Peru on Fire: WTF Redux

I’ve waited almost two years to follow up my 2021 piece on Peru’s election. I have been waiting for Castillo to be ousted. I was wrong in predicting Fujimori would beat Castillo, but correct in predicting he would be ineffectual and unlikely to complete his term. He was impeached in December. Protests have roiled the country, killing at least 60.

I’ll repeat my first prediction’s disclaimer, which is even more relevant today:

Even when I was immersed in the news and living in Peru, I was an extreme case of the Lima-centric, upper-class Creole, the disdain for whom is the primary driver of support for populists like Pedro Castillo. I may be the worst person to understand his voters … I am BIASED.

I was in Peru for six weeks which coincided with the beginning of all the drama. Listening to the Peruvians in my networks underscored how removed I am from the discontent. Not only was my network formed in Creole Peru (Jesuit universities, multinational corporations, basketball and of course expats), it also has strong family ties to police.

While my impression that Keiko would win was wrong, my bottom line was a bullseye.

Most Likely Scenario: Continued Instability

Both Castillo and Keiko as president would be so weak in Congress and so unpopular with the public that any wrong move could bring impeachment. Both will be walking on eggshells just to finish their term.

With such a fractured Congress and no clear power center … not much will be accomplished … That’s the real downside of this election. There will be little progress.

Castillo turned out to be woefully incompetent. His government made the Trump White House look like a well-oiled machine, tripling the Cabinet turnover in half the time. Peruvians griped about basic services deteriorating. Castillo’s impotence in procuring fertilizer in the wake of war in Ukraine sparked a round of deadly protests. I would have applauded Castillo’s break with the extremist leader of his own party if only he would have lined up a different coalition or base of support. The only reason he was able to stay in office so long was because of an equally corrupt and self-interested Congress.

While I am still an unrepresentative source for what’s driving discontent in Peru, I was on the ground in Peru for all of December and the first few weeks of January. Castillo’s attempted self-coup and subsequent impeachment and jailing occurred on our first full day in Arequipa. At first, it was like any other day. Nobody seemed to care. But after a few days, the discontent organized and stormed the airport, shuttering it for over a week, and the main highways were blocked. I thought we were lucky to get in. A family member quipped that most Americans would consider it unlucky to be effectively stranded in a foreign country.

For the same reason I couldn’t imagine Castillo winning, I can’t speak for those behind these protests. But from where I sit, the driving forces behind unrest in Peru is a unique gumbo of identity, corruption and poor democratic design, and those three factors have a special synergy that enhances the flavor more than each ingredient could do alone.


The rainbow-colored Wiphala flag seen above has emerged as a catchall representation for indigenous people in South America, effectively an Indian pride flag. It’s a mainstay at many of these protests.

These flags and shields are remixes of the Burgundy Cross. Dating back to Felipe I, it was the standard carried by Spanish forces in the Americas during the colonial era. Today it represents Hispanic tradition, in opposition to and in contempt of indigenous heritage. This flag is often paired with the coopted jersey of Peru’s national soccer team. They match. These rallies were common during Keiko Fujimori’s Trump-inspired allegations of electoral fraud in Castillo’s runoff victory.

Like the other themes, this divide isn’t only in Peru. Above you see Bolivia’s former interim president Jeanine Anez (currently jailed) holding an oversized Bible in victory after the ouster of Evo Morales. The Bible is another symbol of Hispanic tradition in opposition to indigenous.

If I’ve learned anything in the last six years, it’s that identity matters. People loved Trump in part because they were tired of being told they’re privileged, racist, sexist, evil, etc. It didn’t matter much that his administration did or didn’t accomplish on policy. What mattered was that he was combative, defiant and unapologetic in sticking up for tradition, white, Christian, male, rural/suburban, heartland, police, fossil fuels, etc.

It doesn’t matter that Castillo passed even less legislation than Trump. What mattered was that he was a cholo in a big hat who looked, walked and talked like a wide swathe of the country that felt ignored, a segment of people who consider themselves “real Peruvians,” as opposed to the Peruvians who are not like them.

