NEWARK — I was sitting in my kitchen with my dad, nervously waiting for the voting in Peru’s Congress to begin on November 9.
One by one, each lawmaker made passionate arguments against President Martín Vizcarra for alleged corruption charges, without thinking of what was coming next.
“Why? Why now?” my dad asked as the head of Congress Manuel Merino called the lawmakers to vote.
It wasn’t the first time legislators tried to impeach Vizcarra (the first attempt on September 18 didn’t have enough votes) but this time, with an overwhelming 105 out of 130 votes in favor, Congress had finally impeached the president.
“Todos son unos corruptos. They are all corrupt,” my dad said as he stood up from the table in anger. His beloved country, already dealing with a shattering economic recession, massive unemployment and a crumbling healthcare system due to the COVID-19 pandemic, was heading into yet another crisis.
“¿Por qué te hacen esto, Perú? Why do they do this to you, Peru?” he asked.
How Did We Get Here?
In order to understand Peru’s political crisis, we need to go back a couple of years back. In 2018, Vizcarra took power after President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned for taking bribes from Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht.
The actions of four ex-presidents —including Alan García Pérez, who killed himself with a bullet to the head on April 17, 2019 as police came to arrest him— shook the entire country into finding out the true roots and depths of political corruption.
Vizcarra’s anti-corruption crusade was met with resistance by the opposition-controlled Congress led by Fuerza Popular (Popular Force)—the right-wing political party of Keiko Fujimori, also known as the daughter of former dictator Alberto Fujimori. After making governing virtually impossible for the executive by blocking countless government bills, censoring cabinet ministers, and using the threat of no-confidence votes against the prime minister, Vizcarra called for the dissolution of Congress on September 30, 2019.
This was met with high approval ratings from the country—with 85% supporting the dissolution. The president’s approval ratings jumped from 48% to 79%, according to an Ipsos poll.
In response, Congress declared that Vizcarra’s presidency was to be suspended, accused him of staging a coup and appointed Vice President Mercedes Araoz as interim president. But that was short-lived. Araoz resigned the next day, and Vizcarra issued a decree for legislative elections to be held on January 26, 2020.
The newly-elected Congress provided a sense of normalcy. However, this was short-lived. The new Congress was set to impeach Vizcarra for “moral incapacity,” the first time due to his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the second one for allegations that he received more than $630,000 in exchange for two constructions projects while serving as governor of the southern province of Moquegua from 2011-2014.
Meanwhile, 68 out of the 130 lawmakers are currently under investigation for alleged crimes, from money laundering to abuse of power, and even homicide.
The Power of Youth
As news broke about the Vizcarra vacancy earlier this month, several people started gathering to protest in different parts of Lima and the rest of the country. The protests came as no surprise since 78% of Peruvians opposed the vacancy. Many believed that Congress decided to act against Vizcarra as a way to benefit their own personal interest.
Many also believed this was a coup.
“The allegations against Vizcarra should be investigated, but the legality of his ousting is highly dubious and seems driven by legislators’ own interests in evading accountability,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Leaders in the Americas should closely monitor decisions by Merino and Congress. There is every reason to suspect that they will use Vizcarra’s ousting to further undermine the rule of law.”
Tensions were very high, so much so that at one point Carlos Ezeta Gómez, a young journalism student who was covering a press conference, threw a punch at lawmaker Ricardo Burga on live TV.
“It was an impulse generated by indignation, by the political events that are happening in my country. It was not premediated,” Ezeta Gómez said.
The indignation was felt throughout the country, in particular among the youth—often called la generación del bicentenario (the bicentennial generation).
“That feeling of repudiation, of tiredness, of exhaustion is something that has not been seen before,” Peruvian sociologist Joaquín Yrivarren said. “All that information that young people have absorbed these last two decades has been degrading their expectations. That explains why that claim, which began on social media, turned to the stress en masse and ended up producing an effect opposite to what their parents experienced.”
AYUDEN A DIFUNDIR!
La policía nos está matando y nos quieren silenciar, los medios de comunicación no pasan nada. Las marchas son pacíficas y la policía nos atacan con bombas lacrimógenas, seas o no de Perú, por favor comparte esto
— natalia⁷ (@nataliawannacry) November 15, 2020
Hector Melgar, 26, works for the ministry of housing. He attended several small protests before attending two of the biggest protests Peru had ever seen in the last 20 years, where two young people —Inti Sotelo Camargo, 24, and Bryan Pintado Sánchez, 22— died.
On November 10, Melgar, along with six other friends, gathered with other thousands of young people at one of Lima’s biggest avenues. Against his family’s wishes, Melgar went to the protest, not to support Vizcarra, but to protect his country and future.
Armed with just a N95 mask and a shield made of plywood, Melgar was in the first line of defense close to the police line that blocked the way to the Congress building. Next to him, several recent medical school graduates and nurses were also ready with first aid kits, water bottles with sodium bicarbonate (a mixture that helps alleviate the pain caused by tear gas bombs), and big gallons of water to deactivate possible tear gas attacks.
“It was a peaceful protest. We were armed with only signs and homemade plywood shields, while the police had their anti-riot armor,” Melgar said. “Out of the blue, they threw four or five tear gas bombs, and everyone started to run. It was chaos.”
