Three presidents in one week: Peruvian youths say ‘enough’

Rodrigo Abd/AP
Local folk artists perform in Lima, Peru, on Nov. 15, 2020, next to a police line outside Congress as they wait for news on who will be Peru's next president. President Manuel Merino announced his resignation following massive protests unleashed when lawmakers ousted President Martín Vizcarra earlier in November.
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Peruvians are no strangers to political scandals and corruption. Almost every president over the past three decades is in jail or facing charges. But the past week has seen historic shifts in Peru’s political landscape: some of the biggest public protests in two decades and the emergence of a new, digitally savvy generation of politically active Peruvians.

On Nov. 9, legislators rushed to install the speaker of Peru’s Congress as president, after his predecessor was hastily impeached. Federico La Hoz, in his early 20s, met with friends that day and headed to downtown Lima to join the swelling crowd of mostly young protesters who opposed what they saw as a power grab. As the protest grew, so too did the use of social networks like Facebook and TikTok to spread information about where and how to demonstrate.

Why We Wrote This

Political crisis is on Peru’s doorstep once again, with a startling three presidents holding office in the span of a week. What’s different this time around? Young generations online and in the streets are vowing “never again.”

“We were saying ‘no’ to politics as usual,” says Mr. La Hoz.

Youths protesting this month forced a change in leadership. They also may have permanently altered Peruvian politics. 

“The citizen movement today belongs to the young,” current President Francisco Sagasti said in his inaugural address Nov. 17. “These young people have become protagonists. They demand representation and political participation.”

Federico La Hoz had an inkling he was going to be a part of history on Nov. 9.

That was the day legislators rushed to install the speaker of Peru’s Congress as president, after his predecessor was hastily impeached. Mr. La Hoz, 24, met up with friends and headed to downtown Lima, a sea of government buildings. They were surprised to join a swelling crowd of demonstrators, the vast majority young, opposed to what they saw as a power grab by newly installed President Manuel Merino and his congressional clique.

By Nov. 15, two protesters had died, intensifying demands for change.

Why We Wrote This

Political crisis is on Peru’s doorstep once again, with a startling three presidents holding office in the span of a week. What’s different this time around? Young generations online and in the streets are vowing “never again.”

As the crowd grew, so did the use of virtual networks – from Facebook to TikTok – to spread the word that people were organizing against Mr. Merino.

“We were saying ‘no’ to politics as usual,” says Mr. La Hoz. “[A] new generation that had not been interested in politics taking to the streets to stop what was happening.”

The protests grew in size, and by Nov. 14 they were deemed the largest street demonstrations in Peru in more than two decades. Mr. Merino stepped down and Congress selected a replacement Francisco Sagasti – a newcomer to electoral politics and thus further removed from the corruption charges plaguing many elected officials – the following day.

That’s three presidents in the span of a week.

Rodrigo Abd/AP
People who refused to recognize Peru's new government gathered to protest in Lima, Peru, on Nov. 14, 2020. Peru's Congress voted overwhelmingly to remove now ex-President Marín Vizcarra on Monday.

The young people protesting not only forced a change in leadership, but may have permanently altered the way politics will play out in Peru. That could mean a greater dependence on social media than the dictates of political leaders as the country prepares for general elections in April.

“The citizen movement today belongs to the young,” President Sagasti said in his inaugural address yesterday. “These young people have become protagonists, they demand representation and political participation. Young people are necessary for politics to change.”

Social media vs. classic politics

Virtual networks stepped in to fill the vacuum created by Peru’s weak political parties over the past week, says Miguel Morachimo, executive director of digital rights organization, Hiperderecho.

“Social media networks took on the role of classic political and social organizing. There were no leaders, which is why the marches were so diverse, with people coming out for the first time to take part in a protest,” says Mr. Morachimo, whose organization shared tips for protesters on how to protect their devices, ward off digital trolls, and ensure their digital rights.

Luis Nunes, a political scientist who has studied Peruvian politics since the 1990s, says a sea change is underway as emerging generations of Peruvians refuse to accept politics as usual.

