By SIMON LAZARA, PST PERU
As in every second wave that occurs in long battles—such as the one in Peru against the regime now headed by Boluarte—it is also more radical, decisive and, unfortunately, bloody. And it will not have a positive outcome without the defeat of the regime.
Jan. 9 was a bloody day in Juliaca, a city in southern Peru that borders Bolivia. On this fifth day of the resumption of protests, conflict left 17 dead and fifty seriously wounded by bullets fired by the troops deployed to the site. This is the highest death toll inflicted upon the social movement by the forces of repression so far this century. The total is nearly 50 since the protests against the vacancy of Pedro Castillo began in December.
Conflict zones are in a state of occupation by the police and military forces. Since Boluarte placed the country under a state of emergency, protesters have been brutally repressed with weapons of war, with tear gas thrown from helicopters and with gunshots fired even at those who go to help the victims, mostly young people. And instead of making amends, the government announces that it will not back down in its decision to reestablish “order,” and along these lines reinforces its troops in the area while establishing a curfew.
However, instead of calming the protest, the only thing they have achieved is to light more fires. While mourning their dead, the people of Puno, and with them all the poor people, feel that the state has declared war. They are preparing to fight the final battle to put an end to the government responsible for this massacre.
Meanwhile, even among the wounded and the dead, the class division shows. While the people of Puno unite, collect their coins to assist the families of the fallen, assist the wounded with whatever they have at hand and pay homage to their heroes in the streets that they keep taken, in the official atriums they only talk about and pay homage to the policeman killed in the scuffle.
What are the conditions that have led us to such a confrontation, very close to a form of civil war?
Boluarte: From the left to a right-wing government
We are not facing a military dictatorship, nor a fascist dictatorship, nor a civil-military reaction like the one imposed by Fujimori in 1992. We are facing a precarious government headed by Dina Boluarte, elected to power as vice president in the same left-wing formula of Pedro Castillo, after his ouster, and which is sustained by the support of the Congress.
The government and the social outburst underway are the product of a crossroads that have built a sui generis conjuncture. Boluarte took the presidential sash on Dec. 7, not through a reactionary coup in the style of Jeanine Añez’s ascension in Bolivia in 2019, as desired and sought by the right wing. Boluarte assumed the presidency as a mediation or a transition plan promoted by the right wing in alliance with the political center and the complicity of the official left with the plan to reestablish governability by the bosses.
The reactionary plan to oust Castillo and his vice president in order to put in place a government of their own was useless, and not only because of the lack in sufficient votes (87), but also because of the strong loyalty to the president in the poorest sectors of the country and with more tradition of struggle, such as the Andean south.
But by Dec. 7, conditions had been created to try removal again. In the midst of growing allegations of corruption and after his departure from Peru Libre—the party that brought him to power—Castillo could no longer count on the security of their votes. In addition, the distancing of his vice president, who negotiated with the right-wing benches and was endorsed by Peru Libre, was done in order to get rid of a disqualification request, thus clearing the way to take over the reins of the State in case Castillo was removed from office.
The cherry on the cake was placed by Castillo himself. In an act not very understandable at first sight, he announced a failed coup d’état that not only justified his removal from office, but also landed him in jail where he is being held accused of rebellion. Perú Libre and Juntos por el Perú voted for his ouster, with some exceptions and the abstention or absence of others, revealing that there was some agreement with the right wing to maintain continuity post-Castillo. This treachery was done in return for quotas of power and, above all, to maintain their seats, until completing the term of office. The new president was very clear and emphatic about this implicit agreement when she was sworn in: “I swear until 2026,” she said, while all the benches applauded her and took selfies amidst congratulations.
For the right wing, Dina Boluarte was a sort of lesser evil because she would only get the votes she needed with the support of at least one sector of Perú Libre. On the other hand, the illusion of a new government of a more centered “left” became evident with the open support of some sectors that went beyond the ruling party’s bench, such as Patria Roja. The CGTP (the Workers’ General Confederation of Peru) itself agreed to talk with Boluarte, approving her call for a “concerted” government. The truth is that, in practice, Boluarte’s fundamental point of support was the right-wing majority in Congress and its media. Hence, the response to the wave of protests that began the same day that the ouster took place, and which grew, was the policy and orientation drawn up by that sector.
The dynamic factor in this whole process was the response of the popular masses. From their side, especially those in the southern Andean region, more loyal and unconditional to Castillo because of their attachment to their origin and identity, they had a very different interpretation of the events. They saw the consummation of the coup that the right wing and its media had encouraged so much, and they saw Boluarte as a traitor, usurper, and puppet of those same sectors that only spew hatred against them. And they took to the streets. Very few expected this. Although the same media accused Peru Libre and the Teachers’ Bloc of instigating the protests, the truth is that their parliamentarians had to hide their unpreparedness and rearrange themselves.
