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The Real Reason Behind Peru’s Political Crisis

It can be boiled down to a single historical factor: corruption.

By , a British journalist based in Lima, Peru.
Riot police stand with shields amid smoke.
Riot police stand with shields amid smoke.
Riot police clash with protesters in Puno, Peru, on Jan. 9. Juan Carlos Cisneros/AFP via Getty Images

When Peru erupted in protests following the ousting of then-President Pedro Castillo in December, there was a broad understanding that the discontent had been festering for decades. Castillo’s impeachment, after his attempted self-coup, was just the final straw for his supporters—mainly the rural poor who believed the former teacher’s populist promises to eradicate poverty by confronting the Lima establishment that for decades had ignored and marginalized them. Since then, 55 Peruvians have died, most at the hands of the police in violent clashes largely in the southern Andes, the poorest area of the country.

Most analyses point to historic inequality, discrimination against Indigenous communities, and the nation’s unsustainable centralism as the reasons for the unrest. Decisions affecting remote provinces, they point out, are routinely made by policymakers in Lima, with little or no knowledge of those localities and often downright racist views of Indigenous citizens—a structural problem Castillo was expected to address given his own humble identity as a campesino, or a person of Andean heritage who works the land.

This analysis, however, falls short. Yes, the fury over Castillo’s dramatic ouster is deeply bound up with issues of identity, stark economic inequity, and the long-term failure of Peru’s radically laissez-faire economic model to fairly distribute the benefits of its boom of the last two decades. And yes, despite Castillo having staggered from scandal to verbal gaffe and back again during his calamitous 17-month presidency, his abrupt removal by a widely detested Congress represented the final dashing of his supporters’ raised expectations, resulting in the furious backlash playing out today on Peru’s streets.

When Peru erupted in protests following the ousting of then-President Pedro Castillo in December, there was a broad understanding that the discontent had been festering for decades. Castillo’s impeachment, after his attempted self-coup, was just the final straw for his supporters—mainly the rural poor who believed the former teacher’s populist promises to eradicate poverty by confronting the Lima establishment that for decades had ignored and marginalized them. Since then, 55 Peruvians have died, most at the hands of the police in violent clashes largely in the southern Andes, the poorest area of the country.

Most analyses point to historic inequality, discrimination against Indigenous communities, and the nation’s unsustainable centralism as the reasons for the unrest. Decisions affecting remote provinces, they point out, are routinely made by policymakers in Lima, with little or no knowledge of those localities and often downright racist views of Indigenous citizens—a structural problem Castillo was expected to address given his own humble identity as a campesino, or a person of Andean heritage who works the land.

This analysis, however, falls short. Yes, the fury over Castillo’s dramatic ouster is deeply bound up with issues of identity, stark economic inequity, and the long-term failure of Peru’s radically laissez-faire economic model to fairly distribute the benefits of its boom of the last two decades. And yes, despite Castillo having staggered from scandal to verbal gaffe and back again during his calamitous 17-month presidency, his abrupt removal by a widely detested Congress represented the final dashing of his supporters’ raised expectations, resulting in the furious backlash playing out today on Peru’s streets.

But to truly understand Peru’s unrelenting political crisis, both since and long before Castillo’s downfall, you can boil it down to a single factor: corruption.

Wherever you look in Peru, it is impossible to miss the country’s rampant graft, which—with a handful of exceptions—has metastasized into almost all public institutions. This corruption has until now been largely accepted, or at least tolerated, by a jaded citizenry, who have summed it up with the well-worn phrase, “Roba pero hace obras.” (“He steals but carries out public works.”)

It has also widened and deepened Peru’s yawning fault lines of race, class, and geography by slowing economic development and sabotaging the implementation of public policy in every sector of government, from grossly inadequate education and health care—Peru had the highest COVID-19 mortality rate in the world—to public safety. That includes anti-poverty programs, often targeted at the very areas that have risen up in protest in recent weeks.

There is no excuse for a nation the World Bank categorizes as “upper middle income” to still have nearly one in three citizens living in poverty. Although poverty affects millions of urban residents, including in Lima, it is at its most intense in rural areas, where many still live without potable water, electricity, or access to public health care that is, on paper, a right. And in a society famous for its cuisine and small-scale organic producers, half of all Peruvians are food insecure, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Corruption intensifies these issues, from the siphoning off of precious public funds to the inefficient and mistargeted policies that result from the unqualified officials who fill Peru’s state agencies due to cronyism, rather than meritocracy, guiding personnel decisions.

“If you have a head of municipal services who was appointed simply because he is the cousin of the mayor, or paid the mayor some money under the table, rather than because he was qualified for the job, then of course you’re going to have inefficient and inadequate public services,” said Samuel Rotta, executive director of the Peruvian branch of the global anti-graft nonprofit Transparency International.

