Jorge Escalante (Súmate al Nuevo Perú): ‘A process of self-organisation has begun across the country’

Nuevo Peru

A much shorter version first appeared in Green Left.

Peru’s right-wing controlled Congress blocked a third motion to bring forward national elections on February 2, despite de facto president Dina Boluarte — under pressure from a nationwide rebellion — requesting elections be held this year. This same Congress installed Boluarte as president on December 7, after MPs impeached elected president Pedro Castillo in a move many described as a “legislative coup”. 

With protests continuing to snowball and Congress blocking Boluarte’s initiative, the question being asked is why hasn’t she resigned? According to Jorge Escalante, a leader of left-wing party Nuevo Perú (New Peru) and Súmate (Join Us), a revolutionary socialist tendency within it, it has to do with the pact Boluarte signed with the right to assume the presidency.

Boluarte's pact with the right

Explaining Boluarte’s rise to power, Escalante noted that from Castillo’s first day in office “the right never recognised Castillo’s presidency and essentially waged a war to impeach him. This whole process played out over the year and seven months he was in power, during which there were two failed attempts at impeachment, until the third attempt on December 7 was successful.

Asked why this was the case, Escalante said: “In reality, Castillo had begun to shift to the right by appointing a neoliberal cabinet, abandoning his electoral program and distancing himself from his base. He has also sought to negotiate with the right. As such, his program did not represent any risk to the economic interests of big business. Yet the right was intent on removing him. Why? 

“The problem is that the reactionary right will always come for more and more. Due to its racist and classist nature, they could not tolerate as president a rural teacher who speaks Quechua [an indigenous language] and wears a sombrero [straw hat associated with the countryside]. When Castillo first assumed power, Congress was meant to give a vote of confidence for his cabinet appointees. As his premier started speaking in Quechua, right-wing parliamentarians started whistling: they could not even accept an MP who reflects our own culture, that is how racist and classist the right is. 

“The right was helped [in their campaign to impeach Castillo] by the fact that Castillo took the completely absurd step of closing Congress the same day as his impeachment was going to be debated — a decision he made all on his own, with members of his cabinet stating they had no knowledge of the plan. The right did not have the votes to impeach him, but after what Castillo did, the rest of Congress voted to go along with the impeachment and replace him with his vice president, Boluarte.

As to Boluarte’s role, Escalante said she “had sworn loyalty to Castillo, saying she would resign if he was impeached. But about a week before the impeachment, she broke with Castillo, and made a pact with the right. Boluarte was facing a constitutional complaint against her lodged by the right. The pact was: ‘We withdraw the complaint and in return you replace Castillo, but we will control the situation’. At that point, Boluarte became little more than a figurehead, a Trojan Horse of the right. That is why she was allowed to assume the presidency.

“After the first deaths, Boluarte tried to resign, but the right prohibited her from resigning saying: ‘If you resign, the complaint against you will be resurrected and you will go to jail’. So they have her trapped. Congress does not want her to resign, because then Congress would also fall. Instead, they want to keep her there and obtain at least two key objectives: inflict a historic defeat on the social movements and recapture complete control over the state. This would allow them to deepen their neoliberal model and ensure the continuity of the current constitution, which is a constitution made under the dictatorship for the benefit of big business.

“The right thought that with this move they had triumphed. They thought the field was clear for them to move ahead with their project, because until then, there had been no large mobilisation of support for Castillo. Prior to December 7, there were some mobilisations and strikes calling on Castillo to fulfil his promises. There was growing discontent, but there were no strong movements.” 

From protest to rebellion

Within days of his impeachment, protests began in Peru’s south, where Castillo had received his strongest vote in the April 2021 elections. “The south has always been characterised by its strong struggles. Starting from there, the process of protests grew and transformed into strikes, with strong mobilisations kicking off in towns where there had previously not been any mobilisations.” 

Protesters quickly united around four demands: “Boluarte out”, “Close Congress”, for early elections and a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution. “In terms of the constituent assembly, we see it as the only democratic way out of the crisis. Polls show that 70% of the population see the need to vote on a referendum regarding a new constitution, with the mechanism for how the assembly will work to be determined afterwards. We will need to fight to ensure that it is opened up to include unions, women’s organisations, youth, indigenous peoples, who together can come up with a proposal for a new constitution”, Escalante said. As to Castillo’s return to power, Escalante explained that while “there is still a sector that holds out hope for Castillo and wants him restored as president, they are a small minority within the protest movement, as many who voted for Castillo lost faith in him”.

