Photograph of the Dos de Mayo Square in downtown Lima, the point of concentration of demonstrators and where mobilisations against Dina Boluarte begin (Image from January 2023/ Photograph: Alejandro Cotrina)
”Political crisis, protests and social fracture in Peru: violence in the south and in Universities
In this interview, Narda and Indira offer a socio-historical overview of the current situation and social and political crisis in Peru, which has also adversely affected universities and the student movement.
Could you briefly tell us how and why Peru has come to this current situation of violence and institutional crisis?
NH: Peru faces historical debts in addressing the structural inequality and racism problems identified in the Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR) in 2003 and which persist amid the expansion of the extractive industries. Unequal economic growth has concealed behind an official narrative of illusion of progress and modernisation that the benefits of that economic policy have reached only some cities and social sectors. Added to this is the low quality of public services and healthcare deterioration, above all in rural areas, which became evident during the pandemic.
Two authoritarian projects, Shining Path [Sendero Luminoso] and Fujimorism, have left a legacy of human rights violations throughout the armed conflict (1980-2000). They have also left institutional fragility and few lessons learnt about the value of life and mutual recognition. The party system has been permeated by corruption and fallen into rapid discredit and deterioration. Thus, for the past two decades, the presidents chosen have not come from traditional parties but from personalist organisations.
In a deregulated economy with transnational mining settlements in territories belonging to peasant and native communities, over sixty per cent of the conflicts are socio-environmental or eco-territorial (64% of the total of conflicts in October 2022, according to a report prepared by the Office of the Ombudsperson). Thus, many communities have learnt to negotiate “between private parties” without the state’s involvement. This has opened a new politicization process at the local level. The populations of those communities have won the enactment of prior consultation laws; however, pollution and conflicts persist.
A failed state and market have led over 70 per cent of the workforce to work in informal conditions since before the pandemic. Informality in the country not only involves a labour link; it is also a way of life. This has an impact on the weak political representation of vast sectors of the population and has also been reflected in the recent massive protests that still lack an organisation and interlocutors articulating demands and dialogues.
The country’s cultural and social diversity and richness have been devalued and discriminated against by some, and instrumentalised by others, both locals and strangers. The recent protests have taken on new dimensions that are undoubtedly related to this historical grievance of discontent, incarnated in multiple subjects with different voices that can shape in future different types of projects.
HOW DO YOU VIEW THE CURRENT SITUATION, TAKING AS A REFERENCE THE PERIOD JULY 2021 TO DATE, THE RELATIONSHIP WITH THE PROVINCES IN THE INTERIOR OF THE COUNTRY AND UNIVERSITIES?
NH: The current situation takes place against a background of political instability, with a succession of six presidents in five years, during which conservative positions have expanded and anti-rights organisations have emerged. Widespread corruption and an inability to reach agreements about the structural problems of the country, above all concerning the regions in the interior and the populations living in the mountains and jungle, have led to an almost absolute loss of legitimacy of the political system. This situation was exacerbated with the election of Pedro Castillo in a process of extreme polarisation, racism and aggression.
IH: The Castillo administration, which was weak from the beginning, had a fragmented parliamentary majority that made the disavowal of the democratic origin of its election its main agenda. The government’s inability to deliver on the demands for change (agrarian reform, tax reform, constituent assembly) of historically relegated sectors created a feeling of a lost opportunity. Faced with a belligerent right-wing opposition, Castillo opted for survival by appointing to his government people allied to the congressional benches in order to prevent Congress from garnering the votes needed to declare a presidential vacancy. Many of these allies with grey questionable profiles in the president’s closest entourage evidenced signs of corruption which, instead of being properly investigated in the justice system, were politically used by the opposition to urge his removal from office.
