Sometimes Protesters are Wrong

I started my other posts after Peru’s protests with the standard disclaimer that I’m a well-heeled, partisan creole who can’t represent the poor indigenous view because I don’t know many. Of all these posts, this one probably reveals that most of the reactionary inside.

There is an inclination among journalists and punditry to ascribe some legitimate gripe when violent protests break out.

I don’t know how a journalist could say without sounding ridiculous that these people are just looking for a fight. Or they’re idiots. But sometimes, that is the case. There is no better example than Jan. 6, when a critical mass of gullible fools believed the word of the world’s most documented fraud and con man of the century over his own appointed officials, including his cybersecurity chief who called it the most secure in history.

Sometimes protesters are just wrong. I remember covering a protest in Cusco where they blocked the train line to Machu Picchu in part to protest the opening of a new hotel that would allow guests to skip Aguas Calientes. This was just one demand thrown into the pile when souvenir vendors joined the protest. In another example, residents near the Las Bambas copper mine accepted $100,000 each to relocate and, after a few years, joined new protests.

They know there is money to be made in protests. They are not always noble. They can be for-profit endeavors. Gringos environmentalists adore Maxima Acuña, but never hear about activists like Pepe Gutierrez asking for a bribe to end protests against the Tia Maria copper project.

Sometimes people just want to fight. I saw a handful of student protests in Bogota. Nobody knew what they were about. Nobody cared. I decided these kids get a thrill out of fighting the cops. Watch the video below, same kids.

This was from the early second round of protests in Lima. I’ve seen the general situation play out many times. A small platoon separated and being pelted with rocks. One of them, usually the youngest, loses his cool and shoots at the crowd. I don’t blame him. Don’t cancel me, bro.

Why are there groups of these guys ready to go at the cops? I think because they get away with it. In another example of “Sometimes protesters are wrong” from the United States, a group of environmentalist / social justice warriors recently held violent protests that attacked police in what is standard Latin American protest.

What’s different is the 35 protesters arrested are being charged with domestic terrorism and will do minimums of 10 years. That’s why we almost never see protests that injure police. You’re looking at hard time. Not impunity. No cops hurt? Nobody cares. Didn’t light those fireworks? Nobody cares. You get a dime.

Occasionally you see some pituco keyboard warrior firing off jingoistic takes from his apartment tower overlooking the sea, demanding the mano dura to get the protesters in line. I don’t want to be cringey too but there is a little truth in that. Every time one of these protests flares up, there are gangs ready to go to war with the cops. And in Peru and Colombia, impunity is generally the name of the game.

Police across most of the first world have a monopoly on violence. Of course there is still crime, but nobody tries to take on the cops. In Latin America the security forces don’t have that monopoly. I think that is in part why they come down so hard on protests. When the fight is not as unfair, why take unnecessary chances?

In Arequipa, you are forced to respect labor strikes. If you drive your car, you’ll have your windows broken with rocks (or burned). Same for public buses. This should not be accepted, but it is. And little things like these are symptoms of government not having a monopoly.

Corruption is the scourge of Peru and greater Latin America and frustration with the system. But corruption isn’t what precipitated these protests. Castillo was not tackling corruption and then ousted for it. He wasn’t tackling much of anything except steering a little cash to his family in Cajamarca.

Corruption plays a role in frustration, but the identity factor is just as much the fuel. You’ll often hear well-meaning analysis saying the wealth needs to be shared more equitably, especially with the poor Indian farmers in the highlands. Or course it probably could be, but saying that overlooks that Peru has staged nothing short of an economic miracle in 30 years, going from highest poverty in the region to among the lowest. Nothing short of a transformation has occurred.

Extreme poverty and malnutrition are down from well over a majority to less than a quarter. Is there still poverty? Of course. Is there still extreme poverty? Of course. You may not eliminate that in 300 years. Could Peru’s wealth be shared more equitably? Probably. Is there more room to go? Certainly. But it’s on the right track.

I don’t know much about how the rural poor live, but I’d bet dollars to donuts that even their lives have markedly improved over the last generation if we applied certain poverty-specific metrics. How many grams of protein do children eat per day? How many days do they go without shoes? How many times do they see a doctor in a year? What is the average weight of an elderly man/woman? I guarantee that comparing then vs. now will show drastic improvement across the board.

