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Democracy, participation, and discontent: a crisis of governance for Peru?


Guest post by Jacob Bathanti

July 28 marked Peru’s day of national independence, the centerpiece of a series of celebrations collectively known as Fiestas Patrias.  U.S. readers might imagine this extended holiday as a combination July 4, Thanksgiving, and Decoration Day (in its most tragic and most triumphant senses).Peru Flag Icon

It’s also the occasion for the sitting president to deliver a major policy address, more or less equivalent to the State of the Union.  In this year’s speech, Peru’s president, Ollanta Humala, laid out an agenda which hit some nice notes, with the president focusing his attention on major themes of anti-corruption and social inclusion, with the latter to come both through social programs and through market-oriented growth.

There were few real details, and accordingly some commentators castigated the president for failing to concretely attend to major issues, such as citizen security, which are on many Peruvians’ minds.  Still, Humala is on message: in none of his vagueness did he depart from the key pieces of his overarching double-barreled agenda: pursuing economic growth while ensuring that no one is left behind. Not a bit of what he said in his address was unexpected.

This all sounds innocuous enough, but the political context is more fraught than all that.  Dealmaking among administration insiders and poorly handled attempts to rationalize the state bureaucracy have recently drawn very visible protests from young people, state employees, and the urban professional classes. And so it was that the most interesting part of Humala’s speech, as Rosario Yori has noted, came at the very end of the discourse.  That’s when Humala implicitly conceded that not everyone is happy with his administration, or his plans for transforming Peru; when he acknowledged, however obliquely, that the road toward “La gran transformacion” will not be without twists and turns; when he conceded that he is aware that his program runs the risk of being derailed by its supposed beneficiaries:

…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.”

It is a move not uncharacteristic of a president who has rhetorically embraced themes of popular participation without delivering concrete measures to drive forward a participatory agenda.  Even as Peru has seen an upsurge in in largely peaceful public demonstration, the Humala administration has asked demonstrators to ‘go home’; and even as municipalities have taken steps to push forward institutions of participatory democracy at the local level, the national administration stands accused of ignoring a pro-participation agenda at best, and of actively moving to neuter participatory institutions at worst.

This is problematic not merely from the standpoint of democracy theory. Peru’s conventional institutional framework is troubled, with weak and fragmented political parties, an unpopular Congress, and one of the least-trusted judiciaries in Latin America. I n this situation, Peru’s framework of participatory institutions – various arrangements that invite citizens to actively engage with political processes in a realm beyond simply voting and returning home to await the next electoral cycle – offers the best hope for a revitalization of the political scene.  But the Peruvian government has shown itself unprepared to take participatory institutions seriously.  This is a shame, because an injection of participatory democracy offers a chance to avert a crisis of governance, by fostering active citizenship to channel popular participation, and burgeoning discontent, in productive directions.

Below, I briefly lay out an institutional landscape in which local officials struggle with the implications of participatory democracy, and a landscape of contention in which protest movements are proliferating.  I then offer some suggestions for deepening Peru’s participatory institutions, expanding the substantive exercise of citizenship in ways that move beyond protest. Continue reading Democracy, participation, and discontent: a crisis of governance for Peru?

Is Peru’s Humala a modern-day Velasquista?


It hardly seems like Ollanta Humala has been Perú’s president for two years — it feels like yesterday when we were assessing Humala’s first year in office.Peru Flag Icon

Jacob Bathanti, a Latin American scholar who blogs occasionally from Lima, where he’s working this summer, considers the similarities between Humala (pictured above, right) and his leftist military predecessor Juan Velasco Alvarado (pictured above, left), and also to Fernando Belaúnde.  But he also places Humala within an even broader tradition — here, in one sentence, he’s encapsulated mainstream Peruvian policy from much of the past half-century:

Official Lima, in so many manifestations, has always seethed with anxiety over these people, what they might do next (when it isn’t ignoring them). Humala’s big idea seems to be to resist the temptation to ignore the highlands, to push a broad economic integration into the national prosperity, satisfying the economic needs of those most likely to revolt – because it is in their nature, because they are sick of poverty, because to revolt is unfortunately at the moment justified, heck, pick a reason – before they revolt again.

But with three years left to go in his presidential term, Humala remains in many ways a chimera whose once-leftist rhetoric has dissolved into a presidency that seems to have no prevailing ideology.  That’s why it’s so tantalizing to look back to the Velasco years as a template for what Humala may yet try to accomplish — will he take up Velasco’s primary cause of pushing the fruits of Perú’s economic boom further down to the country’s poorest citizens?  Perú is somewhat remarkable among Latin American countries in that party identification remains incredibly weak, there’s no strong center-left and center-right party as such, and leaders easily slip from left to right and back again.  Humala’s predecessors, Alan García and Alejandro Toledo, both had their fair share of chameleonic moments in public life.

What Jacob writes comes as close to articulating, in one sentence, Perú’s prevailing 21st century ideology as I’ve ever read, and it really applies to just about every government in recent Peruvian history, except perhaps two.  The first is García’s first presidency from 1985 to 1990, which was a hyperinflationary socialist economic disaster.  The second is the authoritarian presidency of Alberto Fujimori from 1990 to 2000, which began amid a low-grade civil war against the communist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path).

I find the comparison to Velasco particularly intriguing because it’s so rare that an army coup results in a leftist military-led government in Latin American history, and the similarities to Humala, the once-radical military man are simply too great to ignore.  In 2000, Humala led a short-lived anti-corruption revolt from within the military against Fujimori.  As it turns out, the revolt fizzled, Fujimori fled shortly thereafter and Humala was pardoned, but the similarities are hard to miss.  In the 2006 presidential campaign, Humala often cited Velasco as a political touchstone and even went so far as to say that his administration would finish the work that Velasco’s started.

Like Velasco and many before him, Humala is trapped between meeting the needs of a business elite that has kept GDP growth humming along (an elite that largely supported his opponent Keiko Fujimori in the June 2011 presidential race) and a restless majority still trapped in poverty (that largely placed its hopes in Humala).  The Peruvian economy is likely to dip to just 6% growth this year — still high, but troubled by slack Chinese growth, flat prices for gold, copper, oil and other commodities that comprise over two-thirds — but protests over Humala’s performance in office continue, and polls show that his popularity has declined from over 50% earlier this year to just 33% this summer.

But Humala has governed in a far different manner than Velasco on two of the most important matters of Peruvian governance — economic policy and foreign policy. Continue reading Is Peru’s Humala a modern-day Velasquista?