PISAC, Peru—This small Andean village of 10,000 nestled in the Sacred Valley of the Inca, is not exactly what anyone would call a hotbed of civil unrest. Less than an hour outside of Cusco, Pisac is famous for its impressive mountaintop Sun Temple ruins, colorful market, and community of enlightenment-seeking yoga gringos (and ayahuasca “shamans” of often dubious qualifications).
But on the night of Nov. 14, as anti-government protests erupted across the country, even this quiet little mountain town mustered nearly 200 to march through the streets to the Plaza de Armas. The group was led by men in traditional Andean ponchos and chullos, iconic llama wool hats with pronounced earflaps.
While Lima’s protests were dominated by the red-and-white flag of Peru, here in the country’s south, several protesters in Pisac waved the Wiphala, a checkered-rainbow flag representing Indigenous Andeans from all over South America. They lead the people in chants: “Merino no me representa, no es mi presidente” (Merino does not represent me, he is not my president), “fuera los corruptos” (out with the corrupt), and “no al golpe de estado” (no to the coup).
Peru’s latest cycle of unrest began on Nov. 9, when President Martin Vizcarra was overwhelmingly ushered from office by Congress, in a 105–16 vote—a surprising move viewed by many Peruvians (and neighboring countries/international observers) as amounting to a coup. The very next day, President Manuel Merino was sworn in. Only six days after that, Merino resigned under massive pressure due to nationwide youth-led protests and widespread anger about the death of two young protesters at the hands of police. This paved the way for the country’s latest president, Francisco Sagasti, who took office Nov. 17.
The protests in Lima and other major cities throughout Peru were the largest the country has seen in years, drawing tens of thousands into the streets. In addition to the two fatalities, dozens have been injured as well, and international organizations have described the use of force by police as excessive.
Even for the fast-moving world of South American politics, it’s all a lot to process—three presidents in barely over one week. The fairly popular Vizcarra had been on a campaign to stamp out corruption, an agenda with high support among Peruvians—while simultaneously contending with corruption allegations from his own past as governor of Peru’s southern Moquegua province.
Cynthia McClintock, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and the author of Peasant Cooperatives and Political Change in Peru, points out that while Vizcarra’s average approval rating from October of 58 percent didn’t seem high by some standards, “for Peru, his approval rating is very high. Peruvians are famously critical of their politicians, so approaching 60 percent approval is stratospheric.”
Still, McClintock was surprised “that congress would be that out of touch with popular views and opinion. … It was always going to be tough to find a trusted figure to replace Vizcarra, but to do what they did, and name Merino?”
Alex Fernando Chapoñán Coronado, a programmer in his 20s attending the rally in Pisac, saw a direct connection between Vizcarra’s move to clean up congress and his ouster. Whatever his own past, Vizcarra was going after the golden goose of Peru’s congress: parliamentary immunity, a perk that has shielded Peru’s lawmakers from all manner of criminal charges. Ironically, an obscure and vaguely defined “moral indecency” clause in the Peruvian Constitution was used to effect Vizcarra’s removal.
“This clause in the constitution about ‘moral indecency’ is not clarified,” says Chapoñán Coronado, “so it can mean anything they want. The courts need to close that loophole—if they don’t do that, there will be another impeachment just because someone has the votes.”
Sixty-eight members of Congress are under investigation for all kinds of offenses, ranging from bribery and money laundering to sexual assault and even, shockingly, murder. It’s certainly enough to make one consider that a Congress that offers criminal immunity to its members may be encouraging the criminal-minded to run for office.
“The election system is really bad in Peru, which is why we have this kind of Congress. We didn’t vote for them. The system is not adequate,” said Chapoñán Coronado.
Danitza Margaret del Alamo Bartley, a Spanish teacher and a native of Cusco, has been protesting since she was a teenager, at that time against Peru’s then-President Alberto Fujimori, who resigned in 2000 amid a flurry of criminal charges and was later imprisoned.
“I’m 38, and my generation protested in the time of Fujimori, but we didn’t have phones or internet capabilities, video capabilities. … In those days, if people protested, the government killed them and simply said, ‘They were terrorists.’ Nobody even wanted to go outside. … Today, you have your phone and you are the journalist, and nobody can say, ‘Nothing happened.’ Everyone can be the press.”
Chapoñán Coronado concurs, noting that protesters have been communicating via TikTok and Facebook to coordinate protests, and hashtags like #semetieronconlageneracionequivocada (they messed with the wrong generation) have been trending.
McClintock worries about the timing of the political crisis coming on top of economic devastation and a public health crisis as well: “This is going to mean a lot of pain and suffering, for millions of people. To overcome the economic crisis and COVID, well—it’s not going to happen if you’re changing presidents every other day. Not until there’s a modicum of stability, and ministers who are trying to do the right thing.” Despite early countermeasures, Peru has had one of the worst per capita mortality rates from COVID-19 in the world, and its economy hasn’t fared much better.
As for Peru’s educational system, del Alamo said that “Peru’s education is still not the best, but it is greatly improved from 20 years ago, and that makes such a difference. We will be facing an increase of the virus in the next few weeks, and also poverty and violence. These next few months will be hard for Sagasti, but I am hopeful it will be calm.”
For now, the selection of Francisco Sagasti seems to have calmed things down, and the promise of new elections in April offers a possible light at the end of the tunnel, from Chapoñán Coronado’s perspective. A key demand of protesters was that the new president must be selected from among the few that did not vote for Vizcarra’s impeachment, and Sagasti meets that qualification—but while the Penn State–trained engineer with experience at the U.N. and the World Bank is highly respected, the 76-year-old isn’t exactly the face of the future.
“I have some small hope that somebody will appear. But for now, I don’t think there is a decent politician or candidate,” said Chapoñán Coronado. “There are decent people in the Purple Party, President Sagasti’s party. He’s the most decent of all the candidates.”
McClintock thinks similarly, with the caveat that she has known Sagasti for a very long time and is a bit biased. “He’s smart, he’s honest, and he has the interests of the country at heart. But the challenges he will face are huge,” she said. For Peru’s upcoming elections in April, she sees potential for George Forsyth, the popular former soccer star turned mayor, and Daniel Urresti, a right-leaning populist and Peruvian army general currently undergoing trial.
Del Alamo shares the optimism of Chapoñán Coronado, and feels a sense of relief and renewed hopefulness at the rapid success of the protests. Peru’s new generation of protesters may have surprised congress with the size and vehemence of their protests, but they’ve surprised their fellow protesters as well.
“Realizing that the young people are not as dumb as we thought,” del Alamo says with a smile, “that they are taking care of things, they are not just looking, they are really taking action. … It has been a huge relief.”
But Chapoñán Coronado is clear on this: “These protests are not ideological, it was simply about defending democracy. Those who were killed, those responsible for violence, it all needs to be investigated, and Merino needs to be punished by the law.”
In a country where prison is often the next stop for presidents after the Government Palace, it’s not an idle threat.