Latin America Brief

A one-stop weekly digest of politics, economics, technology, and culture in Latin America. Delivered Friday.

Castillo’s Chaotic Downfall

Peru’s president started his Wednesday by trying to dissolve Congress and was ousted by sundown.

Osborn-Catherine-foreign-policy-columnist15
Osborn-Catherine-foreign-policy-columnist15
Catherine Osborn
By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief.
Peru’s former president, Pedro Castillo, is seen inside a police car in Lima, Peru, on Dec. 7.
Peru’s former president, Pedro Castillo, is seen inside a police car in Lima, Peru, on Dec. 7.
Peru’s former president, Pedro Castillo, is seen inside a police car in Lima, Peru, on Dec. 7. RENATO PAJUELO/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.

The highlights this week: Pedro Castillo’s exit continues Peru’s cycle of instability, Chile’s urban music scene booms, and politically opposite soccer stars Neymar and Richarlison offer hope to a fractured Brazil.

If you would like to receive Latin America Brief in your inbox every Friday, please sign up here.

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.

The highlights this week: Pedro Castillo’s exit continues Peru’s cycle of instability, Chile’s urban music scene booms, and politically opposite soccer stars Neymar and Richarlison offer hope to a fractured Brazil.

If you would like to receive Latin America Brief in your inbox every Friday, please sign up here.


Locked Up in Lima

Despite repeated hints that he might do so, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was not the Latin American leader who made the most straightforward attempt at a self-coup this year.

That distinction goes to former Peruvian President Pedro Castillo, who on Wednesday attempted to dissolve his country’s Congress and rule by decree. By the end of the day, Castillo had been abandoned by his political allies, impeached by Congress, and arrested. His former vice president, Dina Boluarte, was then sworn in as Peru’s first woman president. Peru’s public prosecutor’s office said it is investigating Castillo for breaking the constitutional order.

A glass-half-full view of the events is that they showed the strength of Peru’s democratic institutions. In 1992, the Peruvian Army helped then-President Alberto Fujimori successfully carry out a self-coup; this time around, the country’s military did not back Castillo’s efforts to stay in power. But Castillo’s quick demise also extends a recent period of instability in Peruvian politics. Boluarte is the country’s fifth president in just over two years and will govern with a Congress that is even less popular than Castillo was. One November poll pegged Castillo’s approval at 31 percent and the legislature’s at 10 percent. Castillo’s relationship with the far-left party that he joined in order to run for president had also been strained in recent months, and he left the party in a June rift.

Castillo’s rural, working-class background was unprecedented in the upper echelons of Peruvian politics, and his election in June 2021 against Fujimori’s daughter, Keiko, raised hopes that he would run an administration focused on improving the lives of the poor. But in office, he careered from one crisis to the next, reshuffling his cabinet multiple times and facing three impeachment attempts over corruption charges.

“Boluarte’s challenge will be to put together a government capable of giving the country a minimum of stability,” Pontifical Catholic University of Peru political scientist Martín Tanaka wrote Tuesday in El Comércio, foreseeing a possible scenario in which Castillo was impeached.

Abandoned by nearly all of his allies—and even his lawyer—Castillo appears to have concluded his short political career. His case stands in stark contrast to that of another left-wing Latin American leader who received a major legal sanction this week: Argentine Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who remains popular among her political base.

On Tuesday, Fernández de Kirchner was issued a six-year sentence in a long-running corruption trial. She was found to have committed fraud related to public works when she was first lady and then president between 2003 and 2015. The sentence also bars her from holding future office. Fernández de Kirchner is expected to appeal the sentence and said she will not run for office in 2023. As a sitting politician, she cannot be jailed. Like Castillo, Fernández de Kirchner has argued that the probe against her is politically motivated.

Fernández de Kirchner and leftist Argentines more generally are looking ahead to the possibility of defeat in presidential elections next year. The big-tent, left-leaning government of President Alberto Fernández, a union of Fernández de Kirchner’s political coalition and a more moderate left, has a mere 24.4 percent approval rating. If a center-right or even far-right administration is elected, Fernández de Kirchner’s sway over her supporters could still give her bargaining power in the next administration. In Argentina’s previous center-right government under President Mauricio Macri, her adherents and other left-wing groups staged disruptive protests against a proposed pension reform.