Peru’s Indian-Creole divide is 500 years old, and it’s probably the widest racial-ethnic-cultural divide in all of Latin America. The antipathy between urban and rural, Spanish and Quechua is fierce. I often point to Jacinta la Paisana as an artifact. Read The Conquest of the Incas or The Tupac Amaru Rebellion for more. This contempt has never ended, but it’s more one-sided than anywhere else. The cholos are always stepped on. They never prevail.

The cholos are tired of being disrespected and they see urban Creole Peru, especially Lima, as their enemy. It doesn’t matter what Castillo did or even what his politics are. He’s their champion in his Evo-branded collarless shirts and farming hat. That and the anti-Creole rhetoric brings a popular satisfaction that Ollanta Humala, despite delivering the most social progress in 23 years of democracy, could not.

It doesn’t matter that Castillo’s successor, Dina Boluarte, is a socialist who ran on the same ticket. Her Quechua speeches don’t negate her dressing like a college-educated professional. Maybe if she took office wearing a long skirt, pigtails and bowler hat while denouncing Congress and saying something nice about Castillo, and then hurled some insults at the big mining companies, she could have defanged the identity angle and avoided the protests. But it’s too late for taking a page from the reality-TV playbook. She has been branded a turncoat, like the caciques who were instrumental in the Spanish defeat of Tupac Amaru.


Still not about politics.

“Roba pero hace obra,” a common saying in Peru, translates to “he steals but he builds infrastructure.” People know their politician is corrupt, but he delivers the goods. So they accept him in the same spirit as Americans in the Cold War might have said, “He’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”

There is a continuum of corruption in Peru. Every president is on it spectrum. Independently wealthy leaders like PPK were probably on the least corrupt end, while Toledo and Garcia are on the other extreme. Castillo was probably in the middle. Certainly corrupt, demonstrably corrupt. But nothing outrageous, expect how inept he was at concealing it.

Peru and most of Latin America was built on corruption. Historia de la Corrupción en el Peru was the most illuminating (and most difficult Spanish read). It was always baked into the cake. It was by design. When it’s baked into the cake, is it even corruption? Self dealing is how Peru was governed since the Spanish named it Peru.

“Roba pero hace obra” may suffice when you’re growing 5% per year. But if the economy hits a speed bump, people get pissed. High inflation and an increase in poverty create a tinderbox.

Nepotism and patronage networks linked to public office infuriate constituents, even if it’s legal. When politicians do break the law, courts take too long to prosecute, if at all. Corrupt politicians enjoy impunity. The public’s contempt for corruption extends to all of Latin America. It is the top headline for the region since the receding of the pink tide.

Surveys consistently show Peru’s Congress is the most despised institution in the country. The ousting of the cholo champion by an equally corrupt Congress, in which a majority represents urban areas, was the spark.

A common criticism is that Congress never gave Castillo a chance to govern. They were trying to impeach him from the beginning. That is true in a sense. But on the other hand, they gave him a year and a half before impeaching him. They delayed because they didn’t want to risk facing snap elections in which they’d be barred by term limits. He had plenty of time and opportunity. He was incapable.

A corrupt Congress impeached a corrupt president. Because Congress is corrupt does not absolve the president, and it doesn’t make his impeachment unjustified. And because his impeachment was justified doesn’t make Congress a just entity. And the icing on the cake? The protests aren’t squeaky clean either. Much of the unrest is financed by drug trafficking and illegal mining.

In Venezuela, there are precisely two private-sector industries that have thrived under the PSUV’s socialist revolution: drug trafficking and illegal mining. Those industry players are richer and more powerful than ever before in that country. Their Peruvian counterparts know this. In a Venezuela-like Peru, they would be kings. They want a government that turns a blind eye to coca and wildcat mining. They want a government that kicks out the gringos.

Obviously not all protesters are in cahoots with drug traffickers. But that’s not to say that drug trafficking isn’t lending a hand. The rural peasantry live hand to mouth. They can’t take too much time off work or they don’t eat. The traffickers have provided food and transport. Police have stopped groups of protesters caravanning to Lima in pickup trucks registered to known traffickers.