Some people will dismiss that data and offer anecdotes of how there is still extreme poverty. You want anecdotes? This site was built on anecdotes!

Every time at the Lima airport I made politically incorrect jokes to my wife like, “I feel like we’re going to see a couple dogs and chickens walking around in here.” The place is just bursting at the seams with people, dark brown provincial people who you didn’t used to see in the airports. And you can tell at every stage — when they go through security, when they board — that many of them have never been on a plane before. They don’t know how to do it.

The Lima airport wasn’t always like that. When I first arrived in 2008, I don’t think it was much different than any others in Latin America. But today it brings up memories from my 2009 visit to the Sicuani bus station. The airport can’t grow quickly enough to accommodate everybody. It’s actually a good problem to have, to have so many upwardly mobile people that infrastructure can’t keep up.

You drive through the conos of Lima, which textbooks and newspapers would inform you are the poverty-stricken pueblos Jovenes, and you’re surprised to see a giant shopping mall, with H&M to boot. And you can’t get even close to it in a car. It’s more packed with people than the airport.

Look at one of the strongest multinationals in Peru, Grupo Aje, bottlers of Big Cola, Sporade and Agua Cielo. I actually saw their Volt energy drink on the shelf at a bodega here in Missouri. That’s a family of Ayacuchanos running one of Latin America’s most successful and fastest-growing companies, an upstart at odds with the typical view of a closed, monopoly-dominated Latin economy. The face of Peruvian soccer, Edwin Oviedo, one of the highest-profile positions in the country, is a “cholo con plata” who made his money in sugar.

There has been tremendous economic progress from the Peru of the 1980s. Like anywhere, a little stumble can bring unrest. But then again, people complain no matter how much progress there is.

I’ve seen reporters quote people in Russia long for the days of the Soviet Union. Here in the United States, I did not grow up poor, but I wasn’t so removed as to not know about working-class life in the 1990s. They never ate steak or went to Florida. Younger siblings didn’t get new clothes. One television with six channels and one family car.

All that is over. Ancient history. Americans complaining from the right or the left don’t seem to recognize how far we have come. Centuries of progress in a couple decades and people still complain.

Part of that is too much free time. Life has gotten too comfortable. People want to fight for something. They want something to make them feel alive because they’re bored.

In Peru, give them sustained gains against corruption and a weakening of the Cholo Divide. Probably can’t execute on my four parties, so some political reforms are better than none (allow reelection, expand congress, empower executive branch, expand decentralization efforts).

In America, take away social media.


  1. “We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”

    Your article kinda reminded me of this Fight Club quote and it’s kinda true lol. Some people are just looking to fight and want a bigger purpose in life.

    Having said that though — but I think you kinda touched on it — is the point of envy and socioeconomic inequality.

    Yes, the average person is better off materially and yes — their proposed economic ideas might be retarded when compared to what works — but inequality is still an issue and envy is always an ingredient to life in Latin America.

    Similar to how you got people bitching about expats living in Mexico City raising the rent but many of those bitching are living in areas where no gringos live and obviously are areas gringos are not raising the rent.

    It’s not about the rent but the fact other people have it better than me and are moving in to life on easy street.

    Going back to Peru, even if the average person is doing better materially, anger is still going to be common if you are on the bottom of the totem pole with everyone else having it better than you.

    To what degree are those angry in Peru in part mad by the fact that — even if they have it better than their parents — they don’t got it as easy as those living in Miraflores?

    You can say they are dumb and they might very well be. But envy is a huge part of at least Mexican politics and what you can find easily in many other Latin American countries.

    But envy is just one part of the situation. I don’t claim that it explains the whole situation with why people are angry, why Cowboy Socialist got elected in the first place or anything else.

    Just feel that it’s not emphasized as well in your analysis when it comes to the material wellbeing of those mad.


  2. Good comment, Matt. Apart from the usual thoughtless contempt about “Cowboy Socialist”. IMHO we really should be getting over this when there are much more serious fish to fry, like for example several recent Presidents, non cowboy, STILL evading the courts. So nice try, the cigar is still waiting.

    As to how the wash rinse spin cycle of 5 year elections functions nearly anywhere – build a system based on mistrust (throw them out every time the bell rings) and wonder why you get untrustworthies elected – put it this way: Who Pays For The Campaigns?

    Personally I think we get the choices that the Parasite Class preselect…


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