Plucking Peru from a democratic plunge

As in many Latin American countries, Peru’s upheavals are compelling some leaders to offer honest governance and perhaps uproot entrenched elites and corrupt ways.

Angela Ponce/Reuters/File
Peru's President Dina Boluarte meets with foreign press in Lima, Peru, on Jan. 24.

Violent clashes between protesters and police in Peru in recent weeks have sharpened fears that the South American country is edging closer to a failed state. It has had six presidents in as many years. At least 58 people have been killed during demonstrations since President Dina Boluarte assumed office Dec. 7. She already faces a motion of impeachment.

Peru’s crisis coincides with similar upheavals in other Latin American countries where new types of leaders and prosecutors are challenging entrenched elites that often evade the law. Ms. Boluarte herself, in a rare moment of public contrition for a new head of state, may have reflected this shift by apologizing last month for the conduct of the security forces.

In an echo of her apology, Peru’s attorney general, Liz Patricia Benavides Vargas, has opened multiple investigations into police brutality. Appointed just eight months ago, she has already shown her mettle. Her corruption inquiry into then-President Pedro Castillo last year led to his removal from office and subsequent arrest as well as Ms. Boluarte’s rise to the presidency.

“When I was appointed attorney general last June, I promised the citizens that I would act with order, determination, and haste,” Ms. Benavides said in a national address on Tuesday. “The distinctive mark of all civil servants should be always to honor their word, to accomplish what they promise, to recover the trust of the citizens in their institutions.”

Popular demands for Ms. Boluarte to resign after less than two months in office underscore the impatience felt not just in Peru but also across the region for democratic renewal. The latest Transparency Index, published earlier this week, showed that perceptions of corruption have changed little in Latin America during the past four years even as voters have tossed out several governments. Protesters in Peru seek immediate elections. Many want a new constitution, echoing similar calls in neighboring Chile.

“Right now, the political situation merits a change of representatives, of government, of the executive and the legislature,” a protester named Carlos told CNN last month. “That is the immediate thing. Because there are other deeper issues – inflation, lack of employment, poverty, malnutrition and other historical issues that have not been addressed.”

Frustrations like those are leading to new responses. In Honduras, for example, President Xiomara Castro, who came to office in early 2022 pledging to curb widespread graft, has established a new anti-corruption commission with the United Nations. Judges and prosecutors from 15 nations across the region, meanwhile, are working with the European Union to create joint investigation teams to strengthen their judicial institutions.

“Pervasive corruption across the Americas fuels the many other crises facing the region,” noted Delia Ferreira Rubio, a legal expert from Argentina and chair of Transparency International, in the new index report. “The only way out is for states to do the hard work, rooting out corruption at all levels to ensure governments work for all people, not just an elite few.”

Popular protests are a release valve for faltering democracies. They have led to striking turnovers in leadership across Latin America. In countries like Honduras and now Peru, they have lent new resolve to tackling impunity, requiring new attitudes – such as contrition, service, and honesty – that can build public trust in governance.

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