“You have to recognize that [Fernández de Kirchner] gets a lot of things right in terms of strategy,” journalist Sylvia Colombo said on the Américas podcast last week. She pointed to Fernández de Kirchner’s decision to run as vice president rather than president in 2019 to reach the executive branch despite high disapproval ratings. In recent weeks, Fernández de Kirchner has held an unusually wide range of meetings with foreign diplomats, Colombo’s co-host, Sebastián Fest, said. “The message she’s sending to the world is, ‘Listen, here is someone you can talk to. I’m not a crazy little revolutionary.’”

Fernández de Kirchner is down, but not out. Castillo is an entirely different matter.


The Week Ahead

Friday, Dec. 9: Brazil plays Croatia and Argentina plays the Netherlands in the quarterfinals of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

Monday, Dec. 12: Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court certifies Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s Oct. 30 presidential election victory over Bolsonaro.

Thursday, Dec. 15: The Tienditas International Bridge border crossing between Colombia and Venezuela opens for the first time since the countries severed diplomatic ties in 2015.

Sunday, Jan. 1: Lula is inaugurated as president of Brazil.


What We’re Following

Delegates of the Colombian government, National Liberation Army, and of countries that are guarantors of their dialogue attend the document-signing ceremony after announcing new peace talks in Caracas on Oct. 4.
Delegates of the Colombian government, National Liberation Army, and of countries that are guarantors of their dialogue attend the document-signing ceremony after announcing new peace talks in Caracas on Oct. 4.

Delegates of the Colombian government, National Liberation Army, and of countries that are guarantors of their dialogue attend the document-signing ceremony after announcing new peace talks in Caracas on Oct. 4.YURI CORTEZ/AFP via Getty Images

‘Total Peace’ in numbers. Since taking office in August, Colombian President Gustavo Petro has pushed an ambitious agenda to change the country’s drug and security policies. This includes his “Total Peace” plan to conduct demobilization talks with insurgent groups including the National Liberation Army (ELN). On Saturday, Petro announced a deal with the ELN to allow Indigenous Emberá people who had been displaced by fighting between the ELN and other armed groups to return to their homes.

Reducing the collateral damage that armed conflict inflicts on local leaders in the countryside has been a key pledge of Petro’s, Jorge Mantilla of the conflict-monitoring group Ideas for Peace Foundation wrote in La Silla Vacía. That’s why it is worrying that killings of social leaders rose by 50 percent during Petro’s first three months in office compared to the same period last year. On Wednesday, Colombia’s human rights ombudsman announced that 2022 will have seen at least 199 social leaders and human rights defenders killed in rural conflict, the most since 2016, when the government began keeping records.

In the first three months of Petro’s term, the Ideas for Peace Foundation also reported an uptick in territorial combat between armed groups, though their attacks on government forces declined. Elizabeth Dickinson of the International Crisis Group pointed out last month that armed groups have rushed to expand their territorial control in order to enter peace talks in the strongest position possible.

Trouble in el paisito. In recent weeks, even usually sleepy Uruguay has not escaped political scandal. Public prosecutors are investigating the head of President Luis Lacalle Pou’s security detail, Alejandro Astesiano, for allegedly using false documents to help Russians and Ukrainians obtain Uruguayan passports. Judges issued the case’s first sentence to a Russian man who fraudulently obtained such a passport this week.

Newspaper La Diaria reported that the probe also uncovered evidence that Astesiano sold state intelligence information, including to an Argentine businessman. The scandal has shocked Uruguayans proud of their country’s positive rankings on corruption and business indexes.

“An episode like this is surprising. On the other hand, we’re a small country, in which we know each other” in a way that can blur the line between personal and professional relationships, Catholic University of Uruguay political analyst Victoria Gadea told Folha de São Paulo. Indeed, Uruguay’s nickname in South America is el paisito, or the little country. Still, Gadea said, “I don’t think this situation defines us on a macro level.”

Chilean rap on the ups. Chile is experiencing a boom in urban music, according to the results of a recent music contest in the country. The Musa music awards are organized by a group of radio stations in Chile and poll audiences on the best songs and albums of the year. For 2022, listeners gave the highest rankings to Chilean trap and reggaetón artists such as Polimá Westcoast, who is of Angolan descent, and Young Cister.