The reaction of these sectors was natural, but could only be alleviated with effective government policy centered on cooperation, dialogue and, above all, attending to their heartfelt demands. But to ask this of a government supported by the right was illusory; the response they received was, moreover, reactionary. The conciliatory Boluarte was revealed as a puppet of the most reactionary wings of Congress, the Armed Forces, and the bosses, and made official the discourse against terrorism and violence that the right wing had distilled during Castillo’s administration, now against the mobilizations, and turned against them a fierce repression.
Alberto Otárola, current prime minister of Peru, has been very clear in this regard; from the government (and the right wing) the current protests are seen as the “hangover” of the Castillo government, which they associate with terrorism and the Marxist left. After removing the leader, they now see the need to defeat its bases of support. The real hangover is the phantom built by the bourgeoisie in these two years.
Thus, the order was given to fire. In December, 11 were assassinated in Ayacucho in a single act, and 18 others fell in other skirmishes throughout the country. Reuters filmed the manner in which a young man who was assisting a wounded man was shot.
The reactionary speeches and the deaths only fueled the anger of the masses. The struggle was postponed for the holidays and the need to reorganize, and was relaunched on Jan. 4 with the call for an indefinite strike by a series of grassroots organizations in the southern region. The government’s response was to take a step further to the right: it promoted Alberto Otárola, minister of defense at the time and directly responsible for the December massacre, to the post of prime minister.
This created the conditions for a major confrontation that has produced the recent massacre in Juliaca. On one side we have Boluarte who acts like a wimp babbling incoherently and claims not to understand anything that is happening. In reality, the one in charge is a prime minister who waves the baton with all the approval of the right wing, the media, and the CONFIEP (Confederación Nacional de Instituciones Empresariales Privadas), who believe they are fighting the mother of all battles against subversion. And on the other side we have a mass movement led by the southern countryside, inflamed and emboldened against the nefarious rottenness of the regime, responding to the state-led massacre of its people.
“Terrorists” or mass struggle?
Polarization can be seen even in the official discourse propagated by all the media and nuanced by the manufacturers of opinion: the protests—it is said—are plotted by terrorists, subversives, and have the financing of drug trafficking and illegal mining, and the violent forms in which they are manifested supposedly prove this. The truth is that this discourse has been going on since before Castillo’s election, only today it has become the official narrative. It is an ultra-reactionary discourse that hides a truth: the leftist leaders who are labeled as such, during Castillo’s government, became indoctrinated to the regime, collaborated with the bourgeoisie, and abandoned the streets.
Of course, those same sectors that have seen the loss of power or quotas of it are part of the current struggle, but they are far from leading it because they have lost credibility. There are certainly those who are trying to take advantage of the current revolts for personal gain. However, the self-organized and self-convened popular character of the struggle is beyond any doubt.
There are vanguard groups as in any struggle. But the struggle is led and sustained by grassroots organizations, such as peasant communities, which have democratically decided to fight. Entire communities are organized and march in a disciplined fashion from their remote villages to the urban centers of the interior. In Puno alone, 20,000 people from the Aymara communities have moved to the city.
And the “violence” itself is of the masses, and is a product of the anger that encourages the way in which the repressive forces of the state respond to them. Those who tried to take over the airport in Puno are accused of being vandals, and that was the pretext for the order to shoot. But those “vandals” numbered 2000. And the fallen are now treated not as criminals but as heroes by tens of thousands who mourn and pay homage to them in Puno.
The rebellion, which began in December and is now in its second episode, has been characterized by its radicalism and violence. Public buildings and some business headquarters have been burned and looted. Some airports have been taken over. There are clashes with the police. All of which leads to minimal levels of coordination and handmade weapons, such as pyrotechnics, and some other “self-defense” weapons.
All this, seen from the perspective of those who maintain that the state has the monopoly of arms and the use of violence, serves as a pretext to show that we are facing an escalation led by terrorists who threaten “democracy,” reviving the fears fed by the actions of Sendero Luminoso in the ’80s, which are used to justify the bloody repression.
In short, we are not witnessing a “violent” act unleashed by minority groups, and even less by “terrorists,” but are before a mass struggle with radical characteristics, which can be explained, first, by the social condition of those who fight, constituted above all by peasants and inhabitants of the poorest localities of the interior of the country who generally express themselves in this way. But it also has to do with those who produce it: what happened in Juliaca is an outburst provoked by the incessant official campaign that points to them as violent terrorists financed by drug trafficking, which is nothing more than a reiteration of the eternal discrimination and neglect suffered by the rural poor.
