How did Peru resist a coup d’état?
By Deborah Delgado Pugley
For a week, we Peruvians saw our democracy hanging by a thread. A majority in Congress, an institution coping with a historically low level of popular support, voted a vacancy motion against President Manuel Vizcarra. At the time of leaving office, polls indicated a 70% approval rate for Vizcarra. Congress ousted the head of state by appealing to an obscure constitutional mechanism called "permanent moral incapacity," in reference to alleged acts of corruption committed as governor. Suddenly the President of Congress, Manuel Merino, became our de-facto commander in chief.
The vacancy vote was met with widespread popular contestation . It added a layer of political instability to an economic public health crisis caused by the Covid19 pandemic. Although we have witnessed years of political decline, the overthrowing of the president took the country by surprise. As a new cabinet composed of far-right politicians was established and started launching legal initiatives against environmental and higher education reforms, Peruvians pushed forward with impressive collective action at a national scale.
Nobody expected how resilient, massive but also joyful this mobilization would become, in the streets as well as on social media. For Latin American standards, Peru does not have solid national civil society organizations. Unionization is lower than 5%. The national peasant movement has been in crisis since the 1990s. The only social movement that works as a community-based network, arguably, is the Amazonian indigenous movement. The human rights movement does not have organized bases, but it does have a mobilizing network and organized earlier marches against corruption. Along the same lines, the feminist movement has politicized centennials.
But the fact that Peru lacks solid formal organizations, does not imply that there is no potential for mobilization. Here, the people take the streets first, which opens the path for reforms that are then supported by ad-hoc coalitions. During the week of protest for democracy in November, we saw a very expressive and particularly well-organized mobilization all over the country. From one day to the next, young people set up circumstantial organizations such as health brigades, and “first line of defense” groups. Monitoring groups checked that protesters arrived home safely and shared videos of all the marches on social media. Unified by the common demand that the new president Merino should leave, the protests decentralized in record time, with parallel marches occurring all over the country, from North to South, from the Amazon to the Andes, and in high-, middle- and lower-class neighborhoods of Lima.
Self-organization and protest decentralization were key strategies to ensure that violent police repression did not cause demobilization. While some marches occurred peacefully, Lima’s city center was a battleground, and targeted violence by the police was a life-threatening element in this process. After the march on Saturday November 20, hundreds of protestors were detained in commissariats, with more than 120 wounded, 80 informally detained, and also 2 deaths: Jack Brian Pintado (22) and Inti Sotelo (24).
One of the reasons the mobilization became such a success, has to be found in the fact that street resistance practices and digital tactics have become global. Learning from movements abroad, and not from in-house ones, is one of the big take-aways here. Through the internet, Hong Kong protesters taught street-movements how to defuse tear gas bombs. This technique was used in Chile, and then in Peru. On the second day of the march, Peruvian women and men formed task-squads to do so. It is now clear that people have tended to look for inspiration from other protests around the world, rather than from the old labor movements. In fact, the general central of workers called for its first National “Fight Against Merino Day '' for Wednesday, November 18. Merino fell on the 14th of November.
According to polls, about 3 million Peruvians (out of 32 million) went to the streets to protest. Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok were bursting with videos and memes. The hackers, meme authors, and manifestantes were mainly young people. The country (re)discovered its energy to defend basic democratic institutions and checks and balances along with them. But also, our need for a more empathic and free political space, that represents young peoples’ demand for gender equality, anti-racism, and better health and education services. And this comes with a strong democratic institutional order, not otherwise.
If we take a step back to grasp the bigger picture, it is clear that our fragile democracy has been resisted by autocratic coalitions for decades. They decided where and how to extract “natural resources”, how to organize labor, whose voices can be heard in the public and media space, who can decide over women’s bodies. They are now seeking to overthrow basic principles of the independence of powers, law enforcement, and civil rights (such as free speech, religious and sexual freedoms).
This is particularly sensitive for young people. Here I can speak from some self-experience. When I got into college, 20 years ago, I marched with my young friends to see the fall of the autocratic regime of Fujimori, who was in power during all of our childhood. My generation earned the right to a free vote for the first time by occupying the streets. This generation did not grow up in authoritarianism, although repression has been a sustained practice whenever protests against extractive industries emerged.
Because of the Fujimori regime, political parties imploded, and they never picked up. In the 2000s, very few active “marchistas” against Fujimori joined a party. Now the majority of representatives come from non-militant political groups, articulated around specific interests, generally business or religious beliefs.
What does this mean for the current generation of protesters? Can we Peruvians keep our democracy without taking part in the political game by achieving an institutional representation of our civil society? It is hard to believe. But the streets are now again an active space of debate and expression of grievances. Just last week, rural workers achieved the repeal of the agrarian law by a decentralized mobilization in the north and south of the Peruvian coast. Unfortunately, once more a young live was sacrificed: Jorge Muñoz Jiménez (20).
Perhaps the path to follow now is to have the feet in the streets, and the arms building the political institutions needed to stop authoritarian cycles. In recent years, neighboring countries (Bolivia, Ecuador, and now Chile) have gone through a process of constitutional (pluri)national assembly. The debate on a new constitution, that might disrupt Peru’s political rulebooks, hast started, and could become a strong popular demand.
With or without a new Carta Magna, the Peruvian people need to be better represented by its political-institutional voices. A powerful minority resists this, and key institutions are designed to favor them. As this all plays out, the social contract is what is at stake. Meanwhile, the current unrest is set to continue until April, when we will have national elections to assert our voice at the polls.
Deborah Delgado Pugley is Professor of Sociology at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru and a GIC network associate. She holds a PhD in International Development. Her research focuses on climate change, indigenous movements, human rights, natural resource management, forest development and gender.