Source: Luka Gonzales, AFP – Getty Images
On June 6, Peruvians went to the polls to choose between two candidates who represented extreme positions in the country’s second-round presidential runoff. Keiko Fujimori, a third-time contender for the presidency who nonetheless remained unpopular with a majority of Peruvians, ran on a platform of promises to wield a “hard fist” (mano dura) against crime and continued support for the neoliberal economic policies—spearheaded in the 1990s by her father, former President Alberto Fujimori—that many believe have been key to Peru’s recent economic successes. Her opponent was Pedro Castillo, a primary school teacher and leader of a faction of Peru’s radical teachers’ union (Sindicato Único de Trabajadores de la Educación del Perú, SUTEP), hailing from the impoverished northern province of Cajamarca. Castillo ran as the candidate of Perú Libre, a party whose leader—though not Castillo himself—is an avowed Marxist-Leninist. The party’s platform supports the nationalization of mines and calls for a constitutional convention aimed at expanding the role of the state to better address the needs of the marginalized and the poor. This polarizing choice—between the potentially authoritarian right (represented by Fujimori) and an empowered, socialist left (represented by Castillo)—led one analyst consulted for this piece to refer to the options available to Peruvians on June 6 as being akin to the “the precipice and the abyss.”
How did this agonizing choice come about? And what is Castillo’s extremely narrow apparent victory—by a mere 0.42 percent of total votes cast—likely to mean for Peru?
The Fujimori-Castillo showdown did not emerge out of thin air; rather, it was years in the making. Over the past three decades, Peru has produced solid economic growth and achieved impressive reductions in poverty and inequality. Although its political system has been subject to occasional crises, since 2001 it has nevertheless remained firmly democratic, with regular free and fair elections; notably, presidents are constitutionally prohibited from immediate reelection (that is, a former president can only seek reelection once he or she has been out of office for a full five-year term). Its party system, however, has become extremely fragmented, with multiple established and newly created parties competing in each presidential and legislative election, making the relationship between the unicameral Congress of the Republic and the executive branch increasingly dysfunctional. Still, while its Andean neighbors Bolivia and Ecuador have in the past two decades fallen for radical, left-wing populism—under Evo Morales and Rafael Correa, respectively—Peru has maintained an open market economy, attracted foreign investment, and (until very recently) been seen as a regional success story. Has Peru’s modest, positive trajectory been brought to an end by Castillo’s apparent victory? Or is there a chance that the still-contested results of the June 6 elections could lead Peru toward a positive and prosperous future?
Alberto Fujimori: neoliberalism and fujimorismo
Peru’s twin currents of economic growth and political drift date back to the government of Alberto Fujimori (President of Peru from 1990 to 2000), who set the country firmly on a neoliberal path. A series of crises in the 1980s—including hyperinflation and rampant guerrilla violence—enabled Fujimori, Rector of the National Agrarian University (and like Castillo, an “outsider” candidate and political neophyte who had never held political office) to win a surprise victory over Nobel Prize-winning author and political centrist Mario Vargas Llosa in the 1990 presidential election.
The 1980s were traumatic for Peru, which had only recently undergone re-democratization following the fall of an ideologically ambiguous military dictatorship (which ruled the country from 1968 to 1975) led by General Juan Velasco Alvarado. Under Velasco, the military implemented an ambitious agrarian reform program, which broke the back of the traditional landowning oligarchy, and experimented with innovative modes of property ownership and political participation but ultimately failed to develop a sustainable economic or political model. The ailing Velasco was deposed in a palace coup in 1975; to manage the return to democracy, the military organized elections for a constitutional convention in 1978, in which leftist parties won nearly a third of the seats. Fernando Belaúnde Terry, the president ousted by the military in 1968, was again elected president in 1980. (For a concise overview of Peru’s recent political history, upon which this essay has drawn extensively, we recommend Cynthia McClintock’s entry in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics.)