The perverse logic of the ruling class and its ideologues is explained by their absolute incapacity to understand the current crisis. Let us no longer speak of the right-wing spokesmen of fascist inspiration, but of their critical conscience expressed by the so-called “progressive” press (and intelligentsia) such as the newspaper La República. Its columnist says: what happened in Puno should be investigated by the Prosecutor’s Office, as to whether there was an overflow of the forces of order or of the demonstrations, because it is not legitimate to try to take over the airport (Alvarez Rodrich, 10.01.23). Consequently, it is legitimate to shoot those who dare to do so.
In the same vein, another investigative journalist recognized for his seriousness and balance, speaks of “unjustified” deaths in the demonstrations, taking for granted that deaths should only be just (EC, R. Uceda, 08.01.23).
How can it be understood that death and murder are justified when it is a matter of defending “order”? And in Brazil something several times more serious is taking place, such as the assault on the Executive and Legislative headquarters by thousands of bolsonaristas without a single death.
What is certain is that behind the rampant neoliberalism that has been in ascendancy for the last 30 years, a reactionary ideology was also built that is dominant in the elites and the middle sectors. Hence, the discourse that is now official was constructed by the right wing; a discourse that calls for unity in “defense” of democracy and institutionality, and against what they consider to be a subversion of order, and that would have been initiated and instigated by Castillo during his government. From the other camp, that of the masses in struggle, what is demanded and aspired to is deep and true democratic changes to transform and improve their lives.
Castillo’s election and government
In fact, this popular reaction, with its radical characteristics, has to do with their perception of what happened with Castillo.
The regime, that is, the economic plan and the institutionality put in place since the return to democracy after the fall of Fujimori, was radically questioned for the first time with the electoral result that placed Pedro Castillo in the presidency in 2021. Castillo is a rural teacher from one of the poorest localities of the country, and was elected with a program and a party of Castro-Chavist affiliation.
Let us not forget: the national economy is one of the most illiberal in the continent, and has experienced a decade of accelerated growth that enriched an elite and fed a large middle class while creating misery for the majority. The model was applied by handing over large natural resources to multinationals, and advanced hand in hand with corruption that involved all those who governed, right and left, creating such disaffection towards all parties that some academics speak and write about a “democracy without parties” (M. Tanaka), or a democracy with chronic instability.
Total instability began in 2016 with the government of the banker Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who was forced to resign. He was followed by other increasingly dramatic episodes, such as the congressional coup of 2020 and the rebellion that overthrew Manuel Merino, until the election of Castillo in June 2021. This very election was an expression of that crisis, as his party and his candidacy were absolutely improvised.
The election of Castillo was the result of the masses searching for a way out of the emergency they were living after an atrocious pandemic. His election could only be carried out in those extraordinary circumstances of serious institutional crisis and absence of solid political representation of the bourgeoisie. But it was a historic triumph celebrated by the poorest majorities, since it was the first time that a “leftist” government and a president from a rural background won at the ballot box.
Castillo’s election appeared as a fly in the most succulent soup that the ruling classes were serving themselves up until that point, even under the conditions of an institutional crisis. It was intolerable. Even more so, when he had been the result of an electoral campaign and not of a change in the correlation of forces in the field of class struggle. Moreover, after the pandemic began to subside, the bourgeoisie was thirsty to recover profits, and it succeeded, but it was insufficient for its expectations because the government did not—and could not—accompany it with measures to encourage business. That is why it would unleash all its hatred through its right-wing spokesmen and with the support of the big press concentrated in one sector (El Comercio).
They began harassing Castillo and his associates since before he was elected and did not give him a minute of truce. Castillo would do his part by making a completely incompetent government, changing ministers all the time and distributing positions among his close associates, each one with more insatiable greed than the next, while his “leftist” partners fought for quotas in the public administration also in order to prosper in it. At the same time, his government shelved their program and campaign promises to conciliate with the bourgeoisie and become functional to the order they claimed to fight. Castillo put his original clothes in the closet, including his chotano hat, and began to wear a shiny suit with tie, showing his intention to become functional to the bourgeoisie in content and form.
At the same time, Castillo’s government broke its campaign promises and adapted to the neoliberal plan. It did nothing to counteract inflation and the food crisis that would hit the popular economy throughout the year 2022. He did not touch the big interests and let the crisis run wild, making the workers and the poorest pay for it, no less than the very people who supported Castillo. And his supporters were demobilized with the collaboration of the leaderships, with the belief that there was no other way out, and that the main threat was the attacks of the right wing.
The paralysis of the mass movement would give all the initiative to the right wing, which monopolized the media and won over ever wider sectors of the middle classes for its reactionary narrative. Thus it achieved a first triumph, although a pyrrhic one, in the local municipal elections of November in which it elected Rafel López Aliaga in Lima, its most reactionary spokesman.
