward, an immediate demand that must be met is reparation for all victims of police violence, radical police reform, and the overturning of all laws that criminalize social protest. These are issues that have shot to the top of the public agenda in just a matter of days.
There does seem to be cause for hope. One thing that remains to be seen is how the Peruvian left can effectively intervene in the current situation, although your own candidacy for president seems to offer one possible clue — you’ve explicitly turned your campaign into a referendum on a new constitution.
That being the case, the Peruvian left remains highly fragmented. Can it come together now, around the mobilizations and the call for a constituent assembly?
The first thing we need to do is continue strengthening existing bonds between different forces on the Left. We’ve managed to unite different political organizations in a single platform — at the regional and national level, among social organizations, peasant sectors, and youth collectives. That platform is Juntos por el Perú, and we’ll be competing in the April 11 general elections.
But now is the time to open a wide-ranging debate about the values and rules that govern our society. The Left needs to work quickly to open spaces for that conversation to take place and put Peruvian citizens at the center of that debate. We have the unique chance now to recover a genuine sense of politics, different from the prevailing image of politics as a “privilege” for a small elite or vanguard. There is an opening to put forward a vision of politics as a regular, constant exercise of the Peruvian people as citizens.
For that to take place, street mobilizations need to be maintained. Fortunately, the Peruvian people and the youth in particular are fully aware of this. They’re conscious that we need to remain vigilant. This was clear after Merino caved to widespread outrage and resigned. The demonstrations then continued afterward, in order to guarantee that the presidential seat not be occupied by yet another corrupt politician or by one of the coup plotters.
What we are now seeing in the streets is the development of spaces for debate and organization, where people are discussing the challenges that lie ahead as the constitutional process gains momentum. People are starting to engage in serious discussion about what kind of procedures should be informing a new social pact, and what the specific content of a new constitution would look like. These sites of debate need to be spread now to the neighborhoods, communities, universities, and so on.
For our part, as Juntos por el Perú, we’re taking part in this process by calling for a second vote on April 11, the day of general elections. In addition to voting for the next president, we are calling for a referendum where the citizens of Peru can express their desire — or not — for a new constitution. 2021 will not only be the year that Peru elects a new president; it will be the year that the country establishes a new social pact that is designed by the people of Peru.
Certainly the Chilean example offers inspiration here. In one sense, Chile and Peru are very similar countries: the “poster children” of neoliberal governance in the region, and both nations have a very authoritarian brand of capitalism wired into their constitutions. However the two countries are quite different in their politics, culture, and so on.
How much sense does it make for Peru’s left to study the ongoing Chilean constitutional process?
The Chilean constitutional process and the recovery of democracy in Bolivia are both great sources of inspiration here in Peru. That being the case, we have to find our own path — “neither a copy nor an imitation,” as José Carlos Mariátegui liked to say.
Put simply, we have our own history in Peru. One has to remember that Peru was the center of colonial power in the region, and that colonial experience leaves lasting effects. Even to this day, the Left hasn’t been able to forge a viable political project that includes everyone equally, without discrimination.
Then, in the 1980s, Peru suffered a terrible armed conflict that has left deep, deep wounds that remain with us to this day. Those years were followed by the Fujimori dictatorship in the 1990s, which basically destroyed the state and left society horribly fragmented. Not only that, the dictatorship persecuted all social and political leaders, further contributing to the fragmentation of the Left.
If we take all this into account, we can understand how Peru became one of the countries where neoliberalism has penetrated most deeply into society — as an economic system, but also as the people’s common sense understanding of the world.
However, having said all that, Peru also has a very strong tradition of community organization, resistance, and solidarity. The people of Peru are incredibly resilient, and I think street mobilizations have made this clear in the last several days. I have full faith that the youth can lead the way toward a new social pact and, eventually, a new constitution.
What in your opinion should be the central dynamics behind the constitutional process? What procedures would guarantee that it more fully represent the Peruvian people, in all their diversity? What should the main contents of that document be?
To answer that question we should recall how the existing constitution was implemented. The 1993 constitution was not the result of a national debate, but rather imposed by the Fujimori dictatorship and powerful capitalist groups in Peru. The document was written by a Constituent Congress in which the Left and social movements were excluded — not just excluded, they were violently persecuted under Fujimori. The resulting text, written by the country’s economic elite, was then put to an extremely questionable referendum — questionable because all the deciding organisms answered to the dictatorship.
That being said, we need to enact a constitutional process that brings together the different social and political forces present throughout the country. The central aspects that need to be addressed in the document include: the role of the state, the role of the market, and the kind of fundamental social rights necessary to guarantee the development and equality of all Peruvians.
The 1993 constitution explicitly established that the role of the government was supposed to be “to promote private investment,” placing the state in a completely subordinate role to private profit. It also eliminated the right to housing, put severe limits on the right to health and education — putting both sectors under control of private interests. It overturned the protection of indigenous land rights. A new constitution would need to reverse these trends.
The 1993 constitution also established a series of loopholes in which corruption could thrive. There were clauses that were extremely damaging to the state, like the so-called “contract law” which favors transnational corporations, or public-private partnerships, that funnel public finds into private enterprise.
That constitutional framework has blocked any possibility of questioning the reigning economic model. Today, the constitution and the economic model it enshrines must be debated and questioned in light of the democratic demands being raised by Peru’s citizens. To do so, we need to initiate a process that would result in a constituent assembly, and this assembly should represent Peru’s diverse social, political, and ethnic groups. Only such a process would be able to establish a new social pact that is legitimate and lasting.
We’ve mentioned Alberto Fujimori several times in this interview. Given he came to power during another period of national crisis, are there concerns that a right-wing outsider force could make a move for power?
Naturally, there are conservative and authoritarian sectors in Peru, and in the past years they have been trying to capitalize on the growing unrest stemming from the political and economic crisis. These currents have been stoking fear and hatred toward anyone regarded as different: toward immigrants, the LBGT community, empowered women who are no longer willing to stay at home and keep quiet, and so on.
This is the very same sector that tried to capitalize on the vacancy of the presidential post. Manuel Merino and the Peruvian right tried to take control of the state, but, thankfully, they were quickly defeated by the mobilization of Peruvian citizens. We still need to remain vigilant, because the threat of a right-wing seizure of power is still latent, and as we speak the Right is busy reorganizing at the national and regional level.
But this first battle was won by democracy and Peru’s mobilized citizens. And it’s thanks to that victory that we have set out on an emancipatory path with the promise of national social transformation.