“The majority of the protests were coordinated through [digital] platforms and not parties,” he says. “The upcoming election is going to depend heavily on social media because everything is transmitted quickly.”

The political crisis that led first to former President Martín Vizcarra’s impeachment and then Mr. Merino’s resignation has been years in the making. Congress and different administrations have been at loggerheads over policies, particularly how to deal with corruption.

History of corruption

While Mr. Vizcarra was popular, with an approval rating near 60%, his removal was not the only impetus behind the protests. The spark was the fear that Mr. Merino would attempt to roll back anti-corruption reforms and possibly stop the scheduled elections from taking place.

It was a final straw in a country where polls show that corruption is considered an even bigger problem than the pandemic or the economic crisis it has created. Peru has the third highest per capita death rate from COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University, and its economy contracted by 14.5% in the first nine months of the year compared to 2019, according to data from the national statistics agency.

These numbers, however, coexist with a dismal political track record. Corruption cost the country around $6.5 billion in 2019, according to the Comptroller General’s office.

Rodrigo Abd/AP
People hold photos of Jack Bryan Pintado Sánchez, who died during weekend protests against lawmakers' removal of President Martín Vizcarra, in Lima, Peru, on Nov. 16, 2020. A new crop of political leaders, preparing for April elections, is increasingly aware of the power of a young generation and digital platforms in the nation's politics.

With the exception of an interim president in 2001, every president since the mid-1980s has had serious legal trouble. Many are either in jail or inching closer to it. One president, Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), is in prison serving a 25-year sentence for human rights violations. He already finished serving time for convictions in several corruption cases. Two former presidents are under house arrest, and another committed suicide in 2018 to avoid arrest.

Mr. Vizcarra was impeached on allegations, so far without evidence, of corruption. He is under investigation for allegedly receiving around $625,000 in kickbacks when he was governor of a small state nearly a decade ago. He denies the allegations.

Two of the top presidential candidates in the upcoming race are accused of receiving illegal campaign contributions during a previous hard-fought election. Added to the lists of potential inmates are governors, mayors, and former cabinet ministers: More than 60 of the current 130 members in the single chamber Congress face corruption investigations. 

Trials for many of these former politicians and candidates have not started, and the protests over the past week stemmed from fears that Mr. Merino’s temporary government would make sure they never began. Many thought anti-corruption reforms, even if imperfect, would come to a screeching halt.

Congress was badgered by former President Vizcarra and faced public pressure to approve legislation that prohibits people convicted of a crime from running for or holding office. Even though Congress passed the change, it is still looking for ways to interpret how the new law is applied.

“New awakening”

The swift reaction of Peru’s younger generations via protests is a sign that politics here are already shifting, says Mr. Morachimo.

He sees it as similar to the role virtual communities have played in organizing pro-democracy marches in Hong Kong or protests for racial justice in the United States.

“We are seeing a new awakening of young people, and it is something that was needed,” he says.

A new crop of political leaders getting ready to run in the April elections is already convinced virtual platforms are the way to get new generations engaged. Luis Terán, who is running for Congress with the Podemos Peru party, says the pandemic has helped facilitate how politics are done in the country. He says the upcoming campaign requires creativity: Traditional methods are no longer effective.

Mr. Terán, a millennial, has been tapping into the online platform TikTok.

“TikTok is a way for me to promote labor rights with short, one-minute clips. It is a way to get young people interested, because until now, my generation and people younger than us had turned our backs on politics,” he says.

So far, Peru has 24 registered parties – a historic high – ready to run in 2021.

Newly inaugurated President Sagasti promised a government based on science, technology, and innovation, saying this is what the future of Peru requires. He promised to close the country’s digital gap, saying it’s unacceptable that only 40% of households in Peru have access to the internet. Smartphones, which are prevalent and typically have internet access, may be a great tool for connecting in a protest, but they are not as helpful for distance learning. The president wants to remedy that divide.

Mr. La Hoz, the young man who went out to protest with his friends, says he is certain that young people are not going to forget what happened this month when they cast their ballots in the April elections.

“Things have changed,” he says. “My generation and people even younger, who are just finishing school, will not forgive these parties for what they have done” to Peru.

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