The Limits of Self-Determinism in the Vernacular Surrounding Ongoing Protests in Peru

At least 48 protesters have been killed and over 970 injured in the course of anti-government protests in Peru. The continuous demonstrations, roadblocks, and clashes with state forces — which were set off by the ousting of President Pedro Castillo — have disrupted infrastructure and halted tourism in the nation. The particularly histrionic coverage given to the plight of tourists betrays a larger issue surrounding the ways in which the protests have been documented and described. Anglophone coverage on this issue doesn’t necessarily lie, but rather constructs vague narratives about the movement that neglects its more immediate demands, particularly those which are implied through this omission to be outside the realm of appropriate action. 

 Castillo’s initial victory against Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of currently-incarcerated former president Alberto Fujimori, relied primarily on the support of rural and indigenous voters. Castillo, a former schoolteacher, presided during a brief period marked by turmoil, high levels of personnel turnover, inconsistent policy, and numerous attempts at impeachment. He faced vitriolic classicism and racism from an obstructionist congress, culminating in his illegal attempt to dissolve the body and hold new elections. Castillo’s cabinet quickly denounced his attempt to seize power, and he was ousted by the congress that same day, replaced by his vice president Dina Boluarte. 

This sudden upheaval sparked protests in the streets of both major cities and rural areas, aggravated by the instability in Peru for the past decade and the fallout from the COVID pandemic. Boluarte’s government was quick to respond, perpetrating at least two large massacres of demonstrators and a general policy of repression. This has led to investigations by the Peruvian Attorney General’s office into Boluarte and her cabinet for the crimes of genocide and homicide.

One crucial demand of the protest movement has been for the dissolution of congress and the holding of new elections. While Boluarte has moved the elections up to this year, protests continue, pushing for her immediate resignation in light of both perceived illegitimacy and her brutal crackdown on displays of public discontent. 

What has been the response of the United States, ever the self-appointed judge of democracy south of its border? An unqualified legitimization of the Boluarte administration: “We commend Peruvian institutions and civil authorities for assuring democratic stability and will continue to support Peru under the unity government President Boluarte pledged to form.” Within this statement lies both the rhetorical schema and true goals of contemporary U.S. foreign policy: first, a feeble gesture at self-determination, the language of the decolonial movements of the 20th century, which frames U.S. influence as support for pre-existing domestic institutions; and second — hiding in plain sight — the true desire to preserve the global south as a stable location for U.S. creditors to extract labor, resources, and capital. However, this kind of neocolonial relationship cannot be explicitly articulated and is thus thinly veiled behind the framing of movements and actors as legitimate or illegitimate through the language of liberal democracy. Hence, popular movements that question the legitimacy of foreign institutions must somehow be cast as inauthentic representations of the popular will. 

In Peru, this manifested specifically in the evolution of coverage of protest movements over the past year. The initial wave of protests spurred by leftist Pedro Castillo’s move to dissolve congress was depicted as specifically anti-Castillo. However, this narrative is muddled by the seamless evolution of the protest movement into one which opposes the rightist coalition of Boluarte and seeks new elections. Indeed, some reporting indicates, far more plausibly and contrarily, that demonstrations (which took place predominantly in rural regions, the same areas responsible for Castillo’s election) were in opposition to the removal of Castillo from office. More interestingly, the current protests, which are also sympathetic to Castillo to an extent, are similarly not cast as such. Instead, the media has muted the Peruvian protesters’ goals through the use of the primary descriptor “anti-government.” Besides the obvious invocation of fears about anarchists or subversives represented by this term, it also dampens the explicit political goals of the protesters. 

In this coverage, we see the tension between the inertia of neocolonial force and a requisite affectation of anticolonial language. In other words, we are witnessing how the United States reacts to self-determination when the people envision a future that no longer caters to the former’s interests. The solution is to constrain the range of political options even mentioned. Constructed for the people is a false choice between reelecting Boluarte and electing someone else, the epitome of choice in liberal democracy. Left out of the picture is what many of the protesters seem to be most interested in: returning Castillo to power. Of course, the United States and its bourgeois press cannot say this outright and instead simply neglect to mention it as a real and fervent demand of the Peruvian people. So they tell us instead that what the people want is new elections, which while not an outright lie, hides the important reasons why the people might want them, i.e. to elect either Castillo or someone from his party. The only agency we are shown the people taking is demanding electoralism, choice itself. In this way, self-determination is made into a caricature of itself: the people have determined for themselves only that they must make more determinations. Nowhere in this process is policy or power ever shifted. 

To be clear, I of course have concerns regarding Castillo’s decision to dissolve congress, embattled as his cabinet may have been. Nonetheless, my point is that we should remain particularly cautious of media coverage of protest movements that purport to irrefutably represent the demands, causes, and makeup of what will always be a heterogeneous group. Furthermore, we ought to understand the particular ways in which this sort of media coverage can serve to mediate the inherent contradictions in the interests and statements of the U.S. and its allies.

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