Peru's ousting of President Castillo
In this briefing, second-year BSc Politics and International Relations student Sarita Kumari discusses the underlying causes of the recent ousting of Peru's President Castillo and the current challenges the new government faces. This briefing was edited by Malou van Draanen Glismann (Managing Editor).
Peru has a history of political turmoil and instability through multiple changes in its leaders in the past decade, its populist history, and the resulting domestic unrest. Currently, the former President Pedro Castillo is being held in a small prison on a police base near Lima for attempting to dissolve Congress.
Castillo can be described as a left-wing populist and was elected President in July 2021. During his seventeen months in office, Peru saw five cabinets, eighty ministers, six criminal investigations and two failed impeachment attempts. What sparked his arrest was his televised speech, in which he announced his plan to temporarily dissolve the opposition-led Congress, institute a national curfew, call on the formation of a new assembly to draft a new constitution, and launch an “exceptional emergency government” to avoid what would have been his third impeachment trial. This led to mass resignations as Castillo was accused of attempting to seize power illegally and Congress convened an emergency session. There was overwhelming support to impeach Castillo: 101 members of congress voted in favour, six against and ten abstained. The vote was also met positively by the Peruvian police and armed forces, who released a joint statement declaring their support for the constitution and congress' action against Castillo. Castillo was arrested on the 7th of December 2022 and Vice President Dina Boluarte was sworn in as Peru’s first female President.
Castillo’s reign over Peru has been controversial from the start. As a candidate with no previous governing experience, he leveraged his past as a primary school teacher, farmer, and union activist to garner support from the less wealthy Peruvians who have not benefitted from the country’s exceptional economic growth in the 2000s. In the last few years, foreign investors and other interested groups have had few restrictions in extracting Peru’s mineral wealth. The growing opposition to the status-quo by poorer Peruvians formed the base of Castillo’s supporters, who desired a change from what they saw as a corrupt political elite. Castillo’s campaign echoed Marxist and nationalist ideologies as he promised to increase taxes for the rich and nationalise Peru’s big mining industry. However, following his election in 2021, Castillo made several unpopular political decisions. The combination of appointing barely qualified minsters, increasing allegations of corruption, as well as the rising cost of living from the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia-Ukraine war gradually decreased his popularity and influence. Despite this, his approval ratings remained higher than those of Congress, as the Institute of Peruvian Studies found an 86% disapproval of Congress but a 61% disapproval for Castillo.
All this is a continuation and legacy of Peru’s conflicted political history. Since former President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski’s clash with Congress in 2016 and 2017, Peru’s presidents have not managed to stay in power for long. Under former President Alberto Fujimori in the 1990s, who is in prison for gross human rights violations such as operating anti-communist death squads, Peru faced multiple coups and dictatorships. Although Fujimori was democratically elected, he went on to seize power in the way that Castillo had intended to. Fujimori managed to dissolve Congress with the backing of the military, declared a state of emergency and in 1993 he rewrote the constitution – an amended version of which Peru still largely uses today. This version of the Peruvian constitution allows a President to shut down Congress. However, the motions of no confidence in the cabinet must be approved twice by lawmakers, which did not happen in Castillo´s case.
The dramatic removal of Castillo has led to tension and disruption on the streets of Peru as several leftist allies rallied to his support, called for new elections, and the release of Castillo from prison. Protesters of his imprisonment – made up of the marginalised voters that Castillo claimed to represent – blocked highways, hijacked airports and set buildings on fire, causing damages that could amount to tens of millions of dollars. The protesters accuse Dina Boluarte of being a “murderer”, blaming her for the death of protesters. These violent protests have erupted across the country, to which a rare 30-day national emergency was declared. Despite the mounting pressure against her, Boluarte has said that she will not step down as President and will hold office until 2024, two years before the term of Castillo was meant to end in 2026.
The impact of Castillo’s arrest can be felt beyond Peru’s borders. Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia and Mexico – all led by leftist presidents – signed onto a joint statement that declares Castillo as “a victim of undemocratic harassment.” and cite violations of international human rights laws against Castillo. Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua also strongly supported Castillo and reject the opposition against Castillo, describing it as a “political framework created by right-wing forces.” Mexico remains an ally to Castillo as Mexico’s president, Lopez Obrado, stated asylum requests for Castillo and his family have been approved. This sparks tension between the two nations as Boluarte’s administration responded to the asylum grants by declaring Mexico’s ambassador to Peru as a ‘persona non grata’.
As the death toll from the protests continues to rise – up to at least 20 as of December 29th – the question of proportionate and just force becomes more urgent. Human rights group like Amnesty International have urged police to use only the necessary force and limit excessively violent tactics. There are also calls by the international community to ensure that Peru´s democracy remain intact, as the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken tells Boluarte to “encourage Peru’s institutions and civil authorities to redouble their efforts to make needed reforms and safeguard democracy stability.”
There have been mixed reactions from other world leaders, with neighbouring countries more sympathetic towards Castillo and the West more supportive of Boluarte. The US seeks to maintain their influence in Peru as the State Department says Washington “looks forward to working closely with President Boluarte”. The European Union asks for a “spirit of dialogue and cooperation to stop the violence” and rejects “any excessive use of force.” Brazil holds a more diplomatic reaction to the ousting of Castillo, with the then President-elect Lula regretting that Castillo was ousted in such a manner but that he “understands that everything was forwarded in the constitutional framework.”
The unrest in Peru are seen by many as concerning as tensions continue to rise. De-escalating the protests and upholding strong institutionally grounded governance are key to maintaining Peru´s democracy, uniting its divided society and its image within the international community. If these values are to be upheld, transparency and just use of force are important. As public dissatisfaction remains high, there is uncertainty as to whether Boluarte will manage to hold her position as leader of the country as planned until 2024.
With continuing political instability come negative economic repercussions, such as fluctuating currency exchange rates and its impacts on the domestic economy and consumers—which may further anger protesters. Kurt Burneo, the third finance minister of the year under Castillo and one of many who resigned on December 7th 2022, acknowledged that the business climate in Peru is being damaged by the political dysfunction. Even before the “coup d’etat”, Peru’s economic outlook declined from “stable” to “negative” and this is only set to worsen in the coming months. As one of the biggest economies in Latin America, this means some international trade agreements, such as the trade bloc "Pacific Alliance” between Chile, Mexico, Colombia, and Peru have also had to be postponed.
Looking back at Peru’s history, corruption cases against its leaders such as we’re seeing against Castillo are not abnormal. There have been eleven different Presidents since 2000 and as of 2022, and the country ranks 36th of 100 on the Corruption Perceptions Index Score. With a tumultuous history, Peru may seem stuck in political dysfunction. However, Peru has strong economic potential that could help stabilise its domestic politics. The country attracts a high amount of tourism to its popular sites like Lima and Machu Picchu, with pre-pandemic tourism sales amounting to 2.1% of GPP. Peru also benefitted greatly in the 2000s commodities boom and this makes further investment into Peru attractive, leading to positive economic spirals.
One of the biggest political issues in Peru is the disconnect ordinary people feel between them and their leaders and their dissatisfaction with the way democracy works in Peru. The next leader, be that Boluarte or her successor, must have the technical expertise and political clout that Castillo did not have, in order to create significant long-term reforms. They must be willing to take on the underlying issues of corruption, find sustainable redistributive policies, and most significantly unite the nation in order to create a more peaceful and prosperous Peru.