Something interesting happened in my country, Peru, during these last days. This is a testimony of a fight for democracy, but also a lesson about the impact of new generations being politically active and all the big changes this activism could trigger.
A bit of Context
Peru, as many other countries in the world, has an interesting relationship with democracy. Our democracy has been interrupted many times by dictatorships during our 200 years of being a republic. Our last dictatorship happened between 1990 and 2000 with Alberto Fujimori. He took control over a country devastated by a deep economical crisis and the thread of terrorism in the shape of Sendero Luminoso and MRTA. These terrorist organizations were defeated during mid 90s, but they also gave Fujimori the excuse to take control over the 3 powers of the state. During his rule a new constitution was written in order to prepare the country for free-market, but also to ensure that Fujimori, with the control of the congress and the presidency, could control key institutions.
Fujimori's dictatorship reached its end during the year 2000. It was a mix of two key events: The enormous pressure generated by the people which was canalized into our biggest protest until that point of our history, and the publication of tapes showing corruption transactions that his closest assessor (and the brain behind the dictatorship) Vladimiro Montesinos used to blackmail many people that was useful for the dictatorship to keep its power. Corruption captured in 4k.
After a peaceful transition we recovered our democracy, but the constitution didn't change and during the following 20 years our democracy has been always fragile, with a system that didn't allow us to have representative parties and the balance of power was always at risk. There were many hidden interests working in the backstage, some of them from illegal activities, other ones from the most conservative parts of our society, and other ones from specific private sectors like Education, that started acquiring more political power over the years.
The last elected government was from 2016, and they had a critical problem: They didn't have majority in congress. The congress was now in power of the loser party, led by Keiko Fujimori (daughter of Alberto Fujimori) who besides her personal goal to release his father, who has been in jailed since 2007, also pretended to rule from the congress by using the 90’s constitution as a weapon. She moved the strings to remove the elected president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski in an attempt to have a more "manageable" president, but she found Martin Vizcarra instead. Vizcarra didn't have a party, he was invited as vice-president because of a positive period as governor of the Moquegua region, a gesture PPK needed in order to obtain more votes from the south of the country. This particularity was good for the eyes of the people because it meant that he didn't owe a favor to any hidden interest (assumable), which gave him enough public approval to close the congress. Yes, another weapon of the 90’s constitution that the president can use to close the congress following certain conditions. They didn't want to approve important reforms. He called for new parliamentarian elections in 2019, but this new congress continued having the same main issue: Not public representation, and this time, more than ever, the hidden interests were more represented and they did what everybody was afraid of: take the presidential power, and with that, the control of the country. The threat of a new dictatorship was very real now.
A long week of protests
All the series of events I'm gonna narrate happened in the lapse of one week. A week that will probably change our political landscape for the following decades and has named a whole generation.
The week started by a request of the congress for the president to give his testimony about corruption allegations that were published in the media for some weeks prior to that Monday (the media is also influenced by economical interests by the way). It's important to highlight the fact that 68 out of the 120 congressmen have some type of ongoing legal process. Keep in mind that being a congress man/woman in Peru means to have legal immunity, many people use it as a way to escape from justice. Literally, a congress full of criminals. As everybody feared, the congress voted to remove Vizcarra from the presidency with 105 votes (out of 128) using an article of the constitution which dictates that the congress can remove the president if this one shows "moral incapacity", a very loose term open to interpretation. Even though when they try to use traditional media to justify this political move, for the Peruvian people the real reasons behind were more than clear. Congress took power of the executive branch and a new president, Manuel Merino was selected, and he had one agenda:
- Cancel our next elections to happen in April, 2021, so they can extend their power (although he denied try to go for it)
- Stop the Educational reform started years ago that means strict rules for private education. Some parties in congress were funded by money from private universities with very low quality standards.
- Release from jail some people like Antauro Humala, a former military who tried a coup by killing police men (Hugo Chavez style).
- Put in charge ministers from far-right movements of our political spectrum. The selected prime minister was an openly racist and misogynist character.
Peru's population has never been politically active. Centuries of white elites used government power to discriminate and repress poor people (who were majority in the past) creating a submissive type of voter. The 90’s constitution also made the vote mandatory, that created a system where poor people was always treated as the mass of people to convince by telling lies and giving petty gifts. Populism at its finest. So, based on those assumptions, the path for the people behind the congress coup was clear: Continue with populism in order to keep their power as Fujimori did years ago, which it meant a step backward to the few things previous governments did well: a strong (sort of) economy.
