Privilege and Centralism in Lima Goad Protesters in Peru
By Mariela Jara
A rural Peruvian woman stands in front of police officers who guard the streets of Lima during the ongoing protests demanding immediate elections to resolve the current political crisis. She is part of the delegations from the country’s southern Andes highlands, one of the rural regions neglected by the overwhelming centralism of Lima and its elites. CREDIT: Walter Hupiú/IPS
The current political and social upheaval in Peru is not a temporary problem, but has to do with deeply-rooted inequality and social hierarchies, according to historian José Carlos Agüero.
In this South American country, 59 people have died in the two months since Dina Boluarte was named president, 47 directly due to the crackdown on the protests that began on Dec. 7. The 60-year-old president has stood firmly behind the armed forces and the police despite the death toll caused by their actions.
Peru has been a republic for 200 years, but due to the acute Lima-oriented centralism deep-seated problems of inequality and discrimination especially affect rural Amazonian and indigenous Quechua and Aymara populations.
“What a social upheaval can bring are not solutions, but momentum that can help combat the most deadly effects of this combination of factors that is so dangerous to people, which is what matters to me above all,” Agüero said in an interview with IPS.
In 2021, according to the latest official statistics, urban poverty stood at 22 percent and rural poverty at 40 percent, especially high in the country’s highlands and Amazon rainforest. Regions such as Ayacucho, Huancavelica and Puno – some of the centers of the current wave of protests – had the highest levels of poverty, ranging from 37 to 41 percent.
Lima is home to more than 10 million people, nearly a third of the total population of 33 million. The capital receives a large influx of people from the provinces, who flock to the city seeking opportunities that do not exist in their places of origin.
Agüero, 48, is a historian, essayist and writer who won the National Literature Award for non-fiction in 2018. In his work he reflects on the country and its past. He himself is the son of two members of the Maoist armed group Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), who were extrajudicially executed in the 1980s.
In his analysis of the causes of what is currently happening in Peru, he mentions various aspects raised by other historians such as cultural and ethnic aspects in relation to how the groups that hold power in the capital have not paid enough attention to the regional dynamics of the country’s Andes highlands, and have underestimated the region’s tradition of protests.
He also cites the crisis shaking the political system of parties and representation, which sociologists and political scientists have been pointing to for more than two decades, without managing to bring about any solution.
And he refers to – and disagrees with – anthropological interpretations by observers who argue that the country is in the grip of a process of indigenous, especially Aymara, people demanding and gaining respect for their rights.
Agüero’s explanations are based on his studies of history and racism, which he says reflect the burden of failing to dismantle the social hierarchy still in place in Peru in the 21st century.
“Reactions break out against the caste-like hierarchical relations periodically, not just now. Outbreaks are ready to occur at any time,” he said, referring to the social protests that have been ongoing since Boluarte was sworn in as president on Dec. 7, after President Pedro Castillo was impeached by Congress.
Castillo, a 53-year-old rural schoolteacher and trade unionist, became president in July 2021, thanks to strong support in rural Peru, with the backing of a far-left party, which later turned its back on him. His government was characterized by poor management and a rejection of politicians and the traditional elites.
The impeachment and imprisonment of Castillo sparked mass demonstrations, especially in the central and southern Andes, by people demanding that early elections be held this year and calling for a citizen consultation on a Constituent Assembly to rewrite the constitution. Boluarte finally agreed to bring elections forward to October 2023, but Congress shelved the bill.
“Overt racist interactions are not the only aspect we can talk about, but also the constant belittling and snubs, which are perhaps the most powerful driving force behind our relations when it comes to the moment of truth, when it is either kill or be killed, or when you have to decide on the distribution of wealth, or the legitimacy of a protest or a political proposal,” said Agüero.
He said that according to this logic, there are people who will be left out of the national pact because they are seen as less worthy or less equal. “All of that has been put back into play to explain what is happening right now,” he said.