In addition, the work of Congress has been marked by repeated attempts to oust the president. Over the course of a year and a half, three motions were discussed to declare a presidential vacancy. Against this background, Castillo attempted a coup on 7 December, which was unsuccessful. This, despite the fact that the constitutional succession was followed (see note 1 at the end of the interview), deepened the unending political crisis. This is not just a conflict between the Executive and Legislative powers, but it is democracy itself that has been seriously compromised. These powers do not take into account the opinion of large sectors of the population that demand the resignation of Dina Boluarte, the closure of Congress or the discussion of reforms for structural changes. Today, the government’s main response is the arbitrary use of force, which has resulted so far in a death toll of about 60 people and the violation of basic principles of the rule of law against demonstrators, human rights defenders and the press, above all in Quecha and Aymara areas, as discussed in the report of the National Human Rights Coordinating Committee on the first 50 days of mobilisation.
The current Congress, elected together with Castillo in 2021, has also been characterised by the adoption of demagogic and ultra-conservative measures aimed at undoing in favour of private interests the modest reforms introduced in prior years. In the field of education, a striking event has been the broad consensus garnered for the passage of the law that establishes sanctions for officials that prepare educational materials including contents related to Comprehensive Sex Education (ESI). In addition, Congress has enacted an amendment to the University Law in order to weaken the National Superintendency of Higher Education (SUNEDU), the body tasked with granting licences to universities, and reverse efforts to regulate educational quality in universities, thus consolidating the power of actors linked to the interests of low-quality private universities that have representatives in several benches in Congress, both from the government and the opposition. Both laws were enacted in 2022.
WHAT IS THE REASON FOR THE POLICE RAID ON SAN MARCOS UNIVERSITY LAST JANUARY 21 AND HOW CAN THIS ATTACK ON UNIVERSITIES BE EXPLAINED? HOW IS THIS PART OF THE REPRESSION POLICIES AND/OR THE RELATIONSHIP WITH THE ACADEMIC COMMUNITY AND HIGHER EDUCATION?
IH: Following the most violent episodes of repression in late 2022 and the beginning of the year in the regions in the south of the country, multiple local and territorial organisations in those areas decided to mobilise to the city of Lima to demand the resignation of Dina Boluarte. Most of these delegations endured a rough journey by land due to the declaration of the state of emergency, which justified excessive police controls in highways as a form of intimidation. The situation in Lima was no different. In the previous days, the National Police had raided the premises of left-wing parties and peasant trade union organisations that housed demonstrators coming from regions outside of Lima and attempted to bring charges for the crimes of terrorism and criminal organisation. Moreover, the local authorities in Lima, in coordination with the national police, blocked access to some of the most important squares and public spaces to prevent demonstrators from spending the night there.
Against this background of restriction and criminalisation of the right to protest, the students at San Marcos University carried out a “takeover” of the main gate to welcome the demonstrators that were arriving in Lima. The response of the San Marcos University rector, Jeri Ramón, and her university council was to reject the measure, pointing out that the university could not take part in a conflict that was “alien to it” and requesting police intervention in order to recover the campus. The intervention occurred some days later, when most of the demonstrators had already left for fear of a police operation. However, this did not diminish the violence of the police raid, which left about 200 people detained, among students and demonstrators, as well as several eyewitness records of the abusive use of force.
The recent protests and the rejection to the manner in which the police raided the university have reactivated the student movement, which is critical of policies aimed at benefitting private interests in higher education represented in the Congress that today supports Boluarte. The mobilisation has also revived the strategy of criminalisation and persecution implemented during the internal armed conflict by the university authorities and the majority of the political class. An exception to this is the case of the National University of Engineering (UNI), also located in Lima, which, at the behest of its rector, agreed to house university demonstrators coming from other regions. The response to this was the summoning of the rector of the UNI for questioning before committees in Congress and an investigation opened by the National Audit Office for an alleged wrongful use of public funds.
HOWEVER, IN PERU, THE PUBLIC UNIVERSITY, THE ACADEMIC COMMUNITY AND UNIVERSITY STUDENTS IN GENERAL HAVE HAD A LONG HISTORY OF HARASSMENT SINCE THE ARMED CONFLICT AND, IN ADDITION, PRIVATISATION AND CUTBACK POLICIES HAVE BEEN IMPLEMENTED IN THE PAST YEARS, IS THAT CORRECT?
