The threat should not be taken lightly, especially given Peru’s long history of coups d’états.
Five days ago, a group of retired military officers in Peru dispatched a letter to the high command of the country’s armed forces. In it they call upon the army to rise up against the leftist leader Pedro Castillo if he is pronounced president. The letter also raised questions about the recent work of Peru’s National Office of Electoral Processes (JNE) and urged the institution to fulfil “its constitutional mandate in a reliable and transparent manner” — i.e. by ensuring that Castillo, a former schoolteacher and farmer who ran largely on a socialist platform, does not become the next president. If it fails in this task, the institution will “bear the consequences.”
18 Coups in 200 Years
The threat should not be taken lightly, especially given Peru’s long history of coups d’états. Since the country won its independence from Spain in 1821 there have been no fewer than 18, 14 of which were successful. Seven of them have occurred since the 1940s.
Another source of concern is the long list of former high-ranking officers among the letter’s signatories. They include 23 retired Army generals, 22 retired Navy vice admirals and 18 retired Air Force lieutenant generals. Some have gone on to hold high positions within Peru’s political establishment, including former president Francisco Morales Bermúdez, former Prime Minister Walter Martos and elected congressmen Jorge Montoya, José Cueto, José Williams and Roberto Chiabra.
Peru’s interim president, Francisco Sagasti, described the letter as “unacceptable”. In a nationally televised message broadcast on Friday, Sagasti, standing alongside Peru’s Prime Minister Violeta Bermúdez and Minister of Defense Nuria Esparch, said the letter had been sent to the Prosecutor’s Office. The requisite investigations will be launched. For her part Esparch lamented the “political use of the armed forces” because it generates alarm, anxiety and division at a time when the country needs unity and calm.”
The prospect of a Castillo victory has fuelled panic among Peru’s political and business elite, who have monopolised political power for decades. It has also raised concerns in Washington that it could be about to lose one of its most important client states in the region.
Peru’s political institutions — like those of Colombia and Chile — have long been tethered to US policy interests. Together with Chile, it’s the only country in South America that was invited to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was later renamed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership after Donald Trump withdrew US participation.
Given as much, the rumours of another coup in Peru should hardly come as a surprise. Nor should the Biden administration’s recent appointment of a CIA veteran as US ambassador to Peru, as recently reported by Vijay Prashad and José Carlos Llerena Robles:
Her name is Lisa Kenna, a former adviser to former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a nine-year veteran at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and a US secretary of state official in Iraq. Just before the election, Ambassador Kenna released a video, in which she spoke of the close ties between the United States and Peru and of the need for a peaceful transition from one president to another. The “presidential transition sets an example for the whole region,” she said, as if anticipating a serious challenge. If anyone would know about interference in the electoral process in Latin America, it would be the United States.
A Wafer-Thin Margin
With 100% of the official vote counted, Castillo has won 50.12% – an advantage of about 44,000 votes over his right-wing rival Keiko Fujimori. It’s a wafer-thin margin in a country with just over 33 million people, of whom some 17.5 million people voted. Fujimori has refused to concede, claiming that Castillo’s Peru Libre party has committed voter fraud. This appears to have been her game plan all along: even before all the votes had been counted, her campaign team had already hired the services of many of Peru’s most expensive legal firms to challenge the election results, particularly in many of the country’s poorest regions where Castillo commands huge support. The firms filed 943 legal challenges, all of which have been rejected by the courts.
“The tension has reached a breaking point,” said José Ragas, a Peruvian historian at Chile’s Catholic University. “The Lima elite is not just trying to keep power – it’s not just that they don’t want to recognise the victory of Pedro Castillo – but they are trying to cancel the rural vote.”
Just before the country went to the polls Fujimori said she would “respect the will of the people, whatever the outcome.” Two weeks later, she still refuses to acknowledge her rival’s narrow victory, despite the complete absence of any evidence of fraud.
What Fujimori most fears is going back to prison, says veteran journalist Cesar Hildebrandt. The three-time presidential candidate was jailed in 2019 after being accused of money laundering, obstruction of justice and criminal association in connection to the wide-ranging Odebrecht political bribery scandal. Fujimori’s party, Fuerza Popular, was not just taking money from Odebrecht. It also received $3.6 million from Peru’s biggest domestic financial institution, Credicorp, none of which was declared, according to the company’s president, Dionisio Romero, one of the richest men in the country.