Peru’s propitious return to democracy coincided with the emergence of a Maoist-oriented insurgent movement, Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso), which terrorized rural villages in the south-central Andean highlands before eventually threatening urban centers (including Lima). La década perdida, the decade-long debt crisis of the 1980s—highly destabilizing for all of Latin America—was particularly devastating for Peru, which suffered the region’s second-worst decline in GDP. In 1980, leftist parties won nearly a third of the seats in Congress, where they joined two established parties that held collectively nearly 70 percent of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies (which was, at that point, the lower house of a bicameral Congress): APRA (Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana, the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance) and Belaúnde’s Acción Popular.
A process that could have produced a conventional party system—that is, three major parties more or less spanning the political spectrum—was therefore driven off track. As the decade wore on, Peruvians were battered by Shining Path violence—Peru’s national Truth and Reconciliation Commission, convened in the early 2000s, attributed more than half of the nearly 70,000 deaths suffered during the Peruvian internal conflict to the guerrillas (the remaining casualties were deemed to have been largely inflicted by state security forces and state-allied paramilitaries)—and by the hyperinflation and economic collapse induced by the disastrous economic policies of aprista Alan García (President from 1985 to 1990) in response to the debt crisis.
These overlapping crises boosted Fujimori’s anti-establishment campaign strategy, which emphasized his Japanese (that is, non-white and non-mestizo) racial identity and his “outsider” status, while his cross-country barnstorming endeared him to poor and marginalized Peruvians aggrieved and exhausted by violence and economic stagnation. Fujimori won a stunning upset over Vargas Llosa, winning over 62 percent of the second-round vote. Although he had campaigned against the policies advocated by international financial institutions as remedies to Peru’s debt crisis—indeed, it was his opposition to Vargas Llosa’s aggressive privatization initiatives that won him much of his support among the country’s poor and working classes—upon his election, Fujimori quickly reversed course, imposing strict austerity measures while opening the economy to trade and foreign investment. In 1992, facing resistance to his imposition of security measures from a legislature in which his party held only 20 seats, Fujimori (with the tacit approval of the military) unilaterally dissolved Congress, a “self-coup” that—due to public disdain toward the legislature’s corrupt and irresponsible politics—was greeted with strong popular approval. Later that year, a special police unit located and captured Abimael Guzmán, the leader of Shining Path. Thereafter, the insurgency effectively collapsed, further consolidating Fujimori’s popular support.
Under international pressure, Fujimori called for elections and a new constitutional assembly. The 1993 constitution, which remains in place, created a unicameral legislative assembly and strengthened presidential powers, while also establishing a legal regime favorable to the private sector and sharply reducing the role of the state. In the 1995 elections, Fujimori’s party won 64.4 percent of the vote and 67 of 130 seats in the new Congress of the Republic, while both APRA and Acción Popular suffered major losses. Ambitious privatization policies provided the president with resources to fund a growing array of social programs and projects in rural villages, although overall investment in agriculture and rural infrastructure declined.
Fujimori’s heavy-handed attempts to win an extra-constitutional third term in 2000 succeeded, but due only to his government’s reliance on intimidation and bribery. When the extent of Fujimori’s manipulation efforts was revealed in leaked video tapes that showed his “fixer” bribing legislators and newspaper editors, Fujimori fled to Japan (his parents’ country of birth). The sordid underside of his regime—his use of coercive tactics (including paramilitary death squads, most notably the Grupo Colina), and his cynical disregard of the rule of law and institutional constraints—became public, for all to see. Although Fujimori attempted to resign the presidency from Tokyo, via fax, Peru’s Congress impeached him in absentia on grounds of “moral incapacity”—a vague charge that was originally intended to apply only to the unique case of Fujimori, but that would later be revived, giving Congress extraordinary leverage over the president.
Under the calming leadership of an interim president, Valentín Paniagua, Peru returned to democratic governance. Four presidents, all of whom governed as moderate centrists, have subsequently been chosen in free, fair, and peaceful elections: Alejandro Toledo in 2001, Alan García in 2006, Ollanta Humala in 2011 and Pedro Pablo Kucznyski (PPK) in 2016. In contrast to its increasingly autocratic neighbors—Bolivia, Ecuador, and especially Venezuela—Peru became something of a bastion of liberal democracy in the Andes. With Fujimori’s reforms cemented in place and with the Shining Path vanquished, Peru’s economy grew at an annual rate of 5.3 percent from 2001 to 2014, although this pace slowed to just over three percent from 2015 to 2019. Much of Peru’s growth during this period was driven by high demand for its mineral exports (copper, gold, iron, and zinc), especially from China, which eventually replaced the United States as Peru’s primary export partner.