Illegal miners, like traffickers, are in perpetual opposition to law and order. Anything that shakes the government’s grip on its territory is good business for them, even if it’s temporary. Outside Trujillo, street gangs have taken advantage of unrest to extort trucks to navigate the highways. They probably don’t give a shit about Castillo. They just see an opportunity to make a buck.

Again, this isn’t a condemnation of all protesters. But there are criminal elements in the mix. Fox News and Telesur watchers may want some kind of good vs. evil storyline here, but there isn’t. There are no valiant heroes, just a motley crew of many nefarious actors at worst and, at best, a few ineffectual leaders. And a whole lot of apathy in between, as consistent with most of Peru’s history.

Young, Fragile, Weak Democracy

This is the worst Peru take in a generation

At just 22 years old, Peru is one of Latin America’s youngest democracies. There are glaring flaws in how democracy is done. Its constitution was written by its last dictator, Alberto Fujimori. It’s not an ideal document.

In Peru’s single-chamber congress, reelection is prohibited. That’s a term limit of one. Term limits in U.S. Congress are popular in the same way a third party is. People who support it don’t know what it looks like in practice. With term limits, any time you get a good practitioner, they have to leave. You replace competent experience with novices, muscle memory with naivete, old workhorses with virgins. In Peru, the limit is so short you don’t even know who the good ones are before you get a fresh crop of greens.

Because they can’t be reelected, there is little incentive for them to listen to voters after they win. They can’t stand again, and their next generation stablemates don’t have to for years. If Congress denies two votes of confidence for the president’s cabinet, he can legally dissolve congress and call snap elections. These term-limited legislators are so desperate to hold on to their jobs they actually hold back, as they did with Castillo for a while.

These one-term legislators are elected in the same election as the first round of presidential voting. So in practice, the seats are split up among the excessive number of parties (10 in the current Congress). No party controls enough votes to get anything done. Coalition building is a Herculean challenge and the president faces a hostile Congress.

In every election since the Fujimori regime, the president takes office with his party controlling one third (or less) of seats in Congress after having won a quarter (or less) of the popular vote in the first round. He faces a supermajority opposition on Day 1. That allows for some unsavory deals with the other parties, and a frustrating amount of obstructionism.

What has happened since 2011 is the losing presidential candidate, daughter of the dictator Keiko Fujimori, has taken an extraordinarily obstructionist posture in Congress. She has put party over country to thwart any and all initiatives from Ollanta Humala, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski and Pedro Castillo. She actually engineered the resignation of PPK, and then the impeachment of his vice president Martin Vizcarra, the second of which marked the beginning of the current crisis.

I’m not the most qualified to critique Peru’s constitution, and this is just scratching the surface. But living in a country like Peru makes you appreciate a democratic tradition like in the United States, and will make you worried when actors trample democratic norms and traditions. You’ve seen what it looks like when there are no norms or traditions, no restraint.

Peru needs to overhaul its constitution and develop those traditions. If it doesn’t figure it out, I think a very possible consequence to this kind of unrest, even if it doesn’t happen during this round, could be an authoritarian strongman who undermines Peru’s weak democracy even further by delivering security via brutalization. Something like what’s going on in El Salvador.

That may be good for business. Peru has done well over the last 20 years in spite of its political chaos. That luck has probably run out. A new Fujimori would bring stability, but it’s the opposite of what the protesters want.

Stay tuned for a follow-up: my politically incorrect, ugly American solution to all of Peru’s problems.


  1. I was in Peru around the same time as you and it seems to be that big criollo vs campesino divide, like you, my family, city dwellers, middle to upper middle class professionals are all glad Castillo is in jail but it isn’t just the Andean campesinos who aren’t going to take it anymore – I was stuck in two blockades in Ica trying to get back to Lima last month and that was one of the bigger blockades that eventually got broken up by both the police and the army.

    If the argument is that more Peruvians voted for an idiot then it doesn’t make them that much different from Americans and the Brits who voted for Trump and Johnson respectively – the only difference between the three is the hat and I would say Castillo is the least corrupt of the three.

