Peru's spring of discontent

President Pedro Castillo’s radical programme has faltered. With seemingly no end to the political gridlock, Peruvians are taking to the streets

May 09, 2022
Protesters on the streets of Lima this April in defiance of curfew. Image: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo
Protesters on the streets of Lima this April in defiance of curfew. Image: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

Nine months after the country elected the former teacher and union leader Pedro Castillo as its president, Peru is once again in crisis.

Trouble came to a head at the end of this March, when truck drivers blocked roads in the Andean city of Huancayo in protest against steep increases in fuel prices triggered by the war in Ukraine. This was followed by a nationwide strike by truckers, spiralling out into more protests by agricultural and transport workers, particularly in the capital of Lima. Further disruption by Peru’s mining and indigenous communities has led to a 20 per cent drop in the country’s copper output. Six people are now reported to have died across the country as a result of the chaos, including a 13-year-old who fell in a river while fleeing police in the city of Jauja.

The government’s response has often exacerbated the situation. Shortly before midnight on the evening of 4th April, Castillo made a surprise announcement on Facebook Live: Lima and the seaport of Callao would be put under curfew the following day. When that day came, tens of thousands of people marched through the capital against the curfew—to avoid further unrest Castillo was forced to reverse his decision. Meanwhile on a recent trip to Huancayo Castillo’s prime minister, Aníbal Torres, declared that Peru should follow the “inspiring example” set by Adolf Hitler for turning Germany into the “first economic power in the world.” On 26th April the government declared a state of emergency—outlawing the right to assemble—in two districts in the Apurímac region, where a major copper mine is located, after protesters stopped all production there for a week.

Such widespread discontent is the fallout of Castillo’s bitter clashes with congress, where his Free Peru Party lacks a majority. The president has already faced two attempts by the unicameral body to oust him, while a series of scandals have forced him to change prime minister four times. In just eight months, the government has had 46 ministers. Faced by this state of chronic precariousness, Castillo’s hoped-for radical programme has failed to materialise.

Sociologist José Luis Ramos Salinas, based in the southern city of Arequipa, distinguishes two distinct periods in Castillo’s brief time in power. “At first, the government tried to meet the promises made during the campaign, and to reduce inequality. They attempted to reform the taxation system and successfully continued the campaign of vaccination initiated by the previous government.” But red flags soon appeared, and “Castillo’s administration became mired in a series of corruption scandals.” In his second period, Ramos Salines says, “the only objective was to save Castillo’s presidency. In Peru, political parties are not real political parties. They are more like groups belonging to one or several businessmen. To avoid impeachment [which at present only requires 87 votes in congress] all you have to do is offer these groups some laws, or some positions in ministries that will benefit their corporate interests. And this is what the government has been doing. There’s nothing left of Castillo’s electoral promises by this point.”

Lizana Nardiet Torres, an educator in the Andean city of Cuzco who voted for Castillo, says she is shocked by the government’s corruption. “The main difference, compared to before, is that this time it’s someone from the rural country doing it. How is it possible that a son of the people ends up doing just the same as all the others?”

This ambivalence is reflected in the protests themselves, which lack leadership and a common message. Some have called for Castillo to resign, but many others are demanding he simply fulfil his campaign promises—like initiating a constituent assembly (to draft a new constitution), nationalising the gas industry, implementing agrarian reform and redistributing profits from Peru’s copper mining sector to impoverished indigenous communities. “If we’re demanding things from the man governing the country, why would we ask for his head?” says Nardiet Torres. “A new constitution means there is hope for a better Peru.”

Castillo claims he will introduce a bill to congress for a referendum in October, asking Peruvians whether they want a new constitution. But the president knows congress won’t agree, making the proposal look more like a stunt destined to quell unrest.

Is there a way out of this impasse? “The crisis is so deep that there is no way for it to stop,” argues Ramos Salinas. “If Castillo goes and another president gets elected, it will continue. In two months’ time, [the new president] will be seen as a traitor. Peruvians don’t feel represented by anyone. The only thing that could change something is deep political reform.”

But Ramos Salinas is not entirely without hope. “There can be joy in unlikely circumstances,” he says. “In Callao, during the recent protests, young people who’ve never had access to swimming pools blocked the road with inflatable pools, these cheap ones made in China. And they had the best time.”

Note: An earlier version of this article mistakenly said José Luis Ramos Salinas lived in Ayacucho. This has been amended