Like Chile, Peru was able to diversify from mineral commodities into nontraditional agricultural products, including asparagus, blueberries, and tropical fruits. Foreign investment flowed into the country from China and Europe, as well as from other Latin American countries and the United States. Tourism also boomed in the first two decades of the 21st century, growing to account for nearly ten percent of national GDP. Peru’s poverty rate fell from 59 percent in 2004 to 21 percent in 2011, with some 49 percent of the population estimated to have joined a loosely defined “middle class” over that period. Peru’s Gini coefficient, the standard measure of inequality, also improved markedly; by 2019, among the nations of South America, Peru was second only to Uruguay. Infrastructure spending, especially on new roads, improved the incomes of Peru’s poorest rural communities.
The high costs of political fragmentation
Despite this progress, a yawning gap remained between urban, white and mestizo Peru and what Peruvian historian Jorge Basadre has called “el Perú profundo,” Peru’s marginalized rural and largely indigenous population. When COVID-19 struck the country with a vengeance (in early 2021, Peru had the highest per capita reported death rate per in the world), the failures of successive governments to invest in public health and other social infrastructure became painfully clear. Private educational institutions had prospered, but teachers in Peru’s public schools were among the worst paid in the region. Educational reforms were half-hearted and often met with resistance from SUTEP (whose members would represent an important source of votes for Pedro Castillo in 2021).
The hyper-fragmentation and rapid turnover characteristic of Peru’s partisan system has made it increasingly difficult for the government to function. In such a fragmented system, parties can come together to block legislation much more easily than they can form coalitions to legislate. In 2016, there were six parties in Congress; in 2020 there were nine (of which four were new), and in 2021 ten. 18 candidates from 18 different parties contested the first round of the 2021 presidential elections. In Peru, parties have largely become vehicles for individual advancement; they can elect presidents, but once elected, are unable to provide support for their agendas in Congress. The proliferation of parties has increased the incentive for vote buying; Peru’s Congress is notoriously larded with transfugas who switch party loyalty depending on the highest bidder. Voters’ faith in politicians is further weakened by an electoral system that, in practice, effectively encourages corruption—in the form of “money laundering”—to finance campaigns.
All of Peru’s elected former presidents since 1990 have been convicted or indicted—with the exception of Alan García, who committed suicide rather than face trial—and more than 300 additional Peruvians are currently under investigation for accepting bribes from Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction giant. It is hardly surprising that Peruvians show little trust in the political class; and, given recent administrations’ demonstrated inability to govern, only tepid support for democracy.
Three particular factors have played major roles in producing political fragmentation and contributed directly to Peru’s current political crisis:
The first is the lack of a viable leftist party in Peru. This is due in large part to the impact of Shining Path, which assassinated leftist leaders opposed to their vision of Maoist bloodletting and delegitimized the nonviolent left. But the perceived success of the neoliberal economic model—in contrast to Alan García’s policies during the debt crisis and the failure of the military’s “third way” experiment under Velasco—is also an important factor with respect to the limited appeal of left-wing alternatives to Peruvian voters, even as Hugo Chávez, Rafael Correa, and Evo Morales were proclaiming the advent of “socialism of the 21st century” in Peru’s Andean neighbors. Although Chávez proved capable of influencing elections in Ecuador and Bolivia, Ollanta Humala was beaten by García in 2006 when he campaigned on a chavista platform; Humala would eventually win the presidency in 2011, defeating Keiko Fujimori in the second round, after pivoting to the center.
Consistent with their experience of a weak and disrespected government on the one hand, and a strong economy, which has enabled many Peruvians to achieve upward mobility, on the other, many Peruvians have tended to turn to the market, not the state, for improvements in their lives and livelihoods. The bias against an economic role for the state—built into the 1993 constitution—further reduces the political space available to leftist parties.