Peru is hardly the only nation in Latin America with a serious corruption problem. Yet the issue has been particularly corrosive to Peruvian democracy. It is surely no coincidence that in the latest edition of the AmericasBarometer from 2021, a hemispheric public opinion survey run by Vanderbilt University, Peru had both the highest level of perceived political corruption, with 88 percent of Peruvians believing that “more than half” of politicians are crooked, and the second-lowest level of “satisfaction” with democracy in the region, from just 21 percent of respondents, ahead of only Haiti.

Currently, one former president, the 1990s strongman Alberto Fujimori, is serving a lengthy jail sentence for human rights violations, while five more, including Castillo, are being investigated on graft charges. A seventh, Alan García, died by suicide in 2019 just as police were preparing to arrest him for alleged corruption. Yet Peru’s creaking court system can take years, even decades, to deliver verdicts. For many Peruvians, the constant revelations of high-level venality married to endless pretrial investigations with—so far—no closure have only reenforced a sense of systemic decay and injustice.

“This consistent drumbeat of scandals shapes people’s perceptions of the entire system being rigged against them and in favor of the powerful,” said Noam Lupu, a Vanderbilt University political scientist who oversees the AmericasBarometer. “It creates this sense of impunity that pervades the state, from local bureaucrats, such as traffic police soliciting bribes, to high-level corruption.”

For those traffic cops, the ask is typically the price of a soda—as any driver who has ever been pulled over in Peru can attest—while bureaucrats in the migrations ministry now demand $50 or more for applicants to jump the lines for a new passport. For presidents, the price runs much higher, including the $20 million allegedly paid by the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht to then-President Alejandro Toledo in the early 2000s for a contract to build stretches of the Interoceanic Highway that runs from the Pacific Ocean to Brazil’s Atlantic coast.

For those who live in Peru, it is simply impossible not to feel affected by this corruption. According to Transparency International’s 2022 Perceptions of Corruption study, 59 percent of Peruvians say their own family’s finances have been directly harmed by graft. And no institution is seen as more crooked than Peru’s Congress, viewed by 60 percent of Peruvians as corrupt.

These are the lawmakers who avoided providing serious oversight of the Castillo administration’s numerous abuses and policy disasters, from its failure to replace fertilizer normally imported from Ukraine and Russia each year, thus intensifying Peru’s food crisis, to its authorization of parts of Peru’s dangerous and unregulated passenger transit sector. It also engaged in a sustained and fact-free Trumpian attack on the legitimacy of Castillo’s surprise electoral triumph, including by seeking to dismiss 200,000 votes from mainly Indigenous, Castillo-supporting voters, sowing the seeds of some of the resentment now exploding onto the streets.

At the same time, one of the few areas of common ground between the ultra-conservative congressional majority and far-left Castillo-supporting minority has been their anti-reform agendas. As members have swung from one scandal to another, Congress has repeatedly weakened attempts to clean up politics, including by postponing compulsory party primaries and watering down punishments for campaign finance reporting violations. Congress’s disapproval rating now hovers near 90 percent, making lawmakers far more unpopular than even Castillo or his vice president (and now current president), Dina Boluarte, whose resignation protesters are demanding.

The roots of Peru’s corruption are something Peruvians themselves debate, with many placing the blame on the Spanish conquerors. The occupiers in the 16th century established the precedents of both government officials driven more by greed than a concept of service and, in response, the red tape that was intended to curb their impulses but ultimately proved the perfect breeding ground for more bribery and kickbacks.

“Corruption is culturally embedded in our society. It transcends governments, even kinds of regime, be they authoritarian or democratic, left wing or right wing,” Rotta said. “It is the reason we have such impoverished, unequal public services. Those who have money pay, and those who don’t get screwed.”

The levels of corruption have ebbed and flowed during the colonial period and through independence, with the most recent notable high point before the current unrest being the kleptocratic Fujimorato, or the 1990-2000 Fujimori government. In his book Corrupt Circles: A History of Unbound Graft in Peru, the late historian Alfonso Quiroz estimated that graft has, at different points, consumed up to 4.9 percent of Peruvian GDP.

On occasion, officials have attempted to curb this corruption, but with little success. Former President Martín Vizcarra was able to force recalcitrant lawmakers to adopt some reforms during his brief 2018-2020 tenure, including introducing party primaries, pruning parliamentary immunity, and banning those with current criminal convictions from running for public office. His approval initially rocketed as he staked out a strong, confrontational stance against the murky interest groups dominating Peruvian politics, from illegal mining to the lucrative but substandard private universities linked to several parties. But he ended up being impeached for alleged bribetaking during a previous stint as a regional governor, and the country has been struggling to fill the leadership void ever since.

There is no denying the issues of entrenched discrimination and inequality underlying Peru’s turmoil. But more than anything else, we are currently witnessing a democracy being devoured alive by corruption. The protesters are demanding political solutions—above all, immediate elections to replace a discredited president and Congress. But any reform that doesn’t involve a comprehensive and hard-hitting anti-corruption package will not bring about the long-term solution the country desperately needs.

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