The multiple accusations of corruption against Castillo and his entourage would begin to sew the seeds as the main issue to tilt the forces in favor of Castillo’s removal.
Castillo’s corruption and popular support
Castillo was followed and investigated from day one, even monitoring what he ate, for signs of corruption. Nothing else could be expected. And they found cases against him. The Public Prosecutor’s Office opened six investigation files against Castillo for criminal organization, illicit association and other crimes. At first it all seemed a hoax concocted by his enemies and few gave these accusations credit. But when members of his entourage were investigated, some went into hiding and others fled the country. Others, such as his secretary and deputy secretary, began to denounce him to take advantage of “effective collaboration,” showing a real network of distribution of favors and pecuniary benefits at the expense of the state, facts that still need to be corroborated. But this was a network that, compared to the corrupt former presidents (Toledo received $20 million in a single bidding process), seem minor, although corruption all the same at the end of the day.
All this was used by right-wing politicians and the media to systematically discredit, isolate and cook up the judicial coup against Castillo. Thus, the chotano was in a very precarious place in December when he faced a new motion of impeachment. But his support among workers and, above all, among the poorest sectors, remained firm: polls showed him with a 30% approval rating, and in rural areas it was over 40%. A support that seemed mind-boggling for the elites who were engaged in daily denunciations and uncoverings against the government.
Why did that 30% maintain their support for Castillo despite his collaboration with the regime, his incompetence and the doubts revealed by the numerous denunciations of corruption? For the bourgeoisie it is a mystery. What is certain is that this 30% that supported him against all odds had been immunized to the reactionary discourse and acts of the right wing and its media and their hatred and intolerance towards Castillo and his followers. Castillo, for his supporters, continued to embody the hope of a better future. This is the most historically marginalized, exploited and oppressed sector of the country, who hoped to experience, at some point, change with the election of one of their own.
Thus, the attempted ouster would take place in the most favorable conditions that its instigators could imagine, but blind to this profound reality.
In Congress, in the final vote, 102 of all the benches voted in favor and only 6 voted against impeaching Castillo. The president had been abandoned even by his closest friends. All the voluminous files of accusations against him and that were debatable for an impeachment request were unnecessary in the face of Castillo’s failed attempt to close the congress. According to the Constitution, the closing of the Congress by the president is a cause for impeachment. Thus everything was “constitutional” and “legal.” Even the Organization of American States, which had been summoned by Castillo himself invoking the Democratic Charter to avoid a constitutional alternation due to the threat of vacancy, had to pronounce itself against Castillo’s attempted coup and recognize the “legal and constitutional” succession resolved by the Congress.
The plan of the bourgeoisie
The initial plan with the inauguration of Boluarte was to make this a government one of “transition.“ Transitional, not in the sense demanded by the masses, which is towards new elections, but in the bourgeois sense of reestablishing the conditions of institutional normality prior to Castillo. The December days inflicted a setback to this plan, forcing Boluarte to announce the shortening of the term that was to be extended until 2026 to April 2024, the date when elections are to be held. Beyond the anxiety to cling to office, the purpose of this timeline is to make institutional changes and reforms to guarantee the conditions for a renewal of bourgeois power and its stability, and to avoid a repetition of the experience that occurred with Castillo.
Thus, the most deluded democrats believe that with some reforms the system can be rescued, while the right wing intends to go further, as for example, to change the current members of the electoral bodies in order to manipulate them and, if necessary, act against such an eventuality. In any case, everyone recognizes that immediately calling new elections is tantamount to prolonging or extending the current crisis.
Behind the reestablishment of order, what is sought in essence is to preserve the continuity of the neo-liberal economic model, contested in these years of crisis, in order to continue plundering the country and exploiting the working and popular majorities.
In this way, the democratic discourse with which today the government tries to justify the shootings against the population in struggle, pointed to as a “mob,” falls under its own weight. It is exactly the other way around: the peasants and the poor who today are fighting with courage from the depths of the country are doing so with authentically democratic banners.
They ask Boluarte to leave for her responsibility in the crimes that have caused nearly 50 deaths. That the Congress, which 90% disapproves of as reactionary and corrupt, leave. That the elections be brought forward. And that a Constituent Assembly be called to replace the Constitution of the dictatorship.
Because of the degree of polarity and confrontation, and because of the enemies faced, these democratic banners acquire a transitional character by questioning the capitalist order itself. For this reason, from the PST (Partido Socialista de Trabajadores, Socialist Workers’ Party, Peru), we call for a fundamental solution with a government of the workers and the rural poor.