Peru’s fragile socialist government ousted by a soft coup

Can the anger and energy of the Peruvian masses be channelled so as to realise their dreams of liberty and socialism?

Lalkar writers

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Peruvian workers have taken to the streets to demand fresh elections and the release of President Castillo, now languishing in jail pending trial on charges of ‘rebellion’.

Lalkar writers

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For decades Peru, like many other Latin-American nations, has been trying to become a socialist country. It seemed that fulfilment of this aim may finally be at hand when, in July 2021, Perú Libre (Free Peru), led by Pedro Castillo, a modest, unassuming school teacher from the high Andes, emerged improbably as the country’s leading political force.

Castillo had campaigned on a left-wing programme that included giving huge new impetus to Peru’s education budget, nationalising mining enterprises, hiking up taxes on multinational firms operating in the country, calling elections for a truly representative constituent assembly to replace the sclerotic and endemically corrupt national congress, and drawing up a new constitution to replace the one dating from the mandate in the 1990s of disgraced and murderous former president Alberto Fujimori.

All this was music to the ears of many of Peru’s 35 million inhabitants – notably those living in Andean regions of the country, many of them speaking Quechua, the language of the Incas, and more often than not living in humble conditions, if not abject poverty. They saw in Castillo – with his trademark stetson-style campesino’s white hat and campaign emblem of a pencil, symbolising literacy and learning for all – one of their own.

But it wasn’t long before the pencil became blunted. Castillo was the ‘surprise package’ in the first round of the election, gaining 19 percent of the vote. In the second round run-off against Fujimori’s daughter Keiko, whose party, Fuerza Popular (Popular Force), unashamedly represented the reactionary interests of private enterprise and the neoliberal status quo, Castillo won a slender victory of just 44,000 votes.

Unfounded allegations of fraud rained down from Keiko Fujimori’s camp almost before the count was complete – a mere taste of what was to come. Peru’s single-chamber national congress continued to be dominated by right-wing and extreme right-wing elements – Perú Libre occupied only 15 of the 130 seats, with another five taken by its ally Juntos por el Perú (Together for Peru).

In November 2021, supporters of Keiko Fujimori tabled a motion to impeach the newly-installed president on the grounds of ‘moral incompetence’. It was defeated, but another impeachment attempt in March 2022 came uncomfortably close to success.

Castillo was attempting to govern amid a state of siege, subjected to constant harassment and sniping from the right, and an increasingly deafening roar of contempt from entrepreneurs and a flagrantly antisocialist media. Rather than rally his constituency – the popular support that had swept a little-known man of the people and sincere socialist to office – he foolishly made concessions to his enemies in the legislature.

Some argue that this was because as a rural teacher he was politically ingenuous, but a more convincing explanation is that, despite being an avowed Marxist, he succumbed to the fatal strategy of seeking opportunistic alliances.

A flavour of how Castillo capitulated to the whims of a relentlessly hostile congress was given by commentator Francisco Domínguez:

“One example of parliament’s obtuse obstructionism was the impeachment of his minister of foreign relations, Hector Béjar, a well reputed left-wing academic and intellectual, on 17 August 2021, who, barely 15 days after his appointment and less than a month after Castillo’s inauguration (28 July 2021), was forced to resign.

“Béjar’s ‘offence’, a statement made at a public conference in February 2020 during the election – before his ministerial appointment – in which he asserted a historical fact: terrorism was begun by Peru’s navy in 1974, well before the appearance of the Shining Path [1980]. Béjar was the first minister out of many to be arbitrarily impeached by Congress …

“Congress’s harassment aimed at preventing Castillo’s government from even functioning can be verified with numbers: in the 495 days he lasted in office, Castillo was forced to appoint a total of 78 ministers. Invariably, appointed ministers, as in the case of Béjar, would be subjected to ferocious attack by the media and the establishment (in Béjar’s case, by the navy itself) and by the right-wing parliamentary majority that was forcing ministers’ resignation with the eagerness of zealous witch-hunters.

“Béjar was ostensibly impeached for his accurate commentary about the navy’s activities in the 1970s, but more likely for having made the decision for Peru to abandon the Lima Group, adopting a non-interventionist foreign policy towards Venezuela, and for condemning unilateral sanctions against nations.