Coming from a ‘forgotten people’
Rocío Quispe, a Quechua woman from the central Andean department of Ayacucho, one of the areas hardest hit by the internal armed conflict that ravaged Peru between 1980 and 2000, lives in the Santa María neighborhood in the Ate Vitarte district in the east of Lima, one of the most populous with just over 700,000 inhabitants, mainly of middle to low socioeconomic status.
She is 64 years old and lives with her 27-year-old daughter and six-year-old granddaughter in a house that she has built little by little in the hilly area of Santa María on the outskirts of the capital. She does not have a steady job and does what she can, selling food for instance, to get by. She is one of the millions of people from other parts of Peru who have come to Lima in search of a better future.
“We came because of terrorism, we dropped out of school, we left everything behind. So many people were shot dead there, they would come in your house and kill you. First my sister came, then I came and we have worked here without stealing, without harming anyone,” she told IPS.
She said her aim was to live in peace, free of the fear she faced in her home region. Her family had fields in the rural community of Soccos, where a massacre of 32 women, men, girls and boys was committed by a police unit called Los Sinchis in 1983.
“Many of us from Ayacucho came to Lima to have a life because we felt abandoned,” Quispe said. In the capital she worked hard to buy a piece of land and help her parents, and when she got pregnant her top priority became her daughter’s education.
Like many of her neighbors, Quispe protested in December outside the Barbadillo prison where Castillo was initially detained, accused of staging a coup d’état for trying to dissolve Congress and install an emergency government, ahead of an impeachment vote by legislators.
“Because we are protesting they call us terrorists. But the real terrorists are the people who sell out their homeland, who forget about our people, who from their positions in power accuse us just because we want our children to have a good school, a good education,” she said indignantly.
When she speaks there is strength in her voice: “We are a neglected people from Ayacucho where we grew potatoes, corn, wheat and barley, and for them to call us terrorists makes us very angry. They call us terrorists, they call us stinky ‘serranos’ (hillbillies), cholos (a derogatory term for indigenous or mixed-race people), they call us all sorts of things.”
And she complains that Congress, which she sees as a corrupt center of power, conspired to overthrow Castillo.
“These people who they despise elected a president who was a provincial ‘serrano’ schoolteacher. Maybe he didn’t really know how everything worked, but the lawmakers didn’t leave him alone, until they drove him to desperation,” Quispe said.
The protests continue, although with less intensity. There are roadblocks in regions such as Cuzco, Puno, and Arequipa, while Boluarte began a round of talks with political parties on Feb. 15 to address the crisis.
The measure was seen as a grasping at straws to hold onto the office of president, given the documented reports about a number of killings committed by the security forces during the crackdown, which Boluarte has not condemned.
Not one, but many Limas
According to the National Institute of Statistics and Informatics, in Lima 65 percent of the population consider themselves ‘mestizo’ or mixed-race, 19 percent indigenous, eight percent black and five percent white. Nevertheless, racism is a daily feature of life and has turned many people intensely against those who are protesting in their regions or have come to the capital to make themselves heard.
Why don’t the elites recognize that there are many Limas? Although Agüero said he could not give a definitive answer because there are few studies on the elites in Peru, he said he could talk about their behavior and the way they organized in politics.
He believes that it is not a question of ignorance; it is not that they do not understand. “There are highly educated people who have studied in foreign universities and are part of what we call the elite. They have demographic data, surveys, everything necessary to understand that Lima is a very large metropolis, now made up of several different Limas,” the writer added.
“But they rule like elites in other parts of the world. They maintain the conviction that they are privileged. In Peru, it seems to me that they form a network of privilege in a way that is also racist,” he remarked.
Agüero said that this position isolates them but at the same time puts them in a role of paternalistic control.
“What matters most to me is that the distribution of power, real, economic and symbolic, should stop being a matter of privilege and in the control of an elite network that is also racist. For me that is the issue,” he said.
This post first appeared on IPS News.