The dominance of the market is consistent with the “hyper-individualism” and low levels of interpersonal trust that some researchers have argued are characteristic of Peruvian society. Our own observations of how drivers behave at an intersection in Lima illustrate this behavior. Cars, trucks and motorcycles all jockey for position, darting in and out, inches from each other, competing for very small advantages that drivers apparently hope will get them to their destination just a few moments sooner than other motorists. Their behavior mimics that of Peru’s highly individualistic, intensely competitive small entrepreneurs—the bedrock of the country’s growing economy, but resistant to projects that require solidarity, trust and courtesy, and prone to operating outside of official rules.
Finally, in contrast with Ecuador and Bolivia, countries that like Peru have substantial populations of Indigenous citizens, or even Colombia, with a comparatively small Indigenous population, Peru lacks a significant, organized, and mobilized Indigenous movement. Peru’s Indigenous peoples organize at the local level, but national mobilizations have been forestalled by their tendency to integrate themselves into Peruvian society through the process of “cholification” (cholificación)—that is, the process of trading a rural, Indigenous, campesino identity for an urban mestizo one by migrating from the countryside to Lima and other cities. In general, Peru’s marginalized populations seek economic integration, not cultural revindication; this reality closes off a potential path through which a more radical leftist party might otherwise emerge.
A second key factor that has produced fragmentation is the “spoiler” role played by fujimorismo, now represented electorally by Keiko Fujimori’s Fuerza Popular (Popular Force) party, which counts among its core supporters roughly 20 to 25 percent of the electorate. Under Keiko’s leadership, Fuerza Popular has enjoyed a veto power in Congress, but has never used that power to establish a governing majority.
Fujimorismo does not represent a coherent, unified ideology; its support is derived from those Peruvians who remain loyal to the elder Fujimori for his defeat of Shining Path, his successful economic model, and from those who benefitted from his social programs. (In the 1990s, Peru’s growing evangelical population supported Fujimori, but evangelical communities are now divided and many supported Castillo.) Fuerza Popular’s rallying cry is the release of Alberto Fujimori from prison, where he has been held since his 2007 conviction for corruption and human rights abuses.
In the past decade, political fragmentation has assured that Keiko could rely on her core voters to propel her into the second-round presidential runoffs as the candidate to beat in the last three elections—2011, 2016, and 2021. But Keiko’s strength is also her weakness: many Peruvians reject what they perceive as her father’s turn to repressive authoritarianism and bribery to win in 2000, while her imperious personality has limited her popular appeal. Commentators generally agree that Humala was elected in 2011, and Kuczynski (barely) in 2016, by the “never Keiko” vote, rather than by their own strong support.
The persistence of fujimorismo has prevented Peru’s party system from reorganizing itself along a conventional left-right axis; its ideological assemblage attracts some who would normally be expected in conventional left voting bloc, while also dominating much of the Peruvian right. In 2011, Lima’s economic and political establishment was so opposed to Keiko that they voted for Humala despite his earlier flirtation with chavismo; in 2015, Kuczynski was able to beat Keiko, by a mere 40,000 votes, with the support of Verónika Mendoza, a leftist legislator from Cusco who became known for the depth of her support in rural, Quechua-speaking provinces of south-central Peru during her unsuccessful bids for the presidency in 2016 and 2021. Pedro Castillo received Mendoza’s support in the second round of the 2021 presidential election, showing once again (as in 2016) the rejection of fujimorismo by Peru’s marginalized rural populations; such opposition, however, effectively forced the Lima establishment to rally behind Keiko Fujimori despite their antipathy, out of fear that Castillo might win.
The third major cause of partisan fragmentation is decentralization, turbocharged by Peru’s policy of redistributing tax revenues from mining and gas production through the canon minero. Since 2004, 50 percent of the taxes paid by mining companies are diverted to the governments of the regions and municipalities where mineral resources are extracted. These monies are intended to fund infrastructure projects aimed at ameliorating the damages caused by such extractive activities, including water and air pollution and deforestation. The canon allows the national government to delegate responsibility for the social conflicts that inevitably arise out of mining activities to local governments and communities. Peru has never fully implemented its law requiring prior consultation with Indigenous communities on new mining projects.