“Béjar made the announcement of the new policy on 3 August 2021, and the ‘revelations’ about his Navy commentary were made on 15 August. The demonisation campaign was in full swing immediately after that, which included: soldiers holding public rallies demanding his resignation, a parliamentary motion from a coalition of parliamentary forces essentially for ‘not being fit for the post’, and for adhering to a ‘communist ideology’.

“Something similar but not identical happened with Béjar’s replacement, Oscar Maurtúa, a career diplomat, who had served as minister of foreign relations in several previous right-wing governments from 2005. When, in October 2021, Guido Bellido, a radical member of Perú Libre, who, upon being appointed minister of government, threatened the nationalisation of Camisea gas, an operation run by multinational capital, for refusing to renegotiate its profits in favour of the Peruvian state, Maurtúa resigned two weeks later.

“Guido Bellido himself was forced to resign ostensibly for an ‘apologia of terrorism’, but in reality for having had the audacity to threaten to nationalise an asset that ought to belong to Peru.

“On 6 October 2021, Guido Bellido, a national leader of Perú Libre who had been Castillo’s minister of government since 29 July, offered his resignation at the president’s request and triggered by his nationalisation threat. Vladimir Cerrón, Perú Libre’s key national leader, followed suit by publicly breaking with Castillo on 16 October, asking him to leave the party and thus leaving Castillo without the party’s parliamentary support. Ever since, Perú Libre has suffered several divisions.” (Golpe in Peru: Castillo under arrest, people demand a constituent assembly by Francisco Domínguez, Public Reading Rooms, 23 December 2022)

Shorn of his parliamentary allies, Castillo – who had danced so accommodatingly as the bullets exploded around his feet – attempted to forestall a third attempt to impeach him on 7 December by announcing on national television that he was temporarily going to dissolve congress and establish a state of exception with a view to holding elections to a new constituent assembly within nine months.

This was the cue for impeachment to go ahead, and for him to be summarily arrested and imprisoned for having committed – as the US ambassador in Lima put it – ‘an unconstitutional act which prevented congress from fulfilling its mandate’.

For nearly a year and a half, Castillo had withstood the implacable hostility of Peru’s ruling class as embodied in the widely despised congress. His timid attempts at progressive reforms were thwarted by the state machinery lined up against him: police, the army and the judiciary, together with business organisations and a uniformly right-wing media.

He didn’t appeal for the active support of the people until it was too late, and was duly replaced as interim president by his deputy, Dina Boluarte – Peru’s sixth president in six years – who had shown herself to be malleable to the aims of the country’s powerful and deeply corrupt oligarchy.

The foundations for socialism

Peruvian writer, journalist and thinker José Carlos Mariátegui (1894-1930) revolutionised the political landscape in his country and beyond by promoting Marxist-Leninist philosophy. He had been exiled by the military dictatorship of the day to Italy, where he rubbed shoulders with Maxim Gorky and Antonio Gramsci, among others.

In 1928, Mariátegui founded the Peruvian Communist Party (PCP), and also published his seminal work, Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality, which has guided successive generations of left-wing activists in the country.

As he put it: “Of course, we do not want socialism in Latin America to be an imitation or a copy. It must be a heroic creation. We must inspire Indo-American socialism with our own reality, our own language. That is a mission worthy of a new generation.”

The PCP remained a substantial political force in subsequent decades. Interestingly, when the military seized power from a reactionary civilian government in Peru in 1968, it was under a left-wing general, Juan Velasco, who proceeded to introduce sweeping progressive reforms, nationalising the country’s transportation network and electricity grid, and converting millions of acres of privately-owned farms into worker-managed cooperatives.

He also confiscated US-owned oilfields without compensation, increased taxes on the wealthy, introduced a new constitution, and established diplomatic relations with the major communist countries.

An ailing President Velasco was overthrown in 1975 by his prime minister, General Francisco Morales Bermúdez, an altogether more cautious and conservative figure who set about undoing many of his predecessor’s radical measures.

But the country had had a taste of freedom and equality, and this perhaps sowed the seed for the extensive guerrilla activity of the following decade by the Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) group and the Marxist Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), which invoked the nobility of Peru’s indigenous heritage.

