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Peru’s Revolt Is About More Than Corruption

Verónika Mendoza

Peruvians vote today in crucial parliamentary elections. But the future of the country relies not just on fighting corruption, but taking on the powerful corporate interests that dominate the country.

The flag of Peru. (Geraint Rowland / Flickr)

Interview by
Nicolas Allen
Victor Miguel Castillo

Twenty-nineteen was the year South America erupted. Amid revolts in Chile, a coup in Bolivia, and an indigenous insurrection in Ecuador, Peru has grabbed fewer international headlines, but has not altogether avoided the unrest of its neighbors.

Last September, enraged by ongoing and widespread corruption scandals, and fed up with a broken neoliberal system, inscribed in the Constitution since the Fujimori dictatorship of the 1990s, Peruvians took to the streets en masse to express a “popular veto” of the entire political class, eventually leading to the disbandment of the National Congress.

Now, President Martín Vizcarra has called for extraordinary congressional elections to be held on January 26. Though many consider the move a palliative measure to pacify the growing social discontent, the elections also offer a certain opportunity for the Left.

To learn more about the country’s congressional elections and the current state of the Peruvian left, Victor Miguel Castillo and Nicolas Allen spoke to Verónika Mendoza. A feminist, environmentalist, and presidential candidate in 2016, Mendoza is a part of the emergent Nuevo Perú movement, a renewed left-wing coalition combatting years of stigmatization.


NA VMC

To start off, can you say a little about yourself and your background in politics?

VM

I’m Cusqueña — from Cusco. I’m a mother, an anthropologist, and I’m thirty-nine years old. I come from a generation in Peru for whom it was really difficult to get involved in left-wing politics, due to the disastrous effects of the Fujimori dictatorship.

I started out in university activism and eventually arrived at politics proper, becoming involved in a movement — and eventual party — called the Movimiento Nacionalista (Nationalist Movement), which in 2011 went on to win the presidency with Ollanta Humala. I took part in the 2011 elections as a congressional candidate and won a seat in Congress.

My involvement with the Movimiento Nacionalista was based, in part, on the struggle to exercise sovereign control over our territory and to protect our common property as a nation, but I was also equally concerned with the struggle for the political recognition of our cultural diversity — that is, our plurinationality.

But I parted ways with the movement a year into Ollanta Humala’s term, when he quickly betrayed the ideals for which he had been elected.

From that moment onward, myself and others set out to find a vehicle that could include the people and organizations making up the diverse Peruvian left. We launched a new project known as Frente Amplio (Broad Front), a convergence of different left-wing groups — parties, social organizations, trade unions. From that point on, we have been working to build up strength, both at the level of national institutional politics as well as in the territories, with organizations and social movements.

NA VMC

You also ran for president with Frente Amplio in 2015–16, narrowly missing out on a chance to compete in the runoff election against the right-wing candidate Keiko Fujimori. How would you characterize the trajectory of the Peruvian left since then?

VM

The results of the 2016 elections were important, for the country itself, first and foremost, but also for the different leftist currents in Peru. Twenty-sixteen was the year when, after years of being marginalized and stigmatized, the Left returned to the national political stage and began to make its presence felt in institutional politics. We won twenty seats in a unicameral congress made up of 120 congressional members. We pushed to the top of the political agenda a number of issues that had long been ignored.

Since 2016 we have managed to establish the Left as a significant political force with a strong voice in Peruvian national politics, and we have played an important role in strengthening the country’s political institutions themselves.

However, the same period that saw the return of the Peruvian left has been heavily marked by attempts to combat widespread corruption. There have been countless cases coming to light, involving former and acting presidents. People always knew there was systemic corruption, but as more evidence is made public, the entire national political debate has started to revolve around that question.

Frente Amplio — and the Left in general — has taken a strong stance against corruption, but as that issue increasingly occupies the main political stage in Peru, deeper social issues have been driven into the background. Issues like precarious labor, health care, education and the general precarity of living conditions aren’t being talked about enough.

This, then, is the Left’s current challenge: to keep pushing for political reforms that can combat corruption and strengthen democracy, while not letting the social and economic questions fall by the wayside — which is, in fact, what conservative and right-wing forces in Peru are betting on, as they too embrace an anti-corruption rhetoric.

NA VMC

How do you propose to shift the terms of that debate toward a more progressive social and political agenda? The Peruvian state, perhaps more than any other country in South America, is completely beholden to corporate interests, lobbies, and foreign and national capital. Moreover, Peru has some of the region’s highest levels of workplace informality. All those factors tend to favor political disaffection, don’t they?