The main recipients of canon funds are Peru’s 25 regional governments, established in 2002 as part of an effort to decentralize power away from the capital. Returning mining revenues to the areas in which mining companies operate makes it possible, at least in theory, to fund local solutions to local problems. However, 45 percent of the funds go to only three regional governments (particularly that of Cuzco, where the large Camisea gas field is located), so that many parts of the country receive minimal benefit; in addition, canon funds may only be used for infrastructure spending, not social programs. In many cases, the money generated by the canon has exceeded the absorptive capacity of regional and local governments, fostering political corruption and further increasing Peruvians’ cynicism toward their government. The regional system buttressed by the canon contributes directly to fragmentation by shifting political contestation to the regional level, therefore undermining national parties.
Taken together, these three factors—the lack of a viable leftist party, the “spoiler” role played by fujimorismo under Keiko’s leadership, and the transference of political contestation to the regional and subregional level—have caused Peru’s once relatively stable party system to fragment. That fragmentation, in turn, has allowed corruption to flourish and contributed to the dysfunctional conflict between Congress and the presidency.
2016-2020: setting the stage for the 2021 elections
Hostility between Congress and the executive rose sharply in 2016 when Keiko Fujimori—angered by her narrow loss to Kuczynski, who had defeated her by a mere .24 percent (40,000 votes)—used Fuerza Popular’s legislative majority to stymie executive initiatives and eventually unseat her rival. (In 2016, Fuerza Popular won 36 percent of the vote but 56 percent of the seats in Congress, the result of the way that votes are assigned by Peru’s electoral system.) Keiko and Fuerza Popular went after the Kuczynski government hammer and tong, forcing numerous cabinet members to resign and refusing to provide even cursory support to the president’s initiatives.
In 2017, PPK became embroiled in a corruption scandal when it was discovered that one of his consulting companies had received payments from Odebrecht. To the dismay of his anti-Keiko supporters, PPK pardoned former president Fujimori on health grounds in return for votes that the ailing ex-president’s son, Kenji, delivered in opposition to Kuczynski’s impeachment. When videos were released showing allies of PPK and Kenji apparently bribing a legislator to vote against a second impeachment charge, Kuczynski resigned. He was succeeded by his vice-president Martín Vizcarra, the former regional governor of Moquegua (2011-2014), in March 2018.
Vizcarra’s calls for anti-corruption reforms and strengthening the pension system gave an immediate boost to his popularity. When Congress denied him a vote of confidence on a mandate to reform the selection process for judges in Peru’s Supreme Court of Justice, Vizcarra dissolved Congress and called elections for January 2020. Polls showed that this move had support of 80 percent of the population.
In the January elections, Peruvians vented their frustration at members of Congress, punishing established parties, especially Fuerza Popular, which lost 58 seats of its 73 seats. Acción Popular won 25 seats, enough to elect the new Speaker, and four new parties gained representation, including a messianic evangelical party, FREPAP (Frente Popular Agrícola del Perú, or the Agricultural People’s Front of Peru), virtually unknown to Lima elites but with a committed base in the Peruvian Amazon. However, the new Congress—the members of which had a mandate only until the elections scheduled for 2021—likewise resisted Vizcarra’s reform agenda, reviving old charges of corruption (stemming from his tenure as regional governor of Moquegua, all of which had been already investigated and dismissed) in order to attack the president. In November 2020, Vizcarra was impeached by Congress under the same constitutionally questionable rationale of “moral incapacity” that had been used to impeach Alberto Fujimori two decades previously. By the time of Vizcarra’s impeachment, the COVID-19 pandemic had struck Peru with full force; officially, unemployment stood at 16 percent.
As Speaker, Manuel Merino of Acción Popular—who had led the charge against Vizcarra—was next in line to the presidency; he was sworn in the next day. Merino’s installation brought thousands of protesters into the streets of Lima and other cities across Peru, with demonstrators denouncing Merino as a rightist seeking to preserve the corrupt status quo. Opinion polls showed that an estimated 88 percent of Peruvians disapproved of the impeachment. Five days later, after two youths were killed and as many as 200 demonstrators wounded by the police in Lima, Merino resigned. The short-lived candidacy of Congresswoman Rocío Silva-Santisteban failed to achieve the necessary votes in Congress to secure the presidency, and, on November 16, Francisco Sagasti—a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, prominent economist, and respected centrist legislator—was elected interim president by Congress (despite the fact that Sagasti’s Moreno (Purple) party had won only nine seats in Congress in the 2020 elections, the first it had contested).
