A right-wing coup could be brewing in Peru; for some that sounds all too familiar
There is no indication that the northern power is involved, but the U.S.’ long history of regime change against leftist governments has some in the capital city feeling nervous and wary.
The metal barricades blocked the access from all points, rendering the plaza quiet and vacant.
It looked as lovely as in in the photos, though less lively. The Palacio de la República or the presidential residence, built on the site of Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro’s house, abutted the square. Iron street lamps, tall palms and pruned lime green bushes encircled a central fountain that sat dry, now. A handful of ordained visitors and a spattering of police officers were all that stirred; the pigeons gathered mostly undisturbed.
Seven months ago, Lima’s Plaza Mayor, a lingering symbol of the country’s colonial start, became home to a new leader whose very presence protests that history. But what was joyous occasion for some Peruvians has signaled something intolerable for others, and the ensuing conflict has created a fractured and highly polorized political atmosphere. Nearly since that moment, the plaza has been closed to locals and tourists amidst worry that the tense moment is leading to a coup d’etat.
“Everyday,” said Felippe, a Peruvian who spontaneously led me around Lima’s historic center one day while I was traveling, “we’re living through an internal war.”
In July, the country elected Pedro Castillo, a schoolteacher from Peru’s northern highlands who ran on a platform of political and economic overhaul and promised to renationalize key industries, utilities and natural resources while addressing poverty and inequality.
What pretty much everyone agrees on is that the election, alone, was historical.
Castillo is a campesino — a rural indigenous farmer — born to peasant parents who never learned to read. He represents a sharp pivot in a country Lima professor of international law Alonso Gurmendi describes as “immensely centralized and deeply racist;” a country that has brutally suppressed its rural, indigenous populations since its colonial origins.
During Castillo’s campaign, the socialist union activist, who led a successful national teachers’ strike in 2017, was wildly popular in many of the country’s underdeveloped, poorer and largely indigenous provinces, where many campesinos have felt left behind by decades of neoliberal policies that instead benefitted the Lima elite. Since the start of the Coronavirus era, things have gotten worse in Peru, with the poverty rate nearly doubling. Given the lopsided distribution of wealth and power, Castillo has also proposed rewriting the country’s constitution with “with the color, scent and flavor of the people.”
To the greater population, Castillo appeared to understand the problems more than candidates of the recent past, when conservative, US-aligned figures ruled for more than a generation. He campaigned in a traditional farmer’s hat, and was often photographed riding a horse or dancing with constituents.
Last summer, buoyed by such campesino support, he edged out far-right opponent Keiko Fujimori in a process that was declared free, fair and transparent by the United States, the European Union and other observers.
The opposition immediately moved to overturn the results anyway, claiming fraud despite the lack of evidence, and moving to delegitimize the new government at every turn.
“No to communism” has been one of the most audible rallying cries of Fujimori and her supporters.
Though Castillo doesn’t claim that term, as a leftist politician whose party evokes Marxism and opposes intervention in Venezuela, he has faced deep criticism from conservative leaders in Latin America and the U.S., and other more progressive types who have fairly criticized Castillo’s social views — he opposes abortion and same-sex marriage, for example — and his concerning ideology when it comes to human rights.
Castillo has struggled to form a lasting cabinet, swearing in his forth last month, in part because of Congressional politics and pressure and in part because some of his appointees have been hit by allegations of corruption, one of the very problems he promised to address.
But the response from the right-wing camp within Peru has extended past these reasonable critiques and into vitriolic and racist territory. Shortly after the election, hundreds of violent Fujimori supporters besieged the president’s residence, resulting in the plaza’s closure and around-the-clock security that extends to this day. Members of the National Office of Electoral Processes have been attacked; a letter has circulated calling for military intervention.
Castillo avoided an impeachment attempt by the right in December, and the threat remains, what some describe as a soft or slow-moving coup attempt.
Many, Felippe said, are imminently concerned that such an overthrow will materialize.
“They want him out,” Felippe told me of the opposition. “They want him to resign or else they want to throw him out.”
Felippe, who works for a produce quality control agency that brings him to farms around the country that said that in the countryside, where conditions plummet and water sources grow scarcer, support for Castillo holds strongy. But in Lima — an urban area that holds nearly a third of the country’s population and most of its wealth — the president’s backing is thin.
“Many of these people have never been to the country,” he said. “And they don’t have good imaginations.”
Still, Castillo’s supporters in the capital are visible. On one recent Friday night in Lima, groups of his backers filled the Plaza San Martin, some taking the microphone to intermittently petition for signatures supporting the new constitution, to express support for his agenda and to lament the possibility of a coup.
Several of the speakers pointed to U.S imperialism and its long history of fighting socialism and communism projects in the region, with worry that the U.S could be the ultimate power behind the right-wing push.
“For a long time, the US has had complete hegemony in the world,” one speaker said. “Why? Because it has three fundamental pillars: political power, economic power, military power.
“What would happen if a country goes against their orders? The country will be invaded, their leader will be assassinated.”
All around me, many who had stopped to listen shook their heads and shuffled in their places.
Right now, there is no indication that the U.S. is involved with attempts to oust Castillo, though the fear that the northern power might have its hands in the turnover of a South American nation isn’t irrational.
Those at Plaza San Martin remember well the 2019 coup against Bolivia’s Evo Morales, which was backed by the U.S. and largely instigated by the OAS (Organization of American States).
On this night in Lima’s center, the recent Bolivia coup was acknowledged by speakers, along with other covert U.S. activities in Iraq, Libya and — most relevant for those following the mainstream news of the moment — the North Americans’ participation in the 2014 coup in Ukraine.
These, of course, are only recent examples; since the end of WWII, the U.S. has been globally notorious for getting its hands dirty in elections and regime changes in other other countries and poignantly in America’s “backyard,” Latin America. In Peru specifically, the United States has a long record of deep political involvement and antagonism when rulers didn’t serve U.S. interests.
Castillo, who doesn’t have any background in politics, is a flawed leader, as is the case with every international head. It’s still unclear whether he is capable of — or even truly desires — meaningful change for the folks who made his presidency possible.
But it appears that he was fairly elected, and he’s only had a few months to gain his footing and establish what kind of president he will be.
Meanwhile, it seems that Fujimori — as the daughter of a brutal former dictator who was convicted of directing death squads, among other crimes, and a candidate with a long history of embezzlement and far-right ideology — would almost certainly usher in a worse outcome, particularly for poor, indigenous communities that have long been fighting for a voice in national politics.
Regardless, the fate of this administration, and all others duly elected around the world, should not be the business of the U.S. or any other imperialistic nation.
Democracy, the political system the United States congratulates and threatens at every opportunity, cannot be supported only when its convenient for the powerful. In fact, the very concept of democracy explicitly implies the opposite.
With the people of Peru having deliberated and spoken — rejecting another iteration of the status quo — the US government should do everything in its power to support the outcome of that process and encourage Peruvians to handle their own business, whatever it may be, through democratic channels and internal process.
It remains to be seen what that will look like.
For now, the situation continues to simmer and Peruvians anxiously wait to see how it will all play out. On a Friday night, the sun sank low over Plaza San Martin and the strained Lima center, and the street lights flickered on, creating a twinkling glow.
“Viva Peru!” Each speaker cried as they passed the microphone.
“Viva Peru!” the audience replied. “Viva Peru.”