Long-Running Race, Class Divide in Peru Provokes Protest and Escalating Violence

Interview with Francesca Emanuele, a Peruvian sociologist and columnist, conducted by Scott Harris

Pedro Castillo, a 51-year-old son of peasant farmers, former teacher and union leader was the unexpected winner of Peru’s June 6, 2021 presidential election. But from the start of his administration, Peru’s first Indian president faced resistance and bigotry against his indigenous heritage from the nation’s ruling elite.

After more than a year of conflict with Peru’s Congress, Castillo announced on Dec. 7 last year that he was dissolving Congress and using emergency powers to call new elections. The move was condemned by the constitutional court as a “coup d’etat” and legislators soon voted to impeach and remove Castillo from the presidency, after which he was arrested on charges of “rebellion” and “conspiracy” and remains in prison. Castillo’s Vice President Dina Boluarte was quickly sworn in as Peru’s new head of state.

In the seven weeks since Castillo’s arrest, many of the former president’s supporters have staged militant protests across the country demanding Boluarte’s resignation, immediate new elections and a new constitution. An estimated 60 civilians have been killed in clashes with police since the protests began. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Francesca Emanuele, a Peruvian sociologist, who discusses the long-running race and class divide in Peru that’s provoked the current political crisis, mass protests and escalating violence.

FRANCESCA EMANUELE: What infuriated the working class population in Peru is that the right finally succeeded ousting Castillo and that they continued treating him horribly, arresting him unfairly under charges of rebellion and conspiracy that he never committed.

But what I think infuriated my people the most is the realization that the extremely delegitimized and racist right was going to be the one that would govern the country along with Boluarte.

To give you an example, when Castillo was ousted, he had 28 percent of support while Congress had around 9 percent of support. So people hate Congress or what Congress did sulting Castillo catalyzed the protests we see today. The impeachment of Castillo that the right attempted many times and finally succeeded, together with the fact that the country was going to run by the racist right that had falsely claimed fraud.

But now protests are held around the country and even the middle-class are now protesting. As a reaction of this authoritarian government we have that have killed around 60 people in two months. Forty-seven of these Peruvians were killed by the police and the army. In all of these deaths had been classified as extrajudicial executions by human rights organizations in Peru.

Most of these killings were because of gunshots, most of them in the head or in the chest. All the people who were murdered are indigenous working-class people and people from rural areas. So to understand what’s going on in my country, there is a big book component we have to see and that’s racism. And also the lack of representation for working class Peruvians in politics.

So Peru’s a highly unequal and racist country where the political class mainly made up of the elites is extremely discredited. A political and economic power in Peru is also extremely concentrated in the capital, Lima, where one-third of the population leaves in only 0.4 percent of the national territory. So from Lima, the rest of the citizenry is mostly seen as ignorant and lesser beings unfit to participate in the country’s governance and in poverty vastly worse in rural than urban areas.

So to explain, for example, why protesters protesting now in Peru not only demand the resignation of the president, Dina Boluarte, the dissolution of Congress and new general elections as soon as possible, we have to see the big picture because they are, as you have said, are also demanding a new constitution. They don’t want to reform the constitution we have that was passed during the dictatorship of Alberto Fujimori and that in many cases is the roots of the dysfunctionality we have in the political system in Peru.

People want a new constitution in order to rebuild the political system and establish the basis for a Peru with social justice, where the indigenous and the poor Peruvians are treated as equal, which doesn’t happen right now. And in another demand, of course, this is to release of Castillo from prison. We have to see finally this crisis as a long standing political and social crisis, which is reflected, for example, in the fact that we have had six different presidents in the last five years.

SCOTT HARRIS: Francesca, Castillo’s former vice president, Dina Boluarte, has been installed as Peru’s new president, as you said, and originally called for new elections in April 2024. But after the protests, more recently, she’s agreed to call for new elections in December of this year, 2023. But Congress, last I heard on the news, had rejected moving up the date. How important is that election and when it occurs to the protesters as far as the many demands that they do have?

FRANCESCA EMANUELE: Protesters, what they want — and I do, too — I have to say they don’t want this authorities anymore. They want them out. So that’s why they want general elections as soon as possible. But, yeah, as you said, the fact that this Congress is not approving moving up the elections to 2023 as people want, shows how dysfunctional the Peruvian political system is.

We don’t have political parties. We have interest groups like mafia parties. And despite the fact that the country is paralyzed, that is completely militarized, that there are people dying on the streets every week dying because of the repression by security forces. So despite all of this, Congress, which is in charge of approving new elections, hasn’t done it yet.

They don’t care. They live in a bubble. And this will continue until new elections are announced. And I have to say, until the new president Dina Boularte resigns too, because he’s under her government, that 60 people have died in my country because of repression.

Emanuele is also a board member of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Here’s her recent article, “Overthrow of President Castillo Exposes the Race and Class Divide in Peru.”

Listen to Scott Harris’ in-depth interview with Francesca Emanuele (18:50) and see more articles and opinion pieces in the Related Links section of this page.

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