However, Peru has changed during the last 20 years. The generation of people that was born between the 90’s and 2000’s grew with a different mindset. They were raised in the context of a Peru with democracy, and a growing economy. They also are a generation of internet users, more open to the world, and being able to escape from the traditional media to get informed. Even though Peru is a young nation demographically speaking, this generation for many years was never considered "powerful" because it has always been apolitical, but they didn't anticipate that it could change. The same day Vizcarra was removed, social media started to speak loud about the issue and even when traditional media seemed to assimilate the new reality (they caused it in some way), people started to spread the word about using the right to protest. And we went out. Here the timeline of the protests:
Day 1 (Tuesday) After Vizcarra was removed, it seemed to be another minor student protest happening near to congress as many we had in the past . But things were moving fast in the internet and more young people started using it to share the indignation, but also to start coordinating efforts. A hashtag wasn't enough.
Day 2 (Wednesday). People started organizing themselves inspired by the movement we all saw in Chile a year ago. More people get involved and more protests in different points of the capital and country were scheduled. During the night protests from home (cacerolazos) started to be more loud.
Day 3 (Thursday). The first big protest happened. Many young people applauded by elders from their windows (who couldn't go outside because of COVID), started filling up the streets in bigger numbers, but also the government started using police as a weapon to discourage people to continue going out. It worked many times in the past, but the new ministers miscalculated their moves because this gave people more reason to be more organized, and angry.
Day 4 (Friday). There were more people in the streets and now the protests happened everywhere, beyond the streets. Conservative movements have been very political active in the internet, and their tactics are well known, every time there are people protesting they try to criminalize them by calling them "reds", they use the ghost of terrorism as a way to delegitimize disconformity. But more young communities were involved now, and social tribes like k-poppers (fans of K-pop music) were the first line to stop those attempts of misinformation in the internet. Also, more people started to get organized for the next day. With the lessons learned now, young people were more prepared assuming that the new government will use policy brutality in order to stop the protests.
Day 5 (Saturday). The biggest protest in our history happened. In every city, in every district of the capital people was in the street protesting. Soccer team fandoms working together, and people more used to conflicts with police were part of the first lines. Brave young people (including many women) were part of the groups to deactivate teargas bombs that police used indiscriminately. Other groups were in charge of providing medical aid to injured people, and the rest, the vast majority, people holding their signs, from all ages. For most of them, this was their first protest and their first action of political activism. New generations were not longer apolitical and they took control over a movement that was difficult to ignore and stop at this point.
But as it was feared, police tried to stop it, and as result of their brutality two young students were killed, many other were injured and even kidnaped by covered police. It was a high cost (that could have been higher without the quick organization), but that same night, the deaths trigger enough indignation among all the population to generate public pressure. For every dead student announced in the news, people were massively protesting from their homes at midnight. Media didn't have other option to start showing the brutality and the government fell apart within few hours with the resignation of the ministers, one by one. They didn't have enough time to solidify their power and now the new president was alone.
Day 6 (Sunday). The streets were full with more people the whole day, the police didn't show the same brutality this time although many young people were lost yet. In that scenario, the same congress started asking for Merino's resignation. He resigned at mid day. He didn't have other option since he was alone at that point. By afternoon, the congress surrounded by people protesting outside the building was forced to build a new government, and they knew that people wouldn't accept anyone that was part of that coup. People had the power now.
Day 7 (Monday). After one week of the removal of Vizcarra, a new president was selected by congress. Francisco Sagasti, who has enough credentials to guarantee elections next year and most importantly, voted against the removal of Vizcarra, was announced in the afternoon. The end of a crazy week in which young people led a movement to stop a most likely dictatorship in record time.
An opportunity for a new dawn
In July of 2021 the country celebrates 200 years since we declared our independency from Spain and the republic was founded. That's our "bicentenary" and for that reason, those young people who led the protests are called the Bicentennial Generation now, a title that recognizes the efforts of this generation to lead important changes, to keep and improve our fragile democracy, and move forward our society so we can be ready to face challenges like equality, diversity and global warming. Issues that new generations seem to understand better than the politicians who are in charge, for now.
This also has been a lesson for the young people who for a long time have been ignorant of politics, but now they were able to understand their role as citizens since their context was threaten. We were raised in freedom, freedom to speak, to learn and pursue opportunities (even though there is still big challenges to make these opportunities available for everybody). Only when all that was put at risk they understood the importance of generating changes through activism. We always heard from older people how useless is to go outside and protest. They were wrong, very wrong.
This fight has not finished. It's just a first step of many we have ahead. But I'm personally so happy to witness that unity in my country. When I was in the streets I saw people from different origins, different colors of skin going together and chanting the same things about rejecting corruption, and fight for a better country. It moved me when I saw elders looking us with hope in their eyes. Previous generations also had their battles, and I guess they are now full hope by seeing how the future of the country is in good hands. The lives of Inti Sotelo (24) and Bryan Pintado (22), the two brave young students who were killed during the protests, must stay in our minds as a reminder for our future fights.