One trigger for the growth and spread in protests was the repression metered out by the police and armed forces, which to date has left more than 60 dead and hundreds injured. Despite a truce over the holidays after a large demonstration in Lima on December 23, protesters hit the streets in even greater numbers and in more provinces on January 4. But a key turning point occurred “on January 9, in Juliaca, a city in the Puno region, where 18 brothers and sisters were killed by repression. This massacre led to a change in the situation. Eighteen deaths in one day was too much for people to take. The result was that the south was now even more on fire, and Lima, which is a conservative city, began to see large demonstrations in rejection of the massacre. Human rights groups, professionals, doctors, lawyers began to speak out, calling for those responsible for the deaths to be investigated and punished. The response of the government has been more repression.”

The protests reached a peak with the January 19 nationwide strike, in what was dubbed the second “March of the Four Nations”, in reference to the march of the same name which took place in July 2000 against Alberto Fujimori, who was fraudulently declared president that year. “Along with mobilisations in the provinces, people came from all over to Lima. Many of them decided to stay, with universities opening up spaces for them to stay. On January 21, the police used tanks to raid the San Marcos University and jailed more than 200 people. While protests, along with support from universities from other countries, ultimately led to their release the following day, these scenes only triggered further anger.

“The size of the protests have now far exceeded the mobilising potential of the left and trade unions. What this shows is that a process of self-organisation has begun across the country.” But a challenge that the movement faces, according to Escalante, is that “there is no coordinated leadership at the national level, and in the different districts, there are different united fronts, with some provinces having up to two or three different such fronts. There is a united front at the national level, the National Assembly of the Peoples (ANP), which predates these mobilisations and includes the main trade union confederation, the CGTP [General Confederation of Peruvian Workers], along with some women's collectives, youth groups and left parties. But it does not carry much weight in the social movements. Much like the CGTP itself — which no longer has the same social weight and ability to mobilise as it once did — the ANP’s influence over other social movements is limited. Many do not recognise its authority, though if a decision is taken by the ANP to go on strike on a certain day, most groups agree to participate. While occasionally it is an assembly where we discuss politics, more than anything else it is a space for coordinating protests and actions. This is how the national strike on January 19 was called.

“We, as Nuevo Perú, are part of the ANP and its leadership. Our provincial committees have thrown themselves into the task of building the mobilisations and trying to strengthen the struggle. We have thrown everything into this process. We have sought to bring together everyone from the provinces who are in Lima to be part of the ANP and see if we can centralise the struggle. But this is very difficult, because many do not view the ANP as a kind of leadership. We need to continue advancing in our levels of coordination and organisation. Importantly, there was a call for more groups from the regions to participate in the ANP and a number recently came to a meeting — an important step forward because it's necessary to have more organisation.”

“Meanwhile, this process remains alive and well. On January 24, there was a massive mobilisation in Lima, with more people arriving from the provinces. Nuevo Perú is the only party that has opened its headquarters to provide a place to stay for the comrades coming from the interior. The rest of the organisations have not done this, arguing that given Boluarte has declared a state of emergency in Lima, the police can now raid party or union offices and strip organisations of their constitutional guarantees. That is the argument that unions and other left parties have given for not opening up their offices to the thousands that have come to Lima. In contrast, we have handed over our headquarters and provided roughly 1500 lunches and breakfasts a day to activists from the provinces.”

Fissures in the government

The protests have had a clear impact on the government: “Boluarte came out after the strike on January 19 and said she would not resign, denouncing the protesters as terrorists. But the strike was a huge blow to her government. What we have now in Peru is essentially a civic-military government, in which the executive, the judicial power, the armed forces and sectors of the congress are operating as a bloc and are dependent on the support of the armed forces and the police to remain in power.”

“But fissures are opening up. First, among her government and political functionaries. Already two of her ministers have resigned and called on Boluarte to do the same, and the same attorney general who was complicit in Castillo’s impeachment has now opened up an investigation against Boluarte for genocide. While it is most likely that Boluarte will not be jailed, all this is an expression of the fissures that are occurring, as many begin to smell blood and do not want to be near Boluarte when she falls. Second, we are seeing that the middle classes, who initially supported Boluarte, have begun to distance themselves from her following the massacre in Juliaca. Each day, Boluarte is more and more isolated, with her only solid backing being the police, the armed forces and the reactionary right in Congress. Even the main daily newspaper, El Comercio, has begun to change its editorial line. It now less openly supports Boluarte and has accused her of attempting to put the fire out in the country by throwing more gasoline on it; it's beginning to criticise the government.

“We believe that this government will fall. It might take more time, but don't forget that when Fujimori fell in 2000, the whole country mobilised to Lima in July” — the first “March of the Four Nations” —  only for him to resign in November. Hopefully Boluarte will fall sooner.”