    I don’t blame the campesinos of the Andes going batshit mental – their vote is being cast aside and if Peru are going to do this democracy thing then they need to respect the vote – a big own goal of Boularte I felt was not letting Castillo flee to Mexico because if they had, they wouldn’t have this now – they could have said – Castillo fleeing to Mexico is as guilty as sin – but they didn’t and have made him a political martyr. This isn’t going to go away, when you read and hear of the people of Ayacucho, Puno etc wanting to become part of Bolivia and the people of Ica (who are traditionally also ‘criollo’) take up their part of the protests – Boularte and Congress are in for a long headache. Looking forward to reading part 2. Part 1 was a great read.


    1. I would say the big difference between US/UK buffoons vs. Peru’s is that ours governed in older democracies whose stronger institutions held up against them.

      Letting Castillo go, eh. I agree it’s shameful to be bloviating from exile (like Evo in Mexico). But in a country where dictatorship is recent history, in fact the norm, it’s not bad to set an example.

      I don’t think the cholo divide goes away either. I have some thoughts (coming soon), but I don’t know the way out.


  2. I don’t see how there could be a divide in a country where the current president comes from a small rural village of a small region of the south, someone who speaks Quechua at birth and is also fluent in Spanish.

    What i’ve just read on your analysis is 90% leftists “caviar” dribble, not your usual original thought. You’re trying to over compensate for your limited social experience in Peru, even in Lima.
    Its too late for you to talk and know normal people, the middle class which is the majority of the country, to understand why the Puneños who live in Lima, the same “aymara” who are revolting DID NOT support their supposed (since we are all Peruvians, everything else is bullshit) brethren when they came to Lima. If you look, you’ll find the puneños complaining at the “betrayal”.

    Also, corruption was the norm in all societies until the reforms conducted during the XIXth up until the middle of the XXth century, worldwide. Its not some 500 year old “Spanish” tradition.
    “” case in point.

    There is no more divide here than in anywhere else, cosmopolitan cities vs deep rural dwellers. Or do San Francisco liberals love the rural people of the deep south? i think not.

    Study history, not just black legend, there have always been indigenous people with power in Spanish Peru, and the peasantry has always suffered everywhere in the world, specially in those times. Even today the Dutch government is crushing their own “campesinos” since they want to push through reforms. “”

    The only discriminatory thing about this Peru situation is people from outside believing the racist tales of the leftists in Peru (90% of whom are hardcore communists) as if people in Lima, the 12 million of us where some sort of blonde, blue eyed, 1.90 meter vikings, oppressing some unfathomably different people and culture than us 1000km to the south of us.

    Lima is the city with the most indigenous population in the world, authorities, businesspeople and citizens at every social level are a mix from all over Peru.
    You are someone who’s lived for years in Peru, doesn’t really fell like it from reading this latest article.


    1. You’re reading more into this article than what is written. I have just as many reactionary opinions as your standard Mes Morado-celebrating, bullfight-attending, southern-beach house-renting, Nivel A/B resident who scowls when he sees an old chola hiking up her skirt to take a piss in the middle of the city.

      I will take issue with the idea that corruption in Spanish America was akin to or even in the same league as in the British, Dutch or French colonies. Maybe the Portuguese of course.

      Part of Spain’s distinct corruption was being first to the New World and grabbing up the best real estate in mineral wealth and human labor. Another part is whatever it is in Spanish thought (tendency toward authoritarianism?) that crushed the Reformation movement. Today LatAm scholars publish entire tomes and build careers chronicling Spanish / LatAm corruption and graft. With the amount of silver moving through Lima, what other system could have possibly emerged?

      The United States has its sins. But it was also settled by Puritans and Quakers and starving peasants escaping feudal Europe. There was slavery, there was corruption, but it’s a completely different story and that’s why our countries have diverged into completely different trajectories. Corruption between the two was not, and is not, equivalent or even remotely close.

      A true caviar usually objects to the term. I don’t. I use it. I think Vero is one, and I think Humala was a good president who made honest progress for the poor. He achieved about as much as anyone could in Peru’s flawed democracy.

      I agree the Cholo Divide is not that unique on the global stage. And for comparisons I’d look no further than right here in the United States, where animosity between black and white is in some ways worse. But in Latin America, I haven’t seen racial animosity anywhere like in Peru. Maybe I’m wrong, not sure.


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