With more than 60 years of experience in Peruvian politics, Héctor Béjar breaks down, in this exclusive interview, the context and reasons for the coup, and presents a portrait of a country nestled between reality and fiction.
The slow stride of the president on horseback
The rearing horse that “the teacher,” Pedro Castillo, rode in Tacabamba, when he was a candidate for the presidency, ended up not being a metaphor for speed or bravery. With a slow step and a confused pace, his government decided, from the outset, to pursue the strategy of retreat. One step back and another again. Moderating to contain, offering a program for governance to a seditious and insatiable opposition. Castillo’s administration, the most unexpected of the governments of the so-called “second progressive wave,” barely lasted 15 months.
However, it must be recognized that the conditions for his governing could not have been more hostile. After his victory over Keiko Fujimori by just 44,000 votes in the second round of elections, the president himself quickly found himself without a party, disaffected of his own free will, or abandoned by some of his own, while the friendly fire between “sectarians” and “caviars” ended with the fracture of the parliamentary blocs. In addition, a very high turnover of officials and various scandals and complaints turned many ministers into lightning rods, discontinuing all executive policies. We can also add the adverse economic conditions generated by the war in Ukraine, and even the protests in some regions of the transportation sector and other groups that would a priori would make up Castillo’s natural voter base.
To this must be added the hidden work in Congress: from the parliamentary lock on the proposals for health and education reforms, to the motions for vacancy and the complaints for alleged treason against Castillo. In short, his government aroused many hopes, various difficulties, and not a few fears, with the vivid memory of the disappointment caused by the presidency of Ollanta Humala, who appeared, at first, to be a kind of criollo Hugo Chávez.
We spoke with Héctor Béjar Rivera about his assessment of a government which he was part of for a very brief period, serving as minister of foreign affairs. Béjar’s political experience has been anything but brief. For 60 years, he played a leading role in Peruvian politics, from his political-military career, in which he was part of the Revolutionary Leftist Movement (MIR) and the Peruvian National Liberation Army, to his participation in the government of Velasco Alvarado and his agrarian reform policy, as well as in the Constituent Assembly of the year 1978. Béjar intellectual life has been equally prolific, from the creation of the Center for Development and Participation (CEDEP), to the publication of numerous articles, essays, and books, some of which are authentic classics of Peruvian history and sociology.
Lautaro Rivara: Everything seemed to indicate that the Constitutional reform was a demand with broad popular support. Why was that flag lowered as soon as Castillo entered the palace?
Héctor Béjar: It is true that a constituent reform was called for, and the mobilizations continue to call for it it. I have always said that we should not talk about a constituent assembly but rather a constituent process, because under current conditions, an assembly would replicate parliament. We even run the risk that a hastily formed body, in this precarious political situation that Peru is experiencing, could be even worse than Congress itself, giving rise to a Constitution that is even more regressive than that of 1993, created by the Alberto Fujimori dictatorship.
Héctor Béjar Rivera during his assumption as minister of foreign affairs of Peru.
What must be done then is a constituent process, a work of education and dissemination with rural and urban communities, from the base, and based on the intense popular struggles that are taking place in Peru—which have now intensified—to enact a constitution that is not the result of dubious people or mafia instruments.
And what about the agrarian reform that the former president announced with such conviction?
The reform never existed. It was nothing more than a publicity tool. There were even those who wanted to compare it with the one made by Velasco Alvarado, but that is ridiculous.
Why did some of your old statements generate such a level of virulence in the opposition? How did you foresee your resignation as Minister?
In Peru, there is no right wing: there are mafias. This group of mafias and some political parties gave a real howl of rage when I was appointed foreign minister, so they looked for any pretext to get me out. They used as an excuse two statements I made much earlier, in which I affirmed two things: that the first terrorist acts in Peru were committed by the Navy in 1974, and that the army was related to some acts of the Sendero Luminoso [Shining Path guerrillas]. According to them, this was an insult to the armed forces. They threatened a coup and the government, then barely 19 days old, trembled.
But it is the Navy itself that recognizes this; they published a book in homage to those who, within the institution, carried out those acts of terrorism against General Velasco. One can also ascertain these facts just by reading the newspapers of that time. This was in the year 1974, long before Sendero was born, which operated from 1980 to 1992. During those twelve years, weren’t the Army’s intelligence services able to penetrate the organization? Were they so inefficient? It is clear that to penetrate a terrorist organization you have to practice terrorism: those are their rules. This can be understood by anyone, you don’t need to be a scholar or a specialist.
As a result of pressure from the armed forces, I was prevented from going to Congress. Castillo and his closest circle probably thought that this could aggravate the situation. If my presence endangered the government, it was best to get out of the way. And that’s what I did with my resignation.
