After seventeen months in office, Peruvian President Pedro Castillo was this month deposed by a right-wing parliamentary coup hidden behind the facade of an official and legal impeachment process. The impeachment vote came just hours after Castillo announced that he planned to dissolve Congress, hold new elections, redraft the constitution and place Peru under a state of emergency. His vice-president, Dina Boluarte, has assumed the presidency while Castillo is held by police on charges of “rebellion” and has been ordered to remain in prison for the next eighteen months.
Castillo’s removal is the culmination of a highly organised campaign by the parliamentary right, the business sector and the media to undermine and attack the self-described socialist, the impeachment being the third such vote of his short presidency. The campaign began as soon as the school teacher and union leader won the presidency, defeating the daughter of jailed Peruvian dictator Alberto Fujimori by just 44,000 votes.
Having never held political office prior to being president, Castillo rose to prominence in 2017 as a key leader of a national teachers’ strike that lasted more than two months. He ran on an openly left-wing platform, promising to nationalise key sectors of the economy and call a constituent assembly to redraft the 1993 constitution, which was approved under the Fujimori dictatorship. He positioned himself on the side of the poor and oppressed against the Peruvian elites, often repeating the phrase, “There should be no poor people in a rich country”. But lacking a congressional majority, his major reforms were blocked. Furthermore, his presidency was undermined by constant ministerial changes, averaging roughly one per week.
The media, both in Peru and internationally, have been quick to create a narrative legitimising the coup and the rule of Castillo’s successor, even using it as an opportunity to “restore faith” in Peru’s institutions. An article in El Comercio, a major Peruvian newspaper, noted: “Just as the strength of the economic model has managed to resist the anarchy of the last few years and the destructive action of the Castillo government, the institutions have managed to contain the authoritarian onslaught”.
The New Yorker called Castillo’s administration the “world’s shortest-lived dictatorship” while declaring that “the rule of law ... was strong enough to stop a single desperate man”. The US ambassador was also quick to support the coup, tweeting, “The United States categorically rejects any extra-constitutional act by President Castillo to prevent Congress from fulfilling its mandate”.
But the Peruvian masses have rejected such propaganda and see the coup for what it is. After an initial muted reaction, protests have spread across the country and are continuing to grow. Rural areas with large indigenous populations were the quickest to respond to the coup, organising road blockades, burning down government buildings and occupying airports. In other cities and towns, protesters took police officers hostage and negotiated exchanges to free arrested protesters.
In several regions, leading indigenous and social organisations have declared a state of “popular insurgency” and indefinite strike. In response, the new president placed the most active regions under a state of emergency that was later extended to the entire country for 30 days.
Peru’s main union confederation, the CGTP, responding to extreme pressure from below, called an indefinite strike beginning on 13 December, with 15 December promoted as the main day of mass mobilisation. Unfortunately, due to Peru’s relatively small industrial working class, the CGTP lacks the ability to paralyse the country economically. So while most unions affiliated to the CGTP participated, the general strike of 15 December was closer to a national day of protest.
Despite this, the union leaders have so far played a positive role, by adding industrial weight to the main demands of the movement, which have crystallised around the release of Castillo, the closure of Congress and new elections, and the establishment of a constituent assembly.
The national strikes were the first expression of mass, organised resistance of the working class. But the success of the anti-coup movement relies on these strikes bringing broader layers of workers, particularly in the main cities, into the movement. Currently, Peru’s rural, indigenous populations have been at the forefront of the movement. This is understandable: Castillo is seen by many as a symbol of the poor, rural people of Peru. He won several rural provinces with more than 90 percent of the vote.
The people of these areas have already demonstrated their militancy and willingness to defend democracy, but it remains crucial that the indigenous movement is united with the most powerful sections of the working class.
With Peru being the world’s second largest copper producer, it was inspiring when videos emerged on social media of miners in the Arequipa region downing their tools and beginning to march towards the capital, Lima.
Students have also joined the movement. At one of the main universities in Lima, students occupied the campus and declared their solidarity with, and participation in, the national strikes.
Early acts of resistance have already shown success. Boluarte has announced that she will ask Congress to call early elections in 2023, after initially refusing to do so, saying that she would finish the rest of Castillo’s term, which ends in 2026. The new president has tried to play the role of peacemaker by recognising the legitimacy of the protesters’ demands yet calling for a “truce” at the same time.
Unfortunately, Castillo and Peru Libre, his party until he resigned from it in June, have given no indication they will lead the type of movement necessary to defeat the coup. Six of Peru Libre’s twelve congressional representatives voted to impeach Castillo (three abstained and three voted against). The party has largely limited itself to vague statements about the right to protest being respected and calling for government restraint. Castillo, for his part, has been able to release a few short statements from prison through intermediaries, none of which call for an escalation of the protests fighting for his release.
Ultimately, Castillo’s downfall is an example of the futility of trying to create fundamental social change through the capitalist state apparatus. He was hamstrung from the beginning by the lack of a congressional majority to pass the reforms on which he campaigned. In response, he watered down the proposed reforms in the hope that the right-wing majority in Congress would pass them, which it did not. After every setback, he made further concessions to the ruling class by removing more progressive and left-wing ministers and replacing them with technocrats from the business sector.
At the same time, he toned down the anti-rich, pro-poor rhetoric that had defined his campaign, and made overtures to the international and domestic business community that he would welcome foreign investment. Despite all this, the ruling class, acting through Congress and the media, was unrelenting in its attacks against him. So isolated and incapable had he become by the end that he made a final appeal to the most reactionary sections of the state to save him, including the armed forces, the police and the Organization of American States (the main arm of US imperialism in Latin America). When these groups predictably rejected him, he made a last-ditch effort to dissolve Congress and hold new elections. But Congress beat him to the punch when it moved swiftly to impeach.
This institutional strategy went hand-in-hand with the biggest pitfall in the reformist project that Castillo exemplifies: subordination of the class struggle. At no point in his presidency did he try to mobilise the indigenous and working-class populations to defend his government. This was despite a clear desire and readiness among them to do precisely that, demonstrated by several marches in various parts of the country only two weeks ago, calling for the defence of democracy against any impeachment attempt.
By rejecting the mobilisation of his supporters, Castillo weakened his government and the ability of the masses to resist the coup. It was a clear signal to the ruling class that it could remove the president without the risk of him leading a strong protest or strike movement in response.
In Castillo’s case—as is the case anytime a reformist leader manages to take the presidency—everything was stacked against him. The entire state apparatus—the courts, the bureaucracy, the armed forces and police, the Congress—was working to undermine him from the beginning. On top of this, the entire business sector, both domestic and international, along with the media, organised a ceaseless campaign against Castillo. As for the one section of organised power that he could have had fighting for him—the working class organised through the unions—he refused to mobilise it.
Events in Peru have proven yet again the limitations of parliament. The working class must now look towards its own power, through protests and strikes, to go beyond parliamentarism and start to build resistance to the inevitable right-wing attacks that are coming.