It was the first time Melgar felt tear gas and the first time he was shot with a pellet bullet that struck both his hand and body.
MI SOBRINO YOEL MAYLLE CABIA, ESTUDIANTE DE LA UNIVERSIDAD NACIONAL MAYOR DE SAN MARCOS, TIENE 24 AÑOS, RECIBIO UN DISPARO A LA CABEZA, SI NO LE PROTEGÍA EL BALDE HOY SE HABLARIA DE TERCER MUERTE. pic.twitter.com/EZfelF8sPy
— kelita cabia adriano (@KelitaCabia) November 15, 2020
Archeologist Flavia Malabrigo, 26, also attended a protest on November 14, explaining that she had mixed feelings for what was happening in Peru. That weekend, Merino resigned from the presidency, and even though that was one of the protests’ goals, protesters were also mourning the deaths of Inti and Bryan.
“I felt for the first time, Peru was one,” Malabrigo said. “But also anger to see all the police brutality that happened during the protests. I think that disappointed everyone.”
Malabrigo felt that the reason young people took over the streets was because they started learning more about what was happening in politics and what was behind the interests of lawmakers.
“To me the main reasons young people went to protest were to make sure we have quality education, to stop the irregularities, such as creating laws to free corrupt politicians and to create laws for their own interest, and to make sure the upcoming elections are fair,” Malabrigo said.
— David Arias (@davidarias_pe) November 14, 2020
Twenty-seven-year-old Angie Cornejo, an administrator at Saco Oliveros, did not join the protest in Lima’s Plaza de Armas, but demonstrated with fellow neighbors in her town. She was not going to join the protest, but after seeing the violence and death of Inti and Bryan, she couldn’t stay quiet.
“I felt anger, sadness and guilt,” Cornejo said. “I haven’t been involved in politics as much as I should be. But now this is different. We are getting involved.”
PARO Colectiva, an anti-capitalist feminist collective, was also present during the protests when one of their members was hit by pellet bullets and tear gas bombs. According to the member (who decided not use her name due to confidentially issues), she saw how the police threw tear gas bombs without any regard for the people that were peacefully protesting. The police also started chasing protesters and shooting at them with pellet bullets.
The member ended up with wounds in her arms and legs.
“Usually the youngest —adolescents and children— have been relegated without listening to their voices or collecting their needs, ideas, and desires,” the collective said. “This adult centrism, that often delegitimizes the opinion of the youngest, has manifested itself through the mobilization of social networks (TikTok, Facebook, Instagram). They have been the ones who have been at the forefront, facing violence and disproportionate police repression, deactivating tear gas bombs, providing medical assistance and organizing to mobilize.”
Three Presidents in Two Weeks
On the weekend of November 14, Merino resigned from the presidency, a direct result of the protests. Even though new interim president Francisco Sagasti, sworn in on November 16, was received with hope and some sort of relief, the road towards some type of normalcy in Peru is still uncertain.
The country is still facing one of the world’s worst public health crises due to the coronavirus pandemic, unemployment continues to rise, and the economic recession is damaging the population.
Nonetheless, many young people feel hopeful.
“With the citizen movement, with citizen pressure, with advocacy, we can achieve the impetus for the creation of a constituent process of a popular and democratic character that will result in a new constitution that guarantees social rights,” the PARO collective said. “We demand that the state respect the popular demand and not hinder the struggles for a true transformation of politics.”
Melgar also remains hopeful that the new interim government can work towards stabilizing the country since all the politicians who formed the new cabinet don’t have legal issues to fight and they seem willing to work together.
“One of the biggest tests will be the upcoming elections,” Melgar said. “We will see then if these protests showed that there are politicians who are not good, but I am hopeful we will make the right decision.”
Cornejo believes the same, and she hopes that young people are more responsible with their votes, and continue to learn more about each political party and candidate before the elections.
“For the upcoming elections, I sincerely hope that people remained informed and to not sell their vote in exchange of a favor or product,” Cornejo said. “And that the population chose correctly. Thus, to reach our bicentennial as a united country looking to improve.”
When I found out more about the deaths of Inti and Bryan —now regarded as heroes of the bicentennial— I couldn’t help but notice the romanticism in their deaths.
These two young people died in the hands of police when their only weapons were their masks and a gallon of water mixed with sodium bicarbonate.
Inti’s death hit me the most because the word “Inti” means “Sun” in Incan mythology. He was given the name by his family, who is originally from Cuzco. His mother told news outlets that Inti told her before heading to the protest “he will give his life for his country.”
Sin palabras. pic.twitter.com/czmC51z4d6
— Diego Rivera (@drivera79) November 15, 2020
The phrase Mamá, salí a defender a la patria y si no vuelvo, me fui con ella (Mom, I went to defend the homeland and if I don’t come back, I went with her), was coined after the death of Inti and Bryan.
I asked my dad again this past weekend about his feelings towards Peru.
He told me he felt hopeful, something he hasn’t felt before in a long time.
He thought our country was going in the right direction, even though it hadn’t felt like that earlier this month.
Diego Jesús Bartesaghi Mena was a 2020 Latino Rebels summer correspondent. A recent graduate of Columbia Journalism School, he is based in Newark, NJ and tweets from @bartesaghi_mena.