The deep state
The last few years of Peruvian politics seem to have made something clear: the political structure is rotten. Six presidents in seven years, the dramatic suicide of a former president, a judiciary that is like the dog in the manger: it neither governs nor allows itself to be governed. An omnipresent last name, which went from democracy to de facto government, later recycling itself again under a precarious rule of law: Fujimorismo, a monster with multiple heads and parties that has been marking the pulse of domestic politics for the last 30 years. A Constitution, of unholy origin, that protects and shields what really matters: the apparently untouchable neoliberal economic model. These are some of the deep sewers that flow under the Peruvian State.
Contrasting readings have been circulating for weeks about the country’s political system. The right affirms that Peru shows the failure of presidentialism in Latin America, while other sectors affirm that Peru is an example of the chronic problems of a parliament with inappropriate powers and prerogatives, such as in other formally presidential countries. What is your analysis of this tense power relationship between the executive and the legislature, and what kind of political reform do you imagine could solve this fundamental problem?
The 1993 Constitution is a bad result of a disastrous coup, and of a tangled negotiation between Mr. Fujimori—de facto president at that time—with the OAS and with the international community. From there came a legal text full of patches, which has elements of Fujimori’s de facto presidentialism; he wanted, and finally managed, to perpetuate his power.
But on the other hand, international pressure introduced some interesting elements, such as the ombudspersons, habeas data, the court of constitutional guarantees—now the Constitutional Court, etc. However, at this point it is clear that this Constitution is useless. It also has a famous economic chapter that shields and makes foreign investment invulnerable and exempt from taxes in Peru. It is a device that no longer works. The discussion on human rights, for example, has come a long way from 1993 to date: there are human rights that have been incorporated into other laws in Latin America, and the world, while this simply does not exist in Peru.
All this is what must be explained, what must be worked out with the country’s working-class voters. This Constitution, already patched up in 1993, has been patched up more. This Congress, which supposedly does not want the Constitution to be touched, has made more than 30 modifications that Peruvians are not even aware of. Some of these modifications annulled existing rights, such as the right to referendum.
And what is happening with the judicialization of politics? Already in the last elections, 10 of the 18 presidential candidacies had ongoing legal proceedings. Is what we see in Peru a local singularity or can it be considered a national chapter of a regional lawfare enforcement strategy?
There are both. After the Velasco government, the Peruvian armed forces were denationalized and lost quality: their training is no longer what it was before, not only from a strictly military point of view, but also from their national and general culture. Corruption was introduced into the army and also into the police. However, they know that they cannot carry out a coup d’état directly: there is no favorable environment in Latin America or in the world for that. But like everyone in the world knows, the style of coups has been changing. Today we have a “PM” in Peru, a media party, very active as well as monopolistic and concentrated, a “PF”—the party of the prosecution—and a “PJ”—the party of the judiciary. These three parties, along with Congress, are the four major actors that govern Peru, as they have the big local and foreign capital backing them.
This network of power has caused Castillo to be harassed, stigmatized, prosecuted, accused of 5,000 things, before he was even president. Which is not to say that Castillo is a neat, pure popular leader, or anything similar. Castillo is for me a character that would require a much more detailed analysis. At the same time, what is being done to him is an abuse, absolutely illegal. The fact is that the nation’s prosecutor and legislature will have the luxury of having him imprisoned, under “preventive detention,” for a period of three years. We have reached such a point of politicizing justice that you can go to jail and the judge can take three years to find out if you are guilty or not of any crime.
How many coups were there?
As already happened in the dramatic situation that culminated in the coup d’état in Bolivia in 2019, the latest events in Peru gave rise to as many hypotheses and theories as there were analysts, operators, and opinion specialists in these generous South American lands. Roughly speaking, these conflicting interpretations (not just mere theories, but decisive motives for political action—or inaction) are organized into three large groups. The first is that of those who characterize what happened as a self-coup perpetrated by Pedro Castillo, followed by the restoration of democratic normality with the assumption of the next person in the line of Constitutional succession, Dina Boluarte. There were even those who dared to compare Castillo with Fujimori.
A second group of readings points to the existence of “two coups,” interpreting both Pedro Castillo’s speech on December 7, as well as his dismissal through parliament and the subsequent inauguration of Boluarte—here considered a de facto or illegitimate president—as interruptions of democracy. This theory is closely related to the one that spoke of “two conservatisms” and called for not taking sides in the decisive ballot between Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the former dictator, and the candidate of Peru Libre, himself, on June 8, 2021. Various “progressive” media echoed both hypotheses in Peru and in the world.
The third interpretation underlines the existence of a single coup, consummated through parliament with the ousting, after two unsuccessful attempts, of the now ex-president. From this point of view, the coup would follow a clear regional pattern, with precedents such as the parliamentary coup against Fernando Lugo in Paraguay and Dilma Rousseff in Brazil.
Let’s recap the facts: was there a coup? two? Who perpetrated it?