NH: Indeed, public universities have not escaped the spiral of violence of the armed conflict, in particular, San Cristóbal de Huamanga University and San Marcos University. Along with the presence of Shining Path and the MRTA, as well as of paramilitaries in San Marcos, the Fujimori administration ordered an intervention in the 1990s and thus the armed forces were on the campus for several years. In addition to human rights violations, executions, disappearances and arbitrary detentions, in Huamanga the Ayacucho academic community was stigmatised as suspects of terrorism for a long time, with the stigma extending to the population of that region as well. In the past few years, the stigma (see note 2 at the end of the interview) has spread in such a way that conservative sectors and the government itself accuse their opponents of being terrorists (a practice known as “terruquear”) in order to discredit them. This strategy has also been used to discredit the protests.
IH: The “terruqueo” and harassment against the organisation and critical thought in universities is not the only way in which they have been linked to politics in Peru. In the 1990s, the Fujimori administration spurred the creation of private for-profit universities under the argument that educational coverage needed to be expanded. To this end, tax benefits were granted and the requirements for operation were eased. Thousands of middle-income and popular-sector families thus found an alternative for their children to become professionals but had to assume the low educational quality of these universities. Another consequence of the growth of the private higher education market was the neglect of public universities’ needs. The creation of the SUNEDU in 2014 came as an attempt to regulate the quality of university education supply, both public and private. However, aside from quality controls, the gaps in infrastructure, funding, training or modernisation in public universities require a genuine university reform aimed at improving conditions, not only for appropriate professional training but also for the consolidation of academic communities, particularly when our democracy is undergoing a protracted weakening process.
HOW CAN PERU’S POLITICAL CRISIS BE UNDERSTOOD IN THE CONTEXT OF THE REGION AND WHAT ROLE CAN THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY PLAY IN SUCH A DIFFICULT CONTEXT FOR PERU?
NH: Peru’s politics has seen a convergence of radical and conservative positions from both the right wing and the left wing. This is the case of the representatives of the Perú Libre party, who arrived in Congress with Castillo and who sometimes agree with the right-wing majority on policies that benefit private interests. In the past months, this sector has distanced itself from Dina Boluarte due to the repression of the protest. In their positioning before the government of Dina Boluarte, these congressional benches that had reached certain agreements in the past have now taken different stands. A minority demands her resignation while the majority supports her permanence. The struggle between the Legislative and the Executive and social discontent have opened an unprecedented period of social and political reconfiguration in the country that cannot be attended to in the short term. This is different from the situation of social conflict in other Latin American countries, which has been channelled institutionally through negotiations between parties or socio-political coalitions, as is the case in Bolivia or Chile.
Instability is not just an institutional crisis, much as the issue is under debate right now. An institutional exit is needed (a call for early elections or the president’s resignation). We are undergoing a period of deepening of previous cracks and fractures.
IH: A scale of the crisis can be seen in the widely held sentiments of the majority of the Peruvian population that does not find any expectations in political representation. They wish for all politicians to go [“que se vayan todos”] and at the same time, for decisions to be made in the areas of justice, redistribution or security. These decisions are pending because that representation has been captured by corruption or private interests.
However, we now need to act and demand a halt in the escalation of repression and avoid exacerbating people’s indignation by prompting a call for early general elections and providing the victims with a reliable investigation that can determine responsibilities and sanctions. For the time being, that exit looks uncertain; both Congress and Dina Boluarte are intent on remaining in their positions for as long as possible. For this reason, we cannot rule out those proposals that call for international support, as this can help to find a way out or assist in the process of investigation of the deaths caused by the repression.
NH: In this context, it is important to have the cooperation and solidarity of the international community accompanying civil society, amid the uncertainties and the multiple threats to democracy, life and knowledge. The role of academia is highly relevant to alert of these attacks and of the authoritarian moves already present in the use of repression, the unison of the media and the systematic lies. This situation can be aggravated by the factual powers, including perverse circuits (crime, drug dealing) and violence coming from different sources. For this reason, we appreciate it that international cooperation can also keep alert.
Note 1: It is for Dina Boluarte, Castillo’s vice-president, to assume the presidency.
Note 2: The noun “terruco” designates an alleged terrorist of a rural origin. This term was used during the armed conflict and has given rise to the verb “terruquear”.