Peru: Will Humala pursue deeper reforms?

By Marcela Torres

President Humala / Photo credit: OEA - OAS / / CC BY-NC-ND

President Humala / Photo credit: OEA – OAS / / CC BY-NC-ND

Facing growing public discontent, President Humala is attempting to navigate through yet another cabinet shuffle while struggling to advance reforms of the police, education, and health care.  The President’s approval rating has dropped from 65 percent soon after his inauguration in 2011 to an all-time low of 27 percent.  He swore in his fourth prime minister, César Villanueva, last week, after telling Prime Minister Juan Jiménez – in office for just 15 months – that it was time to “refresh” the cabinet.  Jiménez said he had been contemplating resigning for months, but recent polls suggest that growing crime and corruption, the two main issues citizens perceive to be afflicting the nation, forced him out.

Protests against Humala’s government have been growing.  In July, 8,000 demonstrators in Lima expressed their rejection not only of Humala’s government, but of the entire ruling political class.  Although still small compared with protests in other parts of Latin American, they were of a magnitude not been seen in the capital city since 2000, when protestors took the streets demanding President Fujimori´s resignation.  Unlike the rural indigenous protests over extractive industries, which have become commonplace under the administration, the participation of the middle class was evident and crucial in the July protests.  Social anger was sparked by a video showing members of the main political parties secretly negotiating highly controversial appointments involving individuals implicated in corruption.  Persons who had allegedly violated human rights were selected as the human rights ombudsman and as judges of the Constitutional Tribunal.  The uproar motivated Congress to immediately annul the secretly negotiated appointments, known as the repartija, which for many Peruvians resembled one of the traditional means by which the authoritarian government of Alberto Fujimori had avoided institutional checks and balances by placing regime-friendly officers in power.

The recent Peruvian protests are similar to social mobilizations taking place in Brazil, Chile and Colombia – other countries in which economic growth has not translated into broad public satisfaction.  While many protests in these countries have focused on the quality of social services, the recent Peruvian demonstrations have offered a critique of the country’s widespread corruption and backroom politics.  Peruvian demonstrators came from diverse sectors of society, including labor union members, students, artists, TV actors, gay rights activists, without clear leadership or coordinated demands.  This amorphous type of protest appears particular in Peru because civil society largely avoids political activism as a consequence of the stigmatization of collective social action after the defeat of Shining Path in the ‘90s.

Humala’s most recent cabinet reshuffle and his earnest but ineffective reform efforts suggest he appreciates the depth of the social discontent – now with middleclass support and the participation of youth.  Peruvians are not willing to tolerate the traditional corruption associated with the country’s politicians.  The lack of coordination among social movements that can connect rural and urban discontent, as well as the absence of political parties within the Peruvian landscape that can effectively mediate between citizens and the government, might limit the scope of social protests to isolated outcomes. If protestors come up with a clear agenda through legitimate leadership, however, President Humala will have to deepen his reforms or risk irrelevance through the remainder of his presidency.  Superficial changes appear unlikely to appease the middle class and civil society.

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  1. Michael Baney

     /  November 26, 2013

    I think that this is a very interesting blog post and am interested in knowing more about what the author thinks about the changing nature of social protest in Peru, particularly in Lima. Protests are, of course, nothing new in the city — there have long been nearly-daily protests carried out in the Plaza de San Martin in the heart of downtown Lima. In my experience, these protests have traditionally been carried out by the traditional unions and their Marxist political backers: the CGTP and the PCP-Unidad at some protests, SUTEP and the PCdelP-Patria Roja at others. For better or worse, these unions and parties are only shells of what they once were in the 1980s and command little support from the population writ large. As the author mentions, the 1990s were particularly rough on civil society organizations such as the CGTP and SUTEP, as those groups had to (and ultimately failed to) cope with demonization by Fujimori on one hand, outright terrorist violence by the Shining Path on the other, as well as the overall collapse of international communism that accompanied the breakdown of the Soviet Union and China’s turn to market economy.

    What I have seen of the current round of protests, however, strikes me as something very distinct from the “traditional” protest that have been common in Lima. These protests are not being carried out by old men from the CGTP, but young students who in all likelihood have never been union members. The banners they are carrying around don’t display pictures of Mariátegui, but rather they display Twitter hashtags. Their slogans don’t seem inspired by the Izquierda Unida, but rather by the Occupy movement and the Indignados. Even the graffiti I’ve seen in Lima has changed: what was once boring vandalism is now clever situationist turns of phrases that are critical of the government, economy, and society.

    Does the author agree that that my perceptions of change are based on reality? Are these changes merely the result of one generation dying off and another coming of age? Or, is there a fundamental shift in the way civil society is operating in Peru? More to the point, is Peruvian civil society, perhaps rendered dormant by Fujimori and Sendero, finally waking up and asserting itself in a way that it has not done in the past? If so, what are the implications on governance in Peru? If not, are the latest rounds of protest doomed to fail?

  2. Marcela Torres

     /  December 3, 2013

    Very thoughtful, thank you. Indeed there is a new generation of Peruvians coming of age that are fully engaged with broader international trends and no longer afraid of the stigma left by Sendero. The Twitter hash tags and the innovative slogans used by Peruvian protestors in the last months reflect patterns of protests present elsewhere in Latin America and the rest of the world; this seems natural, though, for fearless young students who start engaging in daily politics. However, more telling for Peru is the fact that the government has responded almost immediately to the demonstrations against the repartija in July, and also in November when the Congress annulled the polemic appointment of the Fujimorista Martha Chavez as the coordinator of the Human Rights Commissions, again due to massive protests in Lima. Perhaps this is a sign that Peruvian Congressmen and women are now aware that they can no longer blatantly disrespect their constituents. Appointing a former supporter of human rights abuses during the Fujimori era as the leader of the Human Rights Commission is no longer something that citizens are willing to tolerate. Thus, I agree that there is an awakening of civil society and this is making the government more accountable to short-term discontent; hopefully, this will also make government representatives more judicious when making appointments for critical positions in the future. However, the lack of a credible political party system, in my opinion, is an obstacle to the articulation of a long-term plan to address the country’s urgent needs that have long been ignored by previous governments: sustainable improvements to education, health, and transportation.


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