I think there is a cartoon coup and a real coup. The cartoon coup is that of Mr. Castillo. Until now he has not said what happened, and no one can say for sure. But it is a merely anecdotal fact: that of a president who, without prior announcement, in front of the cameras of a national broadcaster, reads a small piece of paper with a trembling hand, ordering the men of the armed forces to close Congress to form an emergency government and to reorganize the powers of the State.
In the first place, it must be said that the closure of Congress is a national demand [now]: except for the congressmen themselves, everyone demands it. The declaration, in this sense, fulfilled a widespread demand. The same is true of the highly corrupt judiciary: in my opinion, it should not only be reorganized, but totally dismantled. But the naive and childish way in which he announced these measures is a mystery to me. So one has to wonder what happened, how did he decide it, why, and with whose participation and influence.
But all this is nothing more than a misleading anecdote, which distracts us from the central fact. This is not a coup. The coup d’état came later, when Congress, violating all the rules, dismissed him in a matter of minutes. Within a few hours you had Castillo in prison, and Dina Boluarte, apparently prepared for the occasion, assuming the presidency of the Republic. In a short time, Boluarte declared a national emergency, refused any dialogue, and began to govern the country in a practically dictatorial manner, as constitutional guarantees were interrupted throughout the country. At this moment, any police officer can break down the door of my house and enter it without explanation: all Peruvian men and women are now in the same situation.
And what do you think about the alleged participation of two key actors: the Peruvian armed forces and the OAS, which in the figure of its Secretary General Luis Almagro had a very timely visit to the country a few weeks before the coup?
Today everything is possible. Everything is imaginable. I still wouldn’t bet on any hypothesis. The newspaper La República published an article stating that Castillo, along with the last defense minister appointed, General [Emilio] Bobbio, asked the general commander of the Army for his resignation the day before the coup. According to that newspaper, after a meeting of all the commanders of the Joint Command, which includes the Army, the Navy and the Air Force, the uniformed officers agreed to reject the president’s request, deciding there to remove him. Although it does not expressly say so, the newspaper suggests that we would be in the presence of a coup defined by military actors.
Now, what does the OAS have to do with this matter? The curious thing is that, at least publicly and as far as we know, the OAS has defended Castillo, because he did not affect the interests of the United States in any way. When Castillo went to the Summit of the Americas he spoke of an “America for the Americans,” echoing James Monroe’s famous phrase. There was a clear message there. And when the OAS mission was in Peru, it dedicated itself to criticizing the opposition more than Castillo himself. With the information we have, it seems difficult to assume that the OAS has been a promoter of this. I still think, and of course I may be wrong, that this is mainly a local event, carried out by local actors, who mobilized for rather local interests.
It is obvious that our cavemen-like right wing and certain military groups hate Castillo because they do not accept their own people. Some military chief leaked information stating that as long as there are armed forces in Peru, the left will not govern the country. The problem, then, is no longer just communism, as they said before. Now, it is the entire left that is rejected by these people.
The assumption of Boluarte has been strongly resisted, both by the citizens from the depths of Peru and by different presidents and leaders of the region. Today we see attempts at mobilization with notable peaks of mass involvement and radicalism. There are dozens of fatalities from the repression. How might this situation evolve in the coming weeks? Will the protests reach a climax? What mediate or immediate way out do you imagine for the crisis?
Today we see a comedy, a bad comedy, in which the press, including a so-called “progressive” press, is filled with furious attacks against Mexico, Honduras, Bolivia, or Argentina, even against the OAS, arguing that today the whole world is against Peru. This occurs with respect to the international level and the complaints about the Boluarte government.
Regarding the popular response, we have to adjust things here: it is not about the people in general, although they are very active among significant sectors. The popular classes, in general, are looking at what is happening with more or less indifference, as usual. They find themselves disconnected from the political world and from all these events. But the mobilized sectors, it is clear, are not going to pay attention to the state of emergency and will continue protesting. I find it hard to believe that Mrs. Boluarte does not know that the continuation of these measures will bring more deaths and more blood. And I find it hard to imagine how she could appoint such a right-wing cabinet, linked to the financial oligarchy of [Pedro Pablo] Kuczynski, without any political capacity or willingness to dialogue.
If Boluarte does not leave power, she will lead the country to a tragedy. What she and her circle expect from her is that the people get tired and demobilize, forget about their problems, and continue like this for at least two more years of government. But there is no historical precedent in Peru that supports this strategy.
The misguidance of the left
Lautaro Rivara: Rare are the occasions in which a text written 60 years ago can still illuminate the present of a country. This is the case of the book Perú 1965: Notes on a Guerrilla Experience, written in the El Frontón island prison between 1966 and 1969 by Béjar himself, when he was part of the [Peruvian] ELN. He wrote there:
…Due to the insufficiency and lack of continuity of theoretical work, the Peruvian left as a whole cannot display an interpretation of Peruvian reality based on serious studies… This is part of the tradition we have received and is what still prevents us from clearly envisioning social changes.”