VM

That every single one of our democratically elected presidents has been tried and convicted for corruption, along with their cabinets and officials, at every level of government, means that a debate needs to be had about corruption, one that is not focused on individual morality. The individual question can’t be ignored either, which is why we support ongoing investigations into elected officials, but the fact that the problem is so systemic means that we need to start thinking more broadly about the rules of the game. What we are proposing, then, is to politicize the existing debate.

Our current national institutional framework, enshrined in the Constitution, establishes that education, health care, and housing are for-profit enterprises, and that life itself is a commodity to be bought and sold. What this means is that political power is concentrated in the hands of those with money, and not with the Peruvian people. Thankfully, people are starting to wake up to this, and on that basis we have decided to launch a call for a new constitutional agreement.

Not long ago, such a proposal would have been regarded as totally anomalous. But there’s a growing public consensus today that it isn’t enough to keep implementing sporadic reforms that simply patch up a broken system. Of course, there are proposals circulating today to implement important constitutional and political reforms. But our current challenge is to convince the public and get them actively involved in a campaign for a deep, radical, and systemic change.

Peru will be celebrating its bicentenary in 2021, and there will also be general and congressional elections. We believe that then the time will be right to pose the question of what kind of country we want to live in, and what kind of new foundation can be laid.

NA VMC

You’re suggesting a new constitutional pact for a new republic. The current neoliberal constitution, which was imposed during the Fujimori dictatorship, explicitly states that the pursuit of free enterprise is the most hallowed right of every Peruvian citizen — more than any other civil or social right. What are the challenges you face in organizing a society whose conception of politics and civic engagement is so deeply shaped by neoliberalism?

VM

You’ve hit on one of the defining elements of contemporary Peruvian society. I would take a step back, though, and point to several other elements that one should also bear in mind if they’re to understand Peru today.

We need to consider the country’s recent history of political violence. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Peru was affected by the violence of subversive groups (the Shining Path and others), a violence that was equaled, if not surpassed, by repressive, authoritarian state violence. The toll for that conflict was more than seventy thousand dead.

The Fujimori dictatorship of the 1990s saw a continuation of state repression, criminalizing, when not outright assassinating, left-wing political leaders and social movement figures. The Left emerged from that period extremely debilitated, fragmented, and stigmatized, both in political and social terms.

The other factor to take into account is the economy: nearly 70 percent of Peruvian workers make their living in the informal economy, where there are virtually no labor rights, benefits, or any type of minimally humane working conditions. Precarity and informality exacerbate the existing fragmentation, where the leading motto seems to be “save yourself if you can.” In that scenario, individual concerns understandably trump relationships with neighbors, coworkers, and so on, and this makes for an extremely complex landscape for the Left.

That same scenario is also fertile ground for neoliberals who are increasingly finding success by embracing a more hardline conservatism, exploiting the legitimate fears that people experience in the midst of generalized uncertainty. There are sectors of the Right that are actively stoking fear, distrust, and panic toward those groups and communities perceived as different: against Venezuelan immigrants, the LGBT community, or the figure of the emancipated woman, who some want to violently drive back into the domestic sphere.

Today’s Peruvian society is extremely complex, as you can see. But at the same time, we feel that there is enormous potential to build points of connection, solidarity, and awareness among existing groups, and that only by doing so can we do the work that needs to be done. The party that I currently belong to, Nuevo Perú, proposes to do exactly that type of work: strengthening bonds between various organizations and groups while also building up the capacity of our own party.

NA VMC

As you’ve suggested, left-wing activism is heavily stigmatized in Peruvian politics and society. Whether it’s the experience with the Shining Path, or, now, the Right’s use of the Venezuela boogeyman, it seems like a hard space to carve out. How do you deal with such a hostile climate?

VM

It is indeed hard to be on the Left in Peru. The armed conflict of the ’80s and ’90s, and the subsequent repression, have allowed the elite to stir up hatred of the Left and to label anyone involved in protesting or organizing as terrorists. But Nuevo Perú is also part of a generation that has decided to confront that stigmatization head-on, with a left-wing project that aims to take power and government.

As members of Nuevo Perú, we consider ourselves part of a long socialist tradition that began with the Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui in the 1920s. His call to build a socialism that is neither “a tracing nor a copy, but a heroic creation” still resonates with us as we try, from the left, to democratize the country, in the struggle for land, for workers’ and women’s rights.

We also feel the need today to break with certain historical tendencies of the Left — the ideologism and authoritarianism that has, where it appeared, isolated the Left. Our proposal seeks to be critical, combative, but above all, affirmative, proposing a hopeful vision for the majorities that today are surviving exploitation, environmental disaster, crime, and the violence of neoliberalism. We insist on a socialist project where it is possible to combine diversity and equality.

NA VMC

There seems to be fairly widespread social unease in Peru. Considering the major revolts in Ecuador and Chile, which are responding to similar social conditions, do you foresee the possibility of Peru’s unease turning into more generalized social unrest?