Peru’s electoral cycle called for elections in April 2021 to choose a new Congress and determine which two candidates would advance to the second-round of the presidential election. The candidates in the first round ranged from a banker, member of the conservative Catholic sect Opus Dei, and self-proclaimed “Peruvian Bolsonaro” (Rafael López Aliaga); to a centrist retired footballer and former mayor of Lima’s La Victoria district (George Forsyth); to Pedro Castillo on the far left. Early polls indicated that 44 percent of Peru’s voters favored “no one” among the 18 prospective candidates. As the election date approached, it was widely assumed that Keiko, despite polling fairly weakly early in the race, would earn one spot in the second-round runoff, while Yonhy Lescano—Acción Popular’s candidate from the southern city of Puno, viewed as having the potential to appeal across racial, socioeconomic, and regional divides—appeared to be in a good position to claim the second. In the end, however, Castillo won first place with 18.92 percent of the vote while Keiko qualified as his opponent, finishing second with 13.41 percent.
Peru’s hitherto fragmented politics polarized immediately. Supporters of Keiko—along with many who had bitterly opposed her in previous elections—attacked Castillo as a terruco, a Peruvian Spanish epithet used to vilify those deemed sympathetic to Shining Path. Castillo reminded voters that—far from being a guerrilla sympathizer—he had in fact served as the leader of a ronda campesina, the village self-defense forces that proliferated across the northern and central Peruvian Andes throughout the 1980s and 1990s, resisting Shining Path while combatting theft and corruption. While he defended his conviction that mining profits should be distributed more widely, Castillo quickly distanced himself from his party’s calls for nationalization, proposing increased taxes on mining revenues instead. Along with Verónika Mendoza, Castillo released a four-point statement of principles, emphasizing the priorities of universal vaccination against COVID-19 and a strengthened health system, job creation combined with “sovereignty over natural riches,” the fight against corruption, and “re-establishing the State,” all while “strengthening democracy” through the expansion of equal rights.
Castillo issued his own ten point “Pledge to the Country,” underlining his commitment to democracy, which included promises to leave at the end of his term, refrain from interfering with the judiciary, and respect the rule of law—all intended to distinguish himself from the chavista populists to whom he was increasingly being compared. He continued to call for educational reform and a new constitution.
In June, Castillo won—according to the official vote tally—by the very narrow margin of 44,000 votes. Keiko and Fuerza Popular immediately challenged some 200,000 votes, originating largely from the rural, highland departments where Castillo won historic majorities. The business community—and indeed, most of the Lima establishment—reacted to the apparent Castillo victory with trepidation. The Lima stock market fell seven percent upon the announcement of the preliminary results, and there is early evidence of substantial capital flight. There have been protests and counter-protests in Lima; retired military officers have called for intervention by the armed forces to prevent Castillo from taking office; and there has been some maneuvering in Congress to oust Sagasti and declare the election results void. Opposition to Castillo’s inauguration from conservative sectors and interests remains steadfast. Castillo, in turn, called for national unity and a greater emphasis on the needs of rural Peru, but also pledged to respect the autonomy of the Central Bank, and to welcome national and foreign investment.
Most commentators believe Castillo will be sworn in on July 28, Peru’s Independence Day; even if that is the case, however, he will almost inevitably face a hostile Congress and the threat of early impeachment. With Perú Libre holding only 37 seats in Congress, lacking both a legislative and popular “mandate,” and without a skilled and experienced team of advisers prepared to design and carry out a radical transformation of the Peruvian economy, Castillo would not be able to carry out the extreme agenda his opponents ascribe to him, even if he were so inclined.
The battles between the legislature and the executive that have characterized Peruvian politics since 2016, the pervasiveness of corruption, and the polarizing results of the 2021 presidential election all demonstrate the high costs of extreme political fragmentation. Centrist parties—although boasting substantial collective representation in Congress—failed to unite to offer a palatable, moderate, choice to the electorate, allowing Keiko, whom the center largely despises, to monopolize the center and right of the political spectrum; meanwhile, anti-establishment voters propelled Castillo Perú Libre to a narrow victory.
