Three Presidents in One Week

Three Presidents in One Week

The last two decades have often seen Peru hailed as a neoliberal success story. Their economic growth rate (9.8% in 2008) and the rapid expansion of its middle class caused Peru to climb from a low-income country to one of the best performing economies in Latin America. As the economy flourished and new jobs were created, many thought the years of instability and uncertainty had been left behind. 

However, in 2016, Pedro Pablo Kucynzski won the presidency against Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of former President Alberto Fujimori. Kucynzski’s win set in motion a political crisis that is still ongoing.

Eventually forced out of power by corruption scandals and Keiko Fujimori’s party, Kucynzski was replaced by then Vice-President Martin Vizcarra. Despite Vizcarra’s best efforts, ongoing political scandals brought streams of Peruvians to the streets who, by 2019, had demanded for new elections and the dissolution of congress.

Vizcarra gave into the protester’s demands, dissolving parliament and calling for new parliamentary elections in early 2020. Yet, the results of the elections were not well-received by the people. Because most parties were unhappy with the dissolution, the lists of candidates put forward for election consisted of the same congressmen, with very few, if any, additions. Thus, 58% of voters did not vote (which meant a fine), voted blank or spoilt their vote on purpose. The hashtag  #elcongresonomerepresenta (“congress doesn’t represent”) trended for months, and is still trending. 

On Monday, November 9th 2020, the Congress of Peru voted to remove then President Martin Vizcarra from the presidency. This was the second attempt from Congress to force him from the position, and followed a failed initial effort back in September of that year.  Congress’ attempts to vacate President Vizcarra were unpopular among the population, who were already devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic and deeply unhappy with governing institutions. Yet the ascension of the then President of the Congress, Manuel Merino, to the presidency in his place was even more poorly received.  

One Week in November 

The protests that happened in Peru during the week of November 9th to November 16th shocked the population, the international media, and the governing ruling elite itself. As Martin Vizcarra barely enjoyed more than half of the country’s support, the extent of the people’s rejection of Congress’s newly appointed president was a surprise to the legislative body. Not an hour had passed after the decision was announced when households across Peru watched a young college student punch a Congressman while said congressman was delivering a speech. Social media was flooded with people calling the student’s actions heroic, and outraged by the harsh sentences the judiciary system wanted to give him.

That Tuesday, thousands of people went to the streets to protest Merino’s presidency across the country. The police fired tear gas at the protestors and arrested many, but this only further drove protesters. 

The next day, as even more arrests were made and police abuses reported, the population grew yet more outraged. Peruvians who didn’t attend the protests in person did multiple “cacerolazos” during the night, an act in which people bang their pots and pans in order to make noise and attract attention. 

Despite this, the media continued to downplay the protests, providing little to no coverage. On Thursday, multiple news reporters went on to say on TV that the protests were simply “fashionable at the moment” and would be forgotten as soon as a new football match came on TV. Many said that only “about 200 people” had attended the protests at any given time, and most news channels refused to cover the protest, even as videos and live streams flooded social media that showed the tens of thousands–if not hundreds of thousands–of people that had shown up. 

Protests in other parts of the world where Peruvians lived also started to become popular as well. Video of policemen firing gunshots at protestors, of policemen cornering people, and throwing gas bombs at them became known to the public. 

On Friday, Prime Minister Antero Flores Araoz went on TV to thank the Police for their efforts, remarking it had all been “legal” and taunted protestors by saying “they should come to my house”. Because Flores Araoz lived in La Molina, a high-security, gated neighbourhood known for housing many of the country’s politicians, it was astounding to see the people who lived in the neighbourhood gathered in thousands outside of the Prime Minister’s house.

In other parts of the cities, protestors also gathered in hundreds outside multiple news reporters’ homes, demanding that they be heard. Meanwhile, some reporters started to report on the protests, accusing their colleagues of selling themselves to the government. 

Rumours started to run wild amongst the people. For those who had thought nothing would come of the protests, it had become apparent to everyone that that was no longer the case. 

The next day, a Saturday, was a day no Peruvian will ever forget. The week prior had seen pictures of fires, confrontations, violence, and wounded protestors surface. However, the shocking images and videos that surfaced of the deaths of two college students, Bryan Pintado, 22, and Inti Sotelo, 24, would send the country into mourning. Their grotesque and senseless deaths were the culmination of a week of protests, and it was these deaths that brought many to keep protesting. As medical reports would confirm later, both men were shot multiple times by lead bullets, one receiving at least eleven shots to his heart, brain, thorax and legs.

Within hours of the deaths,  most of Merino’s cabinet and high ranking officers had submitted their resignations. At 6AM that morning, Merino summoned the Military Generals and Police Commanders to the Palace of Government. None of them showed up. 

Hours later, Merino made his resignation public, but most of the public was focused on mourning the deaths of missing protestors, with names and pictures being shared over Instagram and the Peruvian Human Rights Officer sharing, and frequently updating, a list of those still missing. 

That Sunday, many protestors had begun reporting their experiences with torture, sexual abuse, illegal detention, and use of excessive force during the protests. Many journalists and protestors in possession of proof also received threatening visits from policemen who sought evidence of the recordings. Twenty years ago, the police could have gotten away with these visits–Peru’s long history with forced disappearances can attest to that. However, in an era of social media, this proved impossible. 

Three Months On

Despite welcoming a new president, Francisco Sagasti, on November 17th, the excessive use of police force remains a vivid wound for the Peruvian population. 

Sagasti promised accountability and ordered an investigation into the deaths of protesters. Yet since this promise, two months have passed and little has occurred. New demonstrations, these protesting the government’s abuse of agricultural workers have risen yet again. Twelve protestors have already died. 

What happened in Peru back in October was a senseless tragedy. Anyone that grew up in Peru will tell you that, when the Congress ousted Vizcarra, the congressmen weren’t seeking justice. They simply thought that by removing Vizcarra, they could win themselves more government contracts, and perpetuate the cycle of corruption that has become part of Peru’s politics. 

In the end, Vizcarra’s removal has been proven to be a well-carried out plan, as tapes of Vizcarra’s replacement, Merino, attempting to get military support for Vizcarra’s impeachment back in September have proven. This plot was nothing but a result of many greedy minds who thought themselves immune to the consequences of their actions. Their mistake was underestimating the Peruvian population and the pain that they have endured over this past year.

Peru has the second highest COVID-19-related deaths per capita in the world. Unemployment rates are through the roof, the health system is struggling, many can barely make ends meet, and deaths from COVID-19 keep piling up. When the Peruvian people saw that Congress, a chamber who had time and again rejected efforts to pass measures that would bring an end to their suffering, had passed the vacancy measure against President Vizcarra, they snapped. They were tired of corruption, and angered by incompetence. To many, this felt like a fight they couldn’t afford to lose. 

Edited by Kai Scott

Photo credits: “Protests in Miraflores” by Samantha Hare, published on November 14th 2020, licensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0). No changes were made.

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