Who ousted Peru’s President of the Poor?

Pedro Castillo

In the last two months, the political crisis in Peru has regularly made it into the mainstream media. On December 7 of last year, the democratically elected Peruvian president Pedro Castillo was removed from power after he attempted to temporarily suspend Congress hours before his third impeachment hearing.

As the first person from an impoverished rural background to become president in Peru, Castillo had found widespread support in the country’s poorer regions. His ousting has sparked mass demonstrations and blockades across the country, with protestors calling for President Dina Boluarte, Castillo’s vice-president who replaced him, to step down and for early elections to be called. As of mid-February, 60 people have been killed, the majority of whom were protesters killed by state forces. But the country’s copious copper resources, coupled with the interests of multinational mining corporations, have left many wondering about United States’ involvement.

According to The Economist, Peru ‘remains riven by unrest since the “self-coup” and subsequent arrest of its president in December’. Tom Phillips, The Guardian’s chief foreign correspondent in Latin America, recently claimed in The Observer that the city of Juliaca has ‘been taken over by teams of anti-government rebels who have been in open revolt against President Dina Boluarte’ — and yet Phillips failed to provide a shred of evidence that the protesters could reasonably be classified as ‘rebels’. Reports like those found in The Economist and The Observer fail to discuss basic questions that should always be asked when reporting on Latin American politics — for example, what were the policies of ex-president Pedro Castillo and what were the true motivations for his removal? What are the political ideologies of Dina Boluarte, who is now in power? And what is the position of the U.S. regarding the change of regime in Peru? Further queries might focus on why Peru has been engulfed by such widespread demonstrations in the wake of Castillo’s impeachment and imprisonment and what are the socioeconomic origins of the demonstrators versus those who have taken power. The answers to such questions inevitably expose political machinations of a kind seen far too often in Latin American political history.

The day before Castillo’s failed maneuver to dissolve Congress, the U.S. ambassador to the country Lisa Kenna met with the minister of defense Gustavo Bobbio Rosas. The details of what was discussed in that meeting are not officially known; however, the following day, on 7 December 2022, Kenna wrote on her Twitter page: ‘The United States categorically rejects any extra-constitutional act by President Castillo to prevent Congress from fulfilling its mandate.’

Kenna’s statement was made in reference to Castillo’s action earlier in the day, prior to his arrest. With his hands clearly shaking, the nervous president had read a statement on camera, attempting to use Article 134 of the constitution to temporarily close down Congress for obstructionism to his government. But without the support of his ministers and the military, the impeachment process went ahead. Castillo was detained by local police and his own security team — reportedly on his way to the Mexican embassy in Lima to seek political asylum — and imprisoned in the same prison that holds ex-President Alberto Fujimori.

As a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer, Ambassador Kenna’s comment backing Peru’s right-wing controlled Congress is not surprising. Castillo represented everything the U.S. as well as local elites in Lima, have historically abhorred.

Castillo had triumphed in the June 2021 presidential election by a small margin of 44,000 votes over the hard-right candidate Keiko Fujimori (daughter of the jailed ex-President). Castillo, unlike his political competitor, came from humble roots, the son of illiterate peasant farmers. Prior to running as a presidential candidate, from 1995 until almost the time of Peru’s massive teachers’ strike in 2017, in which he played a key role as a union organizer, Castillo worked as a rural school teacher in the town of Puña in the north of the country. Reflecting on his life after winning the election, Castillo wrote:

‘It was a great accomplishment for me to finish high school, which I did thanks to the help of my parents and my brothers and sisters. I continued my education, doing what I could to earn a living. I worked in the coffee fields. I came to Lima to sell newspapers. I sold ice cream. I cleaned toilets in hotels. I saw the harsh reality for workers in the countryside and the city.’

Criticizing the 1993 constitution established under the U.S.-backed Fujimori, Castillo said: ‘It treats healthcare as a service, not a right. It treats education as a service, not a right. And it is designed for the benefit of businesses, not people.’ At the end of his statement, the president-elect declared: ‘No more poor people in a rich country. I give you my word as a teacher.’