VM

Yes, the social conditions are indeed in place for the types of revolts we’ve seen in other countries. In fact, the last several years have seen protests and revolts all across Peru, although these have tended to be more scattered and episodic.

This is not to say there are not long-standing, structural social conflicts; the struggle around socio-environmental issues is central in Peru today. However, in that particular struggle, there has been an aggressive state policy to criminalize and violently repress struggles against extractivism.

For example, during the presidency of Alan García (2006–11), more than two hundred civilians were killed by state agents in conflicts over extractive projects. Eighty civilians died under the government of Humala. The current president, Martín Vizcarra, has been relatively better in terms of respecting human rights, but the damage has been done: people are afraid of falling victim to a campaign that criminalizes protest. There are currently six hundred environmental activists, movement leaders, and trade unionists facing prison for simply exercising their right to protest. All this means that it is incredibly difficult to generate mass mobilizations. Having said that, however, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of mass unrest like we’ve seen in neighboring countries.

NA VMC

For the time being, the unrest in Peru seems to be mostly contained to the Congress. Could you briefly explain the significance of President Vizcarra dissolving Congress and calling for extraordinary elections? What does this mean for the electoral alliance that you are participating in, Juntos por el Perú (Together for Peru)?

VM

After the revelation that the vast majority of Congress members were involved in illegal, mafia-like activities, and parties became singularly devoted to protecting their members from any type of political prosecution, the public demanded that Congress be shut down.

As a result, we now have complementary congressional elections on January 26, in order to determine the composition of the entire Congress. This is the first time in the democratic era that Peru’s Congress has been shut down. (Fujimori closed Congress in the ’90s, although he did so in a completely authoritarian manner that went against the existing Constitution.)

Nuevo Peru, to which I belong, has joined forces with various parties, organizations, and trade unions to form Juntos por el Perú, an electoral alliance that will participate in these congressional elections.

These elections, it must be said, are imperfect and partial. By this, I mean that we should instead be holding general elections, where we could elect not only a new Congress but a new president as well. The political crisis has reached such a fever pitch in Peru that anything less is insufficient. We need a systemic political reform capable of preventing political co-option by corporate lobbies. But that hasn’t happened, and instead we are left with insufficient reforms, where the same political figures can easily return.

What this all means is that there is a dispute underway in Peru, an open dispute, around the meaning of the closure of Congress and about the post-closure transition that will take place in the lead-up to 2021. The general elections of 2021 will be historic in Peru, of that I am convinced. In 2021 we will have a final verdict on the meaning of this political moment: whether it has unleashed democratic and emancipatory forces, enshrined the same old neoliberal interests, or, and this is the risk of which Brazil serves as a cautionary example, whether we are actually embarking on a regressive path.

NA VMC

What specifically is the platform of Juntos por el Perú in the upcoming elections, at the programmatic level?

VM

Our platform calls for recovering the state and its institutions from the corrupt interests that have effectively kidnapped it — and opening them up to democratic processes that would put them at the disposition of the people.

That same platform calls for the decommodification of goods like health, education, and housing, and the restitution of all other basic rights that are currently lacking in the country. Peruvians should have access to these rights regardless of their purchasing power.

We are also calling to develop a plan for sustainable development in which the state would play a leading role, intervening to promote the growth of strategic sectors like agriculture and energy. The current Constitution says that the state cannot interfere with the invisible hand of the market — although, of course, for large multinationals, agribusiness, banks, and mining companies, the state is willing to bend over backward and admit tax breaks and subsidies.

Another essential aspect of Nuevo Perú’s platform is to start grappling with the environmental calamity that we are living in. The environmental struggle is actually in our DNA as a movement, and many of us joined Nuevo Perú after years of involvement in socio-environmental conflicts, taking part in indigenous struggles in defense of their territories.

Finally, we’re standing on a platform for political recognition of the country’s diverse populations: cultural rights, sexual rights, women’s rights, and so on.

NA VMC

Do you consider Nuevo Perú to be a revolutionary project? That is to say, do you feel there is room to pursue a transformative political agenda, or are the conditions such that institutional reforms would be adequate?

VM

We want to change the entire system. We want to recover the state for the people and contest control of its institutions. We know that this will not be possible without building popular power and, furthermore, that winning elections does not solve the problem unless you are also building power in the streets, neighborhoods, and communities. That is our struggle.

Peruvians are approaching the point where they can no longer tolerate piecemeal reforms, not while young workers are routinely dying as a result of exploitation; while the water our children drink is at risk; while women continue to be harassed, raped, and murdered — last year was a national record for femicides — and while our ice caps are melting at an alarming rate. The time for partial solutions is over.

To win that struggle we need to build a majoritarian movement. We are not there yet, but we’re on our way.