Protests, Prison, Incompetence and Cocaine
Peru is pulling itself apart with little to no outlook for when normalcy will return. Southern Pulse briefly explores the underlying elements that currently hold the country captive in a state of socio-political arrhythmia.
Dina Boluarte has a tough decision to make. According to Peruvian law, elections would immediately follow if she were to leave office today. But she would be arrested, many agree. Someone needs to pay for the 55 who have died on her watch.
The protestors who survive have no direction or true leader. After years of marginalization, unfulfilled and broken campaign promises, and corrupt leadership, the broadest base of Peruvian society has clearly said basta. But there is no clear leader to unify the street — unlike any other time in the country’s modern history of social protest. This is one reason why outside observers are not yet able to get a clear picture of when it all will end.
Boluarte’s other choice is to stick it out and work with Congress — an unpopular and by many accounts thoroughly corrupt body of disorganized interests. Most agree that Peru cannot wait for an April 15, 2024 presidential election. But there is no majority in Congress to vote in favor of an October 15, 2023 election, as has been proposed.
Stuck between a divided legislature and near certain imprisonment, President Boluarte is effectively paralyzed. She has no clear path to take. This is another reason why outside observers are, again, not yet able to get a clear picture of when it all will end, though her impeachment would hasten the process.
Then there’s people who have said basta. Much has been written about how protestors want former President Pedro Castillo back. But that’s not the whole truth. They want a whole new government, pulled out root and stem, with a completely new executive and legislative body. Only the judicial branch would remain. This is the greatest desire of many Peruvians, but the social elite will never concede such a radical change — they would never expose themselves to the possibility of losing their political power base in the legislative. Even less likely are the widespread demands for anything resembling a constitutional change.
There’s more. Two more groups in this jigsaw puzzle cannot be ignored: the provincial governments, and the faceless, quiet and powerful leaders among Peru’s significant informal and illegal economy.
Over the past several years, critical infrastructure for electricity, water, and transport has been planned and funded but never initiated. And corruption is not the explanation. It’s incompetence. According to Southern Pulse’s senior investigator in Peru, there is no lack of money for these public works projects. Instead there is a lack of knowhow — a lack of capability to make it happen. “Sure, there is robbery, but after the 40% or so has been siphoned off for whatever is the latest corrupt scheme, the rest of the money is not used to build anything; it’s returned to Lima,” she said.
The extent to which incompetency at the provincial level of governance plays out as a driver for the current high levels of social unrest is not clear. But it has clearly played a role in sewing the seeds of social discontent, especially where a campaign promise could have made an impact at the local level, but never did.
Finally, there’s the valley of the rivers Apurímac, Ene, and Mantaro (VRAEM). Colloquially known as Peru’s “cocaine alley,” the VRAEM has for decades remained an area of lawlessness, impunity, and little to no central government control — apart from the odd military incursion. Yet, close to half of the cocaine grown and processed here — likely more — exits Peru through the country’s busiest international port at Callao.
Criminal interests from Mexico, Colombia, Serbia, Croatia, Italy, and Russia rub shoulders along the routes from the cocaine alley to the port and back, forming a near impenetrable private network of racketeering and corrupt influence. This further exacerbates the ability to govern at the provincial and local level, and is likely stuffing countless envelopes in Lima. These efforts further remove VRAEM locals from any inclusionary policies — heartfelt or not — from the halls of power in Lima, forcing them to take on a life of crime to survive.
These detached provincial and local governments, and international and domestic criminal networks, somehow all remained in check through a succession of corrupt presidents until Castillo. In the campaign, he promised to relieve the social pressure. However, in governance the new president offered no new solutions to old problems. He chewed through dozens of new ministers in as many days. Ultimately, he challenged the Peruvian social and political elite and lost. His downfall was the spark; it fell on a tinder pile that has been building for decades.
Now it burns. And it will burn until there is enough consensus in Lima to find a way forward, but the people who must agree are those most insulated from the heat. Presidential, and possibly legislative elections, will be the way out, but it will be months before we get there. Even then, there is currently no clarity that an election and fresh blood will alleviate the root causes behind today’s social unrest. Deeper structural reforms are required for a fundamental shift to occur.
Stuck between Boluarte’s fear of arrest and her ineffective, broken government, Peru will likely remain in this state of socio-political arrhythmia for the balance of 2023, possibly until April 2024 when regularly scheduled elections bring a new face into the president’s chair. We hope lessons learned from today’s fire will hold fast and bring Peru into a new chapter of more inclusive and less corrupt governance. Unfortunately, an unlikely conclusion given history’s tendency to repeat itself.
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