Peru’s future in the balance
In a 2018 essay for Global Americans, we argued that “Peru’s progress today is hindered not by powerful economic, social or political interests, domestic or foreign, but rather by the relative absence of state authority and capacity as well as the weakness of political institutions more generally.” The staying power of Peru’s anti-state economic model has widened the gap between urban Peru and el Perú profundo, despite substantial reductions in poverty and progress on inequality. We also noted that Peru is characterized by “the physical and human resources to achieve impressive economic growth while also addressing poverty and inequality,” along with “significant entrepreneurial ability in both the business and informal sectors” and an increasing “awareness of and responsiveness to social issues.” We concluded that “the main challenge in Peru is not to limit power but to create and channel it.” The COVID-19 pandemic has urgently underscored Peru’s failure to invest in the infrastructure required to meet basic social needs.
Over the last 30 years, Peru has avoided many traps. Compared to many other Latin American countries, it is not nearly as plagued by drug or gang violence. Drug-related violence occurs in a relatively small geographical space—namely, the Valle de los Ríos Apurímac, Ene y Mantaro (VRAEM) region straddling the departments of Cuzco, Ayacucho, Junín, and Huancavelica in south-central Peru—that organized criminal syndicates share with the remnants of Shining Path; these groups have virtually no popular social or political appeal. Although Peru is divided racially, socioeconomically, and geographically, it has not become as politically polarized as Colombia, Brazil, or even the United States.
The response of Peru’s establishment to Castillo’s election will determine whether the Cajamarcan’s ascendance to the presidency becomes a disaster or an opportunity. Some understanding, on Castillo’s part, of the realistic policy alternatives available to him, some luck (including favorable commodity prices) as the global economy awakes from its COVID-19-induced torpor, and some willingness on the part of Peruvian elites to help enable his administration to meet Peru’s needs could create an opening for centrist reform. Locking themselves into a hardline position against Castillo, however, will only deepen Peru’s challenges, rather than address them.
June’s election has created a sense of national urgency that could possibly facilitate positive change. The volatile and frustrating politics of the past few years—and the past few weeks—reveal several “givens” that need to be taken into account. For example, although fighting corruption is laudable and extremely popular, in some ways it serves as a distraction, obscuring the ways in which Peru’s institutions themselves reinforce the most common forms of corruption, including money laundering, vote buying, and graft; furthermore, corruption charges have been unproductively weaponized in the battle between Congress and the executive.
Peru’s current legislative standoff is a product the particularities of Peru’s existing system of “checks and balances,” but such a system is not set in stone; a constitutional convention could address its weaknesses systematically. A convention could also revise those parts of the 1993 constitution that are too favorable to companies engaged in natural resource extraction and other special interests, while striving to make Peruvian society more inclusive and equitable. A more realistic approach to campaign financing; a serious educational reform; a national policy to regulate and tax Peru’s mining and export agriculture industries, while improving the lot of mine and agricultural workers; and an equitable and sustainable pension reform are all reasonable goals for a centrist coalition, as would be a reconceptualization of the modalities of the canon minero and an extensive effort to gain the cooperation of the private sector in countering the anticipated devastation of climate change. For decades, Peruvians have expected very little from the state, and the Peruvian state has failed to meet even those paltry expectations. It is time for Peruvians to demand more, and for Peru’s diverse interests—social, economic, cultural, and political—to push for such demands to be met.
Jane S. Jaquette, Professor Emerita at Occidental College, conducted her doctoral research at Cornell in 1967-68 on the political economy of Peru; and has published widely on Peru, women’s movements in Latin America, women and development, and the reconciliation of feminism and liberalism. She served as president of the Latin American Studies Association from 1995-97.
Abraham F. Lowenthal served as a Ford Foundation official in Lima from 1969-72, and has published extensively on Peru, democratic transitions, U.S.-Latin American relations, and the international role of California. He was founding director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program, the Inter-American Dialogue, and the Pacific Council on International Policy; and is Professor Emeritus at the University of Southern California.