In the midst of a deepening political crisis, Peruvian President Ollanta Humala gave his second Independence Day speech on Sunday. But for the first time since the dictatorship of Alberto Fujimori, widespread protests and mobilizations against the government are gaining national momentum.
On Saturday, thousands of citizens gathered in the historical center of Lima. Protest organizers planned to march to Congress, but were blocked by the police, who repelled the crowds with tear gas and water cannons. It was the third massive mobilization in Lima in two weeks.
Public indignation broke out after the media outlet Perú21 published audio transcripts of under-the-table arrangements by congressmen from different parties to divvy up political appointments to the Constitutional Court and the Central Bank as well as the position of Human Rights Ombudsman.
Although the officials resigned and Congress annulled the appointments, public anger has not subsided. The scandal provided a spark for dissatisfaction with the Humala administration, who was elected in 2011 with promises of economic growth, social inclusion and “la gran transformación”—a great transformation of politics in Peru.
With two years in office complete, many of Humala’s promises have fallen short.
“The elections scandal was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Carlos Gastelumendi, from the Coordinadora Nacional de Derechos Humanos (National Coordinator of Human Rights—CNDDHH). “Today we are not all protesting for the same reasons, but the elections made us all reflect.”
“There are several topics that are causing the youth to organize and protest,” said Sigrid Bazan, a former president of the student federation at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (PUCP). According to Bazan, protesters oppose the new Ley Universitaria (University Law) and the passage of a new code that puts the onus of sex education on parents, rather than schools and the state.
But at the center, Bazan said, it’s “mainly the lack of political representation.”
The protest—originally organized by the Confederación Nacional de Trabajadores del Perú (National Confederation of Peruvian Workers) to protest the new Civil Service Law—brought students, young politicians and government workers together with Peruvians who had never before been involved with politics. “The idea is to be as inclusive as possible,” said Luis Arteaga, from the CNDDHH.
According to Gastelumendi, the new generation is willing to go out on the streets to protest, after years of silence and depoliticization in Peru. “Now, there is a lot of information circulating on the Internet and in social networks, and it has aroused the indignation of the youth that can see that everything is going badly, not only here, but in the world. Peru is a country that is getting back in touch with street protests,” he said.
Summoned to the streets by the slogans #27j, #takethestreet, #recoverthecountry and #mobilize, the march was soon demonized by the government. Last Friday, Minister of the Interior Wilfredo Pedraza warned that MOVADEF, the political arm of the Shining Path, would be in attendance.
Around 1:00pm on Saturday, after almost three hours of peaceful protest, the march was stopped by police near the Parque Universitario. All access routes to Congress were shut down. Police launched tear gas and struck protesters, breaking up the march before it reached its destination. Sixteen people were arrested.
According to information provided by the police, nearly 6,000 police officers were on the streets to control the march, including plainclothes officers, squadrons of cavalry and Peruvian special forces.
The next day, Humala gave his Independence Day speech in Congress without incident, receiving a standing ovation. He gave only vague plans for his third year in power, but promised to fight corruption and protect democracy, as well as to favor market-oriented economic growth and inclusion.
But in seeming recognition of the crowds gathered in protest outside of Congress, Humala ended his speech with a message to Peruvians. “I urge you to maintain your vigilance and capacity for indignation to prevent corruption, injustice and discrimination. My promise is to work with you and listen to your demands.”
With those few final words, Humala recognized that street mobilizations will be a new factor in his presidency. Meanwhile, protesters will remain on alert, ready to show the government their indignation when demands are not fulfilled.