Spotify detected that the amount of Chilean (rather than international) music streamed in the country rose 67 percent in the last year. Journalist Ignacio Molina, who wrote the book History of Trap in Chile, told news site Puro Periodismo that COVID-19 lockdowns helped spur an unusually high number of new recordings: Artists increasingly created new rhythms at home because they were unable to perform for crowds. Their sounds aren’t confined to Chile; Spotify found that Polimá Westcoast is popular in both Madrid and Mexico City.


Question of the Week

Who of the following is a Chilean musician?

Lafourcade is Mexican, Duki is Argentine, and Maia is Brazilian.


FP’s Most Read This Week

 Sanctions on Russia Are Working. Here’s Why. by Agathe Demarais

 Why Switzerland vs. Serbia Is Really All About Kosovo by Aleks Eror

 China Has India Trapped on Their Disputed Border by Sushant Singh


In Focus: Reconciliation in Green and Yellow

Brazil player Neymar gives his teammate Richarlison a helping hand during Brazil’s match against South Korea in the FIFA World Cup in Doha, Qatar, on Dec. 5.
Brazil player Neymar gives his teammate Richarlison a helping hand during Brazil’s match against South Korea in the FIFA World Cup in Doha, Qatar, on Dec. 5.

Brazil player Neymar gives his teammate Richarlison a helping hand during Brazil’s match against South Korea in the FIFA World Cup in Doha, Qatar, on Dec. 5.Michael Steele/Getty Images

Brazilian striker Richarlison de Andrade’s three spectacular goals so far at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar have helped push forward a process of reconciliation at home—between progressive Brazilians and their national soccer team’s jersey.

In recent years, Bolsonaro adopted the iconic yellow-and-green kit as a symbol of his far-right political movement. The president appeared in the shirt several times in livestreamed speeches, and his supporters dutifully wore it to rallies and the polls. What’s more, several members of the national team openly endorsed Bolsonaro ahead of this year’s presidential election. Star forward Neymar went so far as to say he would dedicate his first goal in Qatar to Bolsonaro by flashing the number 22—which Brazilians typed into electronic voting machines to vote for Bolsonaro—on the field.

Lula, who defeated Bolsonaro, has urged Brazilians to put the bitter—and sometimes violent—divisions of the election behind them. That includes reclaiming the jersey for all. Lula’s campaign ads included Brazilians wearing the team colors, and he and his wife have shared images and videos of themselves wearing the Brazilian kit while watching the tournament.

Still, after visiting different neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro, it seemed to me that fewer people were wearing the jersey on game days than during the 2018 and 2014 World Cups. Ahead of this year’s tournament, some Brazilians swore they would not cheer for the national team—or Neymar in particular.

Richarlison’s two goals in Brazil’s first match changed the conversation. Progressive fans celebrated the player—who is outspoken in his denunciations of racism, environmental degradation, and social inequality and has fundraised for scientific research to combat COVID-19—as the antipode of Bolsonaro. He “is the idol that Brazilians deserve after so much suffering,” sports journalist Talyta Vespa wrote.

But Brazil’s second group-stage game against Switzerland proved it’s not so simple to pick a side in the Neymar vs. Richarlison binary. Neymar did not play due to an injury, and Brazil only scored one goal. When asked to analyze the match, Richarlison pointed to Neymar’s absence as a key factor. “We missed him a lot,” Richarlison said afterward. “Not many passes arrived to finalize a play.”

“Saying that Brazil is better without Neymar is denying evidence,” tweeted sports journalist André Rizek.

By Monday’s knockout match against South Korea, Neymar was back, and he and Richarlison both scored in a 4-1 victory. On the symbolic level, the benefits of uniting Brazil’s disparate political factions seemed clear. “This assistance from Neymar to Richarlison ended polarization in Brazil,” political scientist Dawisson Belém Lopes tweeted with a laughing emoji.

It appeared true, at least for a moment. Neymar did not make the pro-Bolsonaro hand signal he had promised, and the players instead celebrated their goals by dancing together.

Catherine Osborn is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief. She is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @cculbertosborn

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