The government of Peru has unleashed a massive and violent response against mostly Indigenous protesters who are trying to save Peruvian democracy. A Peruvian political crisis that has lasted decades entered a new and deadlier phase in December when then-President Pedro Castillo was removed from office by the country’s Congress, charged with rebellion and replaced by Vice President Dina Boluarte. Since then, at least 55 people have been killed and nearly 1,500 have been injured. The events of the last two months in Peru are yet another example of what happens to democratic societies when autocrats are allowed to run amok and silence the voices of the people they claim to govern.
The events of the last two months in Peru are yet another example of what happens to democratic societies when autocrats are allowed to run amok.
Given what’s been happening here in the United States, we should not ignore that lesson.
Castillo, a former teacher who identifies as a Marxist but is against same-sex marriage and abortion, was elected in 2021 thanks to strong support from poor and rural voters, the forgotten and marginalized voices of Peru. He was Peru’s fifth president in five years, and after that contentious election, Castillo’s right-wing opposition made sure he never really had a chance to succeed. His attempt to dissolve Peru’s Congress in December lacked military support, setting the stage for Boluarte to become Peru’s first female president.
Boluarte appears to have grossly underestimated the reaction that would come from the country’s rural and Indigenous populations. They’ve protested, clashing with security forces. The growing calls for her resignation have resulted in more violence. Earlier this month, Reuters reported that the country's top prosecutor's office said it was investigating Boluarte and two of her Cabinet members "on charges of 'genocide, qualified homicide and serious injuries.'"
It would be a grave mistake for Americans to shrug this all off. What is happening in Peru could happen here if structural racism and inequality aren’t addressed and a basic belief in democracy isn’t re-established across our country. Democracy is, indeed, a fragile experiment, and when divisiveness becomes as untenable as it’s become in Peru, disaster ensues.
“The deepening crisis is a cautionary tale about the risks of democratic governments’ failure to do their jobs and deliver for ordinary people,” Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno of Human Rights Watch wrote Tuesday in a detailed and comprehensive summary of the Peruvian crisis. According to McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, the signs were all there for the entire world to see.
“Peru has been riven by severe economic inequality and systemic racism,” she added. “A third of the population lives in Lima, where the bulk of government services and wealth are concentrated, while rural areas and Indigenous populations in general have significantly higher rates of extreme poverty and social exclusion. Inequality, including the lack of access to health services in many rural areas, contributed to Peru experiencing the world’s highest reported death rate from COVID-19.”
While the United States may have a ways to go before it reaches the crisis level that Peru reached, the seeds are all there.
While the United States may have a ways to go before it reaches the crisis level that Peru reached, the seeds are all there. There’s election denialism, the rise of right-wing voices in Congress and governor’s offices, sharply polarized rhetoric, structural racism and economic inequality. In 2021, for example, income inequality in the United States increased for the first time in a decade. Meanwhile, America is virtually split between those who believe structural racism continues to exclude marginalized groups even in a country that’s becoming less white and those who deny the existence of systemic racism but then carry it out with policies meant to suppress the vote or criminalize the teaching of marginalized peoples’ history.
In Peru, Boluarte and her supporters are quick to label Indigenous Castillo supporters “terrorists,” continuing a troubling trend that criminalizes anyone with leftist sympathies. “We’re students, not terrorists” is one of the chants from those protesting.
Coup bomb goes off: Foreign arrests show peril for TrumpDec. 13, 202212:33
So far, it seems Peru is on its own without the rest of the world paying much attention, and the current power structure that has kept the country divided for years still does not want to back down. Despite Boluarte calling for a truce earlier this week, the protests and the government's violent response to them continued.
On Saturday, Peru’s government shut down Machu Picchu, the 15th-century Inca ruins that are a huge tourist draw. Protesters attempted to storm an airport near Machu Picchu this month, and railroad tracks to the ruins have been damaged. According to Peruvian Tourism Minister Luis Fernando Helguero, 417 visitors (more than 300 of them foreign tourists) had been stuck at the ruins, The Associated Press reported. That’s big news, but the shutting down of a major tourist draw is not the main reason we Americans should care about what’s happening in Peru.
We should care because we’re watching democracy be threatened and people — many of them Indigenous — are fighting back. People in Peru are being wrongly killed for standing up for democracy. This should serve as another warning because the same seeds of Peru’s conflict have already been planted here.