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Peru: an impossible reconciliation?

Camille Boutron

Entrenched social inequalities and an unfinished reconciliation process hinder the consolidation of democracy.

The results of Peru’s April 11, 2011 first round of presidential elections have caused quite an uproar among its elite, who control the country’s entire economic and political capital. From their perspective, they have witnessed, yet again, “their” candidate —Pedro Pablo Kucyinski, this time around— shut out of the second round in favour of two marginal candidates, Keiko Fujimori and Ollanta Humala, who won the favour of voters in the last weeks of the campaign. The vote has thus led to the rise of two relatively problematic actors with regard to the consolidation of democracy in Peru.

Peru is still facing considerable difficulty in coming to terms with a past plagued by violence.

Peru is still facing considerable difficulty in coming to terms with a past plagued by violence and authoritarianism. Between 1980 and 2000, the country was embroiled in a violent internal armed conflict following a succession of military regimes. In response to an armed uprising led by the Communist Party of Peru (“Shining Path”), the government adopted a counter-insurgency strategy and sent the armed forces into areas that were in a state of emergency. It was at this point that a “dirty war” broke out, during which the local populations —mostly peasant communities— found themselves caught in the crossfire and became the target of brutal repression from the guerrilla and armed forces alike. The conflict raged until the early 1990s, when an authoritarian regime was established and implemented a series of legal procedures to criminalize social protest. It was not until the return to democracy in 2000 that work on Peru’s collective memory regarding the two previous decades of political violence was undertaken in earnest. Its most significant outcome was the creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

The TRC initiated a debate on the rewriting of the history of the conflict.

The TRC’s final report, released in August 2003, was met with a fairly cold reception by the various actors of the Peruvian political scene and the armed forces. The document presented revised figures for the number of victims of the armed conflict, which had originally been estimated at 25,000 persons, and was now estimated at a much higher number of nearly 70,000 fatalities. However, the TRC did not stop there: While it recognized that subversive groups were responsible for most of the violence committed, it also found that the armed forces played a part in a number of human rights violations as well. This new information initiated a debate on the rewriting of the history of the conflict, and the issue has been met with violent resistance on the part of some political groups who refuse to acknowledge the role of the State in these events.

Since the end of the military dictatorships, political violence has gone hand-in-hand with the evolution and transformation of the country’s political sphere. The armed conflict can be divided into three distinct presidential mandates. The first, under Fernando Belaúnde (1980-1985), is considered a failed attempt at re-establishing democracy following several years of military dictatorship. Not long after returning to the barracks, the military was called upon to restore order within the country using questionable methods of repression. The second mandate, led by Alan García (1985-1990), was characterized by an alarming rise in violence within the context of an economic crisis, throwing the country into utter chaos. Alberto Fujimori succeeded him in 1990 and established an authoritarian and clientelist regime. His 1992 self-coup d’état enabled him to be re-elected in 1995 and 2000 before having to resign from the presidency and flee to Japan following the media’s uncovering of corruption scandals in which he had been directly involved. Accused of several charges including human rights violations, Fujimori was extradited to Peru in 2007 and given a 25-year prison sentence in 2009.

Newspapers reporting on the sentencing of ex-president Alberto Fujimoro to 25 years in prison

Photo: Pedro Rivas Ugaz
Newspapers reporting on the sentencing of ex-president Alberto Fujimoro to 25 years in prison, April 8, 2009.

Keiko Fujimori, who has made it to the second round of the 2011 presidential election, is the daughter of ex-president Fujimori. Her father’s prison sentence has not dissuaded her several thousand sympathizers, who view her father as the leader who ended the armed conflict. He is also credited with rebuilding Peru’s economy through his whole-hearted adoption of the neoliberal reforms that were imposed upon Latin American countries by the end of the 1980s, thereby pulling the country out of an unprecedented economic crisis. While these reforms did nothing to alleviate problems of social inequality, they at least made a certain degree of modernization of services and industries possible. The future looks promising for Keiko Fujimori, for whom family ties represent the principal political “selling point.”

Ollanta Humala, for his part, has a military background and is suspected of having committed human rights violations during the conflict. He was also responsible for the 2000 aborted coup d’état against Fujimori. During his 2006 presidential campaign, he was strongly associated with the Chavist regime, which cost him a victory in the second round. He claims to be the only truly left-wing candidate and draws his inspiration from Brazil’s former president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, which has led many observers to conclude that a Humala presidency would result in a future dictatorship and the end of the economic success story.

Electoral trends raise questions about the Peruvian population’s rapport with democracy.

As for outgoing President García, he was re-elected in 2006 despite his involvement in a number of human rights violation cases during his 1985-90 mandate. These electoral trends raise questions about the Peruvian population’s rapport with democracy as well as the relationship that they have been gradually forging with their recent past. The results of the first round of the 2011 presidential elections have been widely viewed as a manifestation of the malaise caused by the unequal distribution of wealth in a country experiencing economic growth. While the urban elite are growing wealthier, rural indigenous peasant communities continue to suffer from a serious lack of access to services and capital. As may have been the case in other countries in the region, these inequalities seem to highlight the limits of the neoliberal economic model. In addition, this situation reveals the permanence of the structuring of Peruvian society into implicit castes based on ethnic origin and cultural capital. Therefore, the first round represents a veritable protest on the part of sectors of Peruvian society who, despite being the largest in numbers, continually feel marginalized.

Yet in fact, the TRC’s socio-economic profile of the victims of the armed conflict revealed that the primary targets of the political violence were poor Quechua-speaking indigenous peasants, shedding light on the existence of a logic of exclusion. One might wonder why these populations —who were the first to suffer the effects of political violence— would vote so willingly for candidates whose past or contacts seem linked to the violation of their rights. According to some, this contradiction points to a problem of misinformation on the part of these marginalized populations, who are accused of “slowing down” the country’s development. However, there may be an alternate explanation for this trend. It is worth examining the extent to which the “reconciliation” —that the TRC was intended to achieve— remains an unfinished process in a society where the principal victims of the conflict continue to face systematic marginalization to this day, and see that the country’s transformation is only benefiting a small sector of society. These forms of exclusion are the same factors that led to an unequalled rise in violence in Peru’s history at the end of the last century. It is hoped that history will not repeat itself.

Camille Boutron is a sociologist and post-doctoral candidate at the Réseau d’études sur l’Amérique latine of the Centre d’Études en Relations internationales at Université de Montréal (CERIUM). She is also an associate researcher at the Institut français d’Études andines in Lima, Peru. She may be contacted at boutcam@gmail.com.

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