This past Friday, Staff Writer Alison Hog attended a talk about Perú’s ongoing political and social crisis with Alberto Vergara, professor at the Department of Social and Political Sciences at the Universidad del Pacífico.

“Perú’s democracy is dying,” Alberto Vergara, speaker at the event, stated mere minutes after the talk began. I guess it is always right to start with the truth, no matter how much it hurts.

In this event by the Institute of Latin American Studies (ILAS), Vergara, professor at the Department of Social and Political Sciences at the Universidad del Pacífico (Lima, Perú), discussed the ongoing crisis in Perú with all its implications for the country’s past, present, and future. The conversation was moderated by the Director of ILAS and Professor in the Department of Political Science and SIPA Maria Murillo and Peruvian-American novelist, journalist, and Assistant Professor of Journalism Daniel Alarcón. 

In the past few months, years of instability and seemingly permanent political crises have culminated in an unprecedented peak of turmoil and violent unrest tearing Perú apart. Following former President Pedro Castillo’s impeachment after attempting a self-coup, Dina Boluarte took the presidential seat as the first female head of state in the country’s history. Soon after, widespread disruption broke out, with protests continuing to shake every corner of the nation and reflecting the grievances of a large part of the population that has been systematically failed by the government. 

According to Vergara, Peruvian democracy is currently on the line because of various reasons. First, he points out the lack of commitment to democracy by political elites. One does not have to look deep into Peruvian political history to notice this, especially when knowing that in the past five years, the country has had no less than 6 presidents. Seemingly endless corruption scandals have tainted our already fragile political system, with citizens becoming accustomed to living in this type of political turmoil where all branches of government are constantly vying for power. In this sense, Vergara believes that Peruvian democracy is more about the dilution of power, where politicians representing different informal interests, particularly those in Congress, are in a permanent fight to close the competition. 

The most recent conspicuous attack on democracy has come in the form of human rights violations in the nationwide protests against the Boluarte government. Because of state repression, numerous citizens have been killed or severely injured, especially those protesting in the country’s historically marginalized regions in the south. 

Having discussed the current weak democratic state in Perú, Alarcón then posed the question of whether it is possible to identify a turning point in contemporary politics where the dilution of power started to happen. After citing Peruvian Professors Eduardo Dargent and Stéphanie Rousseau’s proposal of the 2016 Peruvian presidential electoral result as being the trigger for this process, Vergara then suggested a different perspective and identified two great problems in Perú that run deeper: the problems of nation- and state-building. 

First, is the problem of nation-building. Vergara is disturbed about the level of non-disguised racism that has followed the protests in Perú, something that has also deeply bothered me these past few months. The normalization of racist comments on social media and national television against protesters, particularly those from the south, is appalling and frightening, leaving you wondering as a Peruvian what is wrong with the place and the people you call home. Second, is the problem of state-building. Historically, the government has systematically failed to deliver to the great part of the population, which was made particularly evident during the pandemic when the state’s inefficiency resulted in the country being one of the hardest hit in the world. While agreeing on Perú’s weak nation-state structural foundations, Murillo prompted Vergara to give more specific ways to explain this dilution of democracy. He, in turn, referenced the deeper social and cultural cleavages involved in the process. 

Alarcón pushed further and asked Vergara about the reasons behind the revolving door in Peruvian politics, with citizens consistently electing the same representatives for Congress despite the endless criminal allegations against them. “Is that a failure of culture or a failure of the political system?” he posed. Vergara explained that this is a result of the crisis of representation—there is not only a lack of politicians but the few that rise to power are neither committed to democracy or people’s interests nor have any valuable experience in the field. Take Castillo, for example, whose first significant political role was that of the President. And, it is such a shame to admit, he was not simply an exception.

Murillo then opened the floor to the public for questions. While several assistants asked very thoughtful inquiries, three stuck out as particularly intriguing to me. One of the first questions sparked some laughs in the room because of the seeming impossibility to provide a concrete answer: What can be done to regain democratic values in the Latin American region? Vergara admitted his uncertainty, with his best guess being the need to find a way to go back to what citizens want. Because of Perú’s crisis of representation, trust must lie with alternative democratic sectors like civil society.

Another question that caught my attention because of its peculiarity was that of an assistant who self-identified as a citizen of the United States. She admitted that her fear of Perú succumbing to communism was what prompted her to come to the event that day, ultimately asking what the possibility of a military dictatorship, a tyranny, or communism taking over was. Vergara rejected the idea of Perú becoming another Venezuela or Cuba, as the assistant had feared, and expressed his belief of the country most likely following the steps of Guatemala through ”the arrangement of different mafias to close the political participation of different actors.” This can already be clearly seen through the country’s tumultuous Congress. As curious as this assistant’s question might have appeared, there is no doubt that this same irrational fear of communism has plagued the entire nation since Castillo’s election.

Precisely, this swiftly led to the question that closed the event: is Perú arriving at a critical tension between Lima and its elites and the other regions of the country? Fear, widespread in its capital Lima where virtually all power is concentrated, has physically and ideologically moved people against everyone who thinks differently than them.

“Fear is now part of politics,” Vergara affirmed. The problem is, “Once fear is part of the political game, it is very hard to have democracy.”

January 2023 protest in Lima via Wikimedia Commons