What has happened to the Peruvian left in recent decades? Why couldn’t he clearly read the latest social changes, from Pedro Castillo’s unexpected electoral victory to this popular insurrection on the horizon? Béjar assures us that the social structure of the country has been radically transformed in recent times. But perhaps the many “Perus in Peru” continue to determine the many lefts—rural and urban, Lima or provincial—that inhabit the body politic. To these insoluble problems, we must add the presence of a hysterical right that accuses anyone who expresses the slightest disagreement of being a terrorist or communist.
What is the current state of Peruvian social movements, regardless of what happens at the government level? How do you escape from this tangle, the brief interregnum of the Castillo government?
The social movement has grown tremendously. In Peru there is a political left, which is in the political apparatus, in the political system, and there is what we could call a “social left,” which is not left in terms of strict political awareness, but has many social activists who feel they are leftist, have highly articulate political ideas, and are highly honest people. There are thousands in contemporary Peru. In this sense, the social movement has grown a lot. But we cannot sanctify these processes. In this country, corruption runs through everything, including sectors of the social movement.
But the truth is that the social movement is stronger and more active than a few decades ago: we see it today, in its great capacity for mobilization, in its ability to influence the government. This movement does not wait for slogans from political parties: it is capable of reacting positively and spontaneously.
You mentioned, in a recent interview, that there was a positivist left in Peru, which thought in terms of civilization and barbarism. At the same time, much has been discussed about the apparent non-existence of an Indigenous movement, at least comparable to its counterparts in countries such as Bolivia, Ecuador, or Guatemala. What is the state of the debate on plurinationality in Peru? Does it seem like a possible and reasonable perspective to reorganize the state? What is the situation of the Indigenous and campesino [peasant]–Indigenous movement?
There are claims and slogans about plurinationality, but we have not yet had a serious discussion about it. In the social panorama of Peru, which is quite complex and varied, we can establish various Indigenist tones and positions. The strongest and most conscious movements of their indigenismo—or their indianismo, depending on the perspective—are the native peoples of the Peruvian Amazon, who recognize themselves as communities with their own identity. This is the case of the Ashaninkas and the Aguarunas, for example. These and other peoples speak around 200 languages, and some of them cover a significant extension of the national territory, from the central Amazon to southern Peru.
The other strong pole, with a great presence and identity, is the Aymara, in the highlands near Bolivia, on a border that is only political and where cultural exchange is very strong. With the Quechuas, the situation is different. Peru was the center of Spanish colonialism in South America. The Quechuas were subdued, but they established some form of identification with the colonial regime and had their own chiefs and curacas for 300 years. The well-known exception was that of Tupac Amaru and his revolution. But this did not happen with the rest of the aristocracies, of the Quechua elites, who were utilized more or less by the colonizers.
Then there are other nationalities, now disappeared or less visible. The vortex of the current rebellion is in the territory of the Charcas, in the Apurímac area, in the south-central departments of Peru. These people have always been very brave. They have their tradition, although they do not recognize themselves as a people, but rather as Apurimeños or Abancaínos and also as Peruvians. Then, we have the people from the north, from Cajamarca, from the land of Castillo: more acculturated people, more influenced by the Spanish of the colony.
In short, the situation is quite varied, and seriously raises the possibility of building a plurinational state. We still don’t know how it could work, nor what nationalities would eventually be recognized. But there is a demand, and it is even accepted by certain cultural elites, for a new Constitution that can accommodate a plurinational and multicultural landscape, although there is also active opposition from the most fossilized sectors of the right.
It seems then that the Indigenous question and the campesino question appear closely linked to the regional question, and above all to the political and administrative centralization in Lima, excessive even in a continent where centralization around the port cities is a highly exacerbated phenomenon.
Yes, Lima is absolutely dominant. But Lima is also provincial. People from all over Peru are also there.
Finally, how do you see the country in its regional context?
I always believed that the best way to fight is continentally. Intensifying regional ties is now much easier; technology gives us all the facilities to do so. It is a shame we do not have Latin American publishers like we did many years ago. We have media like Telesur, a very important example, but perhaps we can do something more in terms of communication. Other political forces on the continent have had very significant political achievements, which we still have not assimilated, while others, like Peru, shine for their inefficiency. Everything possible must be done to remove the debate from its daily political contingency. We have to have a more in-depth political debate, of longer duration, more continental and also more global.
(ALAI) by Lautaro Rivara
Translation: Orinoco Tribune
Teacher and journalist ad dolorem. Sociologist with historicist detours. Poet sometimes. Militant always. International Brigadier in Haiti of @movimientosalba
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