The guerrillas, with their strongholds in Andean heartlands, came close to dislodging the elected right-wing government of Alberto Fujimori, who granted himself dictatorial powers and unleashed a ferocious assault on the guerrilla fighters – and the marginalised indigenous population of the Andes – in what became a virtual civil war.

According to the ‘truth and reconciliation commission’ that later investigated the ‘dirty war’ waged by the Peruvian state against Sendero Luminoso guerrillas between 1980 and 1992, at least half of the 70,000 deaths it caused were attributable to the country’s armed forces.

Perhaps one might have expected some positive intervention in Peru’s current crisis from its Nobel prize-winning writer, Mario Vargas Llosa, himself a one-time presidential candidate. But – predictably – he has been withering about Pedro Castillo, calling him ‘an illiterate man dragging the country to bankruptcy’, and ‘the worst president in the history of Peru’.

Vargas Llosa, one of those sorry creatures who began adult life as a communist and morphed into a bastion of right-wing liberalism, is famous for his public spats in the 1980s and 90s with his fellow Nobel prize-winning contemporary, the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, a man of principle who was a close friend of Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution, and an altogether superior writer.

Seeking a new strategy

Ironically, it took the detention and imprisonment – some called it the ‘kidnapping’ – of Peru’s beleaguered president to mobilise the people behind him. Strikes broke out spontaneously and roads were blocked in protest all over the country. Workers began to march on Lima.

As one protestor, Alfonso Nahuinche from Puno on Lake Titicaca, put it succinctly: “Castillo is our president, elected by humble working people from the countryside. He represented us. He understood our struggles, our needs. That is why they didn’t like him in Lima. I think he was set up by the right, by Congress. The impeachment wasn’t just a repudiation of Castillo – it was also a repudiation of us.”

The new constitution that Castillo sought would have made Peru a ‘plurinational’ state along the lines of neighbouring Bolivia, with indigenous people’s rights being formally recognised.

The hastily installed caretaker president, Dina Boluarte, was quick to declare a nationwide state of emergency, and gave carte blanche to the army and police to quell the unrest – an insensitive move, given the fear and disdain in which the armed forces are held after their ruthless suppression of the left-wing guerrilla insurgency. Soldiers resorted to using live ammunition to break up protests, and by late December more than 30 demonstrators had been killed and many hundreds injured.

Nonetheless, the protesters were adamant in their demands: a constituent assembly, closure of the existing congress, the liberation and reinstatement of Castillo as president, and immediate general elections. By way of compromise, Boluarte – who is not considered a legitimate president in the country at large – agreed to bring the next election forward by two years to 2024, but showed little inclination to give way on other issues.

Meanwhile, the country was in a state of shock at the heavy-handed and brutal treatment meted out by the police and army on their own people. An animated debate on an alternative TV channel concluded that “democracy in Peru has always been a caricature, with economic powers, the media and the Catholic church lined up against the people in a racist and class-riddled state”.

The consensus was that problems inherited on achieving independence from Spain some 200 years ago still persisted – domination, both economic and cultural, of a divided country by mixed-race criollos inhabiting the country’s fertile coastal plain at the expense of the indigenous majority living in the mountains – 70 percent of them below the poverty line, and some in subhuman conditions.

Some years ago, a brash and triumphalist equestrian statue of the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro had to be removed from Lima’s central square for its own safety. Now, demonstrators from the provinces, incensed at the arrogant intrigues of Peru’s elitist national congress, camp out, chant and play Andean flutes in the city’s Manco Cápac Square, named after the first Inca emperor.

Luz Báltazar, a blogger and independent journalist from Callao, the port adjoining Lima, addressed Dina Boluarte directly, woman to woman:

“You are a fraud, a traitor, an assassin, and your message of power and cynicism is a joke. The country is in mourning. Peru is for Peruvians, and not for a handful of foreigners – still less are we anyone’s colony. We believe in and deserve a democratic Peru, a Peru without corruption, without murderers. The soldier’s uniform is already stained – it’s up to us, the people of Peru, to rebuild our history.”

Indeed. Popular anger, energy and determination are not lacking. But the question remains of how to successfully organise the transformation of this long-suffering Andean country, with its wealth of resources and rich cultural inheritance, into the prosperous and truly equal land envisaged by Mariátegui and his followers.