Once in office with his minister for foreign affairs Héctor Béjar, Castillo withdrew Peru from the Lima Group, a pro-U.S. multilateral body established in 2017 to promote the overthrow of the Maduro administration in Venezuela.  After serving for just 19 days, Béjar — a respected left-wing intellectual and ex-guerrilla — was forced to resign after the Navy took offense to comments he made about the civil war Peru had endured during the 1980s.

The credibility of other ministers Castillo had appointed was then called into question. According to Francisco Dominguez, a senior lecturer at Middlesex University, that ‘Congress’s harassment [was] aimed at preventing Castillo’s government from even functioning can be verified with numbers: in the 495 days he lasted in office, Castillo was forced to appoint a total of 78 ministers.’

Commenting on these developments to Eureka Street, political commentator, and Peru Liber affiliate Didier Ortiz notes that Castillo launched an agrarian reform (the second since the rule of progressive military leader Juan Velasco Alvarado in the 1970s); however, ‘any advance on this project was put on an indefinite pause due to the coup’. He adds: ‘Castillo’s presidential powers were abrogated piecemeal every month since he took office by the fascist Congress.’

By August 2021, according to another observer, the Presidency of the Council of Ministers stated it would commence the collection of all debts amounting to millions of dollars owed to the National Superintendency of Customs and Tax Administration (SUNAT). Based on this decision, two private mining giants, ‘one of them 53 percent U.S.-owned’, would have had to pay ‘multimillion tax debts [that had] never been collected by previous governments.’

In November 2021, in another important development, the handover of Block 1 in the Talara basin to the state-owned energy company Petroperú occurred. After a 25-year-long hiatus due to privatization, Castillo claimed this was a ‘big step of returning Petroperú to productive activities’ which would eventually ‘produce to supply the national market, benefiting millions of Peruvian families.’

Not surprisingly, none of these policies were supported by Peru’s ultra-right Congress, which twice attempted to bring impeachment proceedings against Castillo before finally succeeding.

On January 18, as noted by journalist Ben Norton, Kenna met with Peru’s minister for energy and mining alongside the country’s vice-minister of hydrocarbons and the vice-minister of mining. According to Peru’s Ministry of Energy and Mines, the meeting with Kenna revolved around ‘investment’ opportunities and plans to ‘develop’ and ‘expand’ the extractive industries. Interestingly, earlier in the same month, Kenna stated on her Twitter account that the Biden administration was giving the Boluarte regime an additional $US8 million to support the reduction of illegal coca cultivation (a source of cocaine).

Beneath the surface of Peru’s volatile politics lie its rich deposits of natural resources, particularly copper, gold, and other metals, as well as Liquified Natural Gas — all of which are strategically highly important and in increasing demand in the world’s current political climate. In the shift towards renewable energy sources, for example, copper is essential in the storage and transport of that energy — indeed, with its unique and versatile properties, copper is arguably the most important metal to modern civilization. BHP, Rio Tinto, and Glencore, the world’s three largest transnational mining corporations, have extensive operations in Peru, and given the lucrative profits involved, it is not surprising that the industry supported the removal of Castillo as did the Trudeau government given ‘Canadian companies are Peru’s largest investors in mineral exploration,’ according to journalist Camila Escalante.

With Castillo’s push for Peruvian ownership of resources and ‘renegotiation of mining contracts, an increase in company taxes, and potential nationalisation of mines’, the successful coup against him has certainly removed a threat to U.S. interests and the profit margins of transnational mining corporations.

From Ortiz’s perspective, the ‘Peruvian population has grown accustomed to changing presidents on a yearly basis so I cannot imagine Boluarte staying in office beyond 2023.’ For now, the anti-government protests in Peru and their violent repression by security forces appear to have no end in sight, with vast numbers of people calling for Castillo’s liberation, new elections, and the redrawing of a new constitution. While time will reveal if some or all of these demands are met, it should be clear the hard-right forces that removed Castillo last year have the backing of Washington.

Source: Resumen

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