Is Another Military Coup Brewing in Peru, After Historic Electoral Victory for Leftist Candidate?

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. 

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  1. vlade

    44,000 votes over his right-wing rival Keiko Fujimori. It’s a wafer-thin margin in a country with just over 33 people”. I’d call it a pretty good margin ;).

    More seriously, it is worrying. But it should not be forgotten that the efforts to delegitimise elections and ignore the results started with HRC in the US, and then were taken a couple of more notches up by Trump. Leading by example I guess.

    1. Michael Ismoe

      The Fujimori family has done for Peru what the Bush family has done for America. May they all burn in hell.

    2. wilroncanada

      Delegitimising elections and ignoring the results has been US policy when resources are at stake since early in the 19th century. The US recognizes only supplicants.

  2. Nick Corbishley Post author

    Thanks for that Vlade. I caught it just a few minutes ago but not as quickly as you. There’s no beating the editorial efficiency of the NC community!

  3. PlutoniumKun

    It is impressive that no matter how bad the rulers of Peru have been, the judges still at least seem to be independant and have integrity, judging by the number of ex politicians they’ve put in jail, and how firm they’ve been in knocking down Fujimora’s attempts to invalidate votes. Plenty of other countries could learn from this. Its noticeable how smarter authoritarians around the world usually take aim first at weakening the judiciary (or as in the case of China, simply not allowing an independent judiciary to arise in the first place).

    1. JohnnyGL

      Hi PK,

      Yes, that looks like a very important point to highlight. Also, don’t sleep on this part, either:

      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.”

      That looks like a clear message to ‘back off’, from the current, outgoing top brass. They, along with the judiciary, might themselves be frightened of another reign of terror from the Fujimoris. It’s a big deal to see such unity. The generals will think twice about launching a coup if they think there’s a high risk of getting arrested and prosecuted.

      I have to confess that I find these kind of situations intensely fascinating. Trying to understand the state of play and where the various players choose to line up and the decisions they make in the near term are going to be incredibly important.

      South America has had a number of these dramatic outcomes with plot twists and turns. Bolivia looked like a solidly left country, then saw a well-executed coup in 2019, seemingly out of nowhere. But, then, the coup government made a mess of things and it was overturned it in the next election.

      Dare I say grabbing the reigns of power in the various countries of the region seems to unfold like the plot of the popular telenovelas? Except, you know, lives are actually at stake and all that.

      1. chuck roast

        Retired French general officers recently signed a similar letter expressing dis-satisfaction with a more liberal (in the traditional sense) turn of events. Three letters and it could become a thing. We can only hope that our own pampered retired officer corps continue to wield the golf club and not the pen.

  4. PlutoniumKun

    I can’t say I’m an expert in Peruvian politics beyond a quick look at Wikipedia, but the country does seem to have a constitutional balance between the president and parliament which deeply complicates getting anything radical done (for good or for ill). I’m surprised that the establishment is so hostile to a leftist president when it seems pretty clear that he won’t have a parliamentary majority, so his hands will be tied. It looks like he can only govern comfortably by making alliances with centrist liberals and social conservatives. This sounds like a recipe for a lot of disappointed people.

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      Nuance isn’t needed for understanding. Right wing parties tend to favor lawlessness and hideous grift among the elites as a matter of course. Minor changes are a threat. It’s like Netanyahu in Israel. Then of course, there are issues with government contracting. A political change means the next army base is relocated, leaving the recent and seemingly lucky landowners of the former site at risk of being on the hook for local assessments. I suspect Epstein’s friends are less worried about government prosecution than liquidity concerns caused by divorces. Even if it’s not a specific elite at risk, it’s their business partner.

      If Biden wasn’t the kind of person who would make Merrick Garland Attorney General, Comcast never would have supported him. Same thing. NATO bases on Russia’s door step set up in a manner to guarantee every NATO soldier becomes a casualty with mind boggingly long supply lines. It’s about the rent.

  5. Mikel

    NC…I wouldn’t be mad if you deleted all the articles from writers musing about “the end of neo-liberalism.”

  6. The Rev Kev

    Fujimori sounds a lot like Israel’s Netanyahu. She is literally willing to burn down her country rather than give up a chance at power. And like Netanyahu, she too is facing years in the slammer for her crimes and corruption. Running around and trying to have hundreds of thousands of votes cancelled is a maneuver worthy of a Trump but it is not working. There does not seem to be any solid support for her outside a narrow base and if a coup is tried, there is no saying where it may end. It may be that the establishment will accept the Pedro Castillo win since his winning margin was so thin, that he will not try to make to many radical changes.