It isn’t just Fujimori, her associates and her party who have been breaking the law. Six of Peru’s last seven presidents, dating all the way back to Fujimori’s father, Alberto (1990-2000), have faced legal proceedings, investigations, convictions and even dismissal from Congress due to corruption cases. One president, Alan Garcia, ended up killing himself — at least according to the offical record. Alberto Fujimori is serving a 42-year sentence on charges of embezzlement, bribery and for his role in killings and kidnappings by the Grupo Colina death squad during his government’s battle against leftist guerrillas in the 1990s.
As for his daughter, she was released from pre-trial detention in May 2020. But she could still end up back behind bars. In May 2021, just weeks before the presidential run-off against Castillo, Peru’s public prosecutor’s office announced it was seeking a 30-year sentence for her alleged crimes. But that didn’t stop Fujimoro from being able to run for president. In fact, becoming president could well be the only way she can avoid prison.
Like her father before her, she enjoys the support of the country’s business and financial elite. And they fear that Castillo’s presidency could signal the end of the neoliberal economic model that has reigned in Peru since the 1990s.
On the Back Foot
But the elite in Peru is on the back foot. The endless torrent of corruption scandals have done untold damage to the country’s political institutions. As has happened in Mexico, most of the traditional parties are in free fall. And a slim majority of voters have elected a man who appears to offer a radical change of course.
Peru’s resources, he says, should benefit the population and not, as he says, the corporations and elites that have exploited and ignored everyday Peruvians. He has even spoken of nationalising domestic industries, expropriating some of the country’s energy and mineral resources, including Lithium, and prioritising food security. And that is dangerous talk, particularly in a resource-rich country in Latin America.
Whether he will be able to deliver on that promise, or even be given the chance to, time will only tell. Even if he doesn’t fall victim to a coup, as so many have before him, Castillo will face an uphill slog trying to improve people’s lives in the current context.
No other region has been hit as hard by the virus crisis,, both in human health and economic terms, as Latin America. Nearly a third of the world’s COVID deaths have occurred in the region, despite having only 8% of the global population. The economic impact has also been brutal. “The 7.4% loss of GDP in 2020 was the largest in a single year since 1821,” according to a report from the Inter-American Development Bank, far higher than the 3% global GDP contraction.
With the notable exception of Brazil, the region’s cash-strapped governments with weak currencies and surging inflation cannot afford to provide the sort of financial support programs being rolled out in more advanced economies. Even if they could, the measures would not apply to the untold millions of workers eking out a living in the informal economy.
Ecuador was first to default on its foreign currency debt, followed by Argentina, then Surinam, Belize, and Surinam twice more — six sovereign defaults so far in 16 months.
The economic uncertainty is fuelling political instability. Even before Covid’s arrival, parts of Latin America were already a tinder box. Chile and Colombia were rocked by massive social protests over economic inequality in late 2019. The pandemic has significantly exacerbated that inequality, plunging millions more into extreme poverty. The protests in Colombia recently reached fever pitch, culminating in a nationwide general strike and a brutal crackdown by the nation’s security forces.
In Peru Castillo’s supporters have staged massive demonstrations to protest Fujimori’s stalling tactics, including a march on JNE’s headquarters. Tens of thousands of supporters from the Andean and Amazonian regions converged on the capital this weekend, where they vented their frustration just blocks away from a large group of Fujimori’s supporters.
Like so many countries in Latin America, Peru is riven down the middle. Castillo knows that if he becomes president he will have to walk the finest of lines between meeting the demands of his voters and placating the worst fears of the country’s elite.
To that end, he has softened his tone in recent days. His economic adviser Pedro Francke has promised that there be will no nationalisations or expropriations. But big businesses will have to pull their weight in other ways, such as by paying more taxes, as has happened in Mexico. Castillo knows that if he goes too far too quickly, the military will intervene, as it has so many times before in Peru’s blood-stained history. If he doesn’t go far enough, he risks bitterly disappointing his base, just as the former left-leaning military officer Ollanta Humala did after his election in 2011. But before all that he still needs to be confirmed as president.