  7. Fred1

    This is just a movie, but well made and very interesting: The Dancer Upstairs. It’s about the take down of the Shining Path in Peru in the early 90s. I can’t say it has anything to do with this post, but it is based on a true story. Malkovich directed it and maybe produced it as well. It’s based on a book of the same name by Nicholas Shakespeare, which I also recommend.

  8. Susan the other

    Times are changing. From Peron to Pena Nieto our “area of interest” is turning socialist. We tried everything from renditioning the leftists into bags of bones and dropping them from low flying airplanes to lavish bribes. But it failed. I’d just submit that the thing that failed was the bedrock of neoliberalism. Finally. We can no longer extract extravagant profits and call it economics. So it’s not like it is changing because the leftists have won. It’s because the neoliberals have lost. We all, as a civilization, really have only one choice left and that is to create a new commons. Call it whatever. The Big Whatever. I anticipate it will be very difficult for the West to find the correct words for what is coming. We won’t call it nationalization when we fully subsidize the oil industry. But we will be too chagrined to call it capitalism.

    1. Edward

      “I’d just submit that the thing that failed was the bedrock of neoliberalism.”

      There was no “failure”; the U.S. bled South America dry like some enormous parasite. Perkins lays it all out in “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man”. Back in the 90’s, an activist I knew involved in the debt cancellation issue told me most of the 3rd world countries had paid off the original debt about 40 times at that point. It makes a mockery of the notion that America is interested in giving foreign aid to developing countries to help them. “U.S.A.” could stand for “Usury System Always”.

      1. Susan the other

        I stand corrected. But in that same sense the bedrock of neoliberalism, the bedrock that served the neoliberals, did most certainly fail – after a long and lucrative extortion of South and Central America.

        1. rob

          neoliberalism hasn’t failed.
          Something, or someone can only fail when they stop trying. There is nothing under the sun that is showing the western neoliberal machines in all the world are “stopping trying” to foist neoliberal agendas everywhere.
          Setbacks maybe… failure not by a longshot… the end…. no where in sight or imagination
          They don’t need approval… they have the levers of power… in all the lands.

  9. Edward

    “The Big Whatever.”

    Some other countries are trying to chart a different path, especially Venezuela under Chavez. Russia and China are promoting multilateralism and international law versus the so-called “rules-based order”. China’s Belt and Road project is a work in progress. Iran is leading the “resistance axis” in the Middle East. The U.S. is a declining empire.

  10. Edward

    South America is plagued with Caudillos. They might do well to follow Costa Rica’s example and disband the military. The military also had a hand in the Bolsinaro coup, since they threatened Brazil’s court’s with a coup if Lula was not prosecuted.

    1. Susan the other

      The about-face of the neoliberal world scheme is more than interesting. Lula is out and running. The socialists are gaining position everywhere. In the Lion’s Den everything is taking on a different flavor – the heart of the beast might even be tamed when it realizes it can’t exist without the rest of the world. We’ll see.

  11. Edward

    Yes, for a while it seemed that the “Bolivarian Revolution” was being rolled back by coups. Thankfully, these coups mostly haven’t lasted.

    I think the days of the U.S. empire are numbered, simply because U.S. leadership is so bad. (To be fair this is partly a consequence of our decrepit political system.) Through negligence and corruption, the foundations for U.S. power– its industry, economy, and power, are being eroded. I don’t think it is really appreciated right now but the U.S. may be in danger of losing its sovereignty.

  12. Reventlov

    I twice tried to post a longer comment, but it vanished in the ether apparently…

    Keiko’s claims of systematic fraud appear baseless and her legal challenges are unlikely to prevail. Nevertheless, her supporters are thus primed to believe that the election has been stolen by Castillo. The media provides intellectual cover: Bush’s victory in 2000 has been cited as precedent that it is quite normal for the courts to intervene in a healthy democracy.

    Another aspect of Keiko’s gambit is becoming clear: the legal actions are a delaying tactic. Yesterday the only judge on the electoral jury who was sympathetic to Keiko resigned, accusing his colleagues of bias – more time is won. If Keiko can delay the process until July 28, when the new congress is seated, Castillo cannot assume the presidency constitutionally. The presidency will instead devolve to the senior member of congress: a former general and member of a far right party. In theory, his sole mandate will be to prepare new elections.

    The process is similar to how the right secured the presidency for Merino after the surprise impeachment of Vizcarra. Merino lasted only a week in the face of large street protests; the military declined to intervene. If Castillo is not seated by July 28, the outcome will be contested in the streets once again, but Lima is not favorable ground for him. We can only assume that the risk of military action is higher now, with the looming “communist” threat, unrest in rural areas, and the fig leaf of defending the letter of the constitution.

  13. andrea casalotti

    Why has Fujimuri’s name repeatedly been spelled with an “o” at the end?

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