Peru’s elected left-wing President Pedro Castillo was overthrown in a coup by the right-wing-controlled congress. A Peruvian activist explains why the people are rising up and demanding a new constitution.
Peru’s democratically elected left-wing President Pedro Castillo was overthrown and arrested in a coup on December 7 by the right-wing-controlled congress, which has an approval rating of between 7% and 11%.
‘Multipolarista’ editor Ben Norton interviewed Peruvian activist Daniela Ortiz about the protests going on across the country calling for a new constitution and demanding that Castillo be freed from prison.
BEN NORTON: Hey, everyone. I’m Ben Norton. And today I have the privilege of being joined by an activist in Peru, Daniela Ortiz. She is an anti-racist activist, and also an artist.
And today, we’re going to be talking about the coup that happened against the elected left-wing president, Pedro Castillo, on December 7 there. This was wildly distorted in foreign media reporting.
And I’m going to ask you about this, Daniela, but there was essentially an attempt to have a congressional coup against the elected President Castillo by the right-wing-controlled congress. And the most recent poll from just a few days ago shows that the congress in Peru has an 11% approval rating.
And in response to the congressional coup attempt, we saw that President Castillo dissolved congress and called for a constitutional referendum, and that led to a coup against him.
And now there has been a new president that has been appointed, who is unelected, his vice president, Dina Boluarte, who has made a political alliance with the right wing and called for a government of national unity with the right wing.
Meanwhile, there are large protests going on in Peru demanding that Castillo, who was arrested by the police, be freed, and calling for new elections, and also calling to have a constituent assembly to create a new constitution.
— 🇵🇪 Wayka📢 (@WaykaPeru) December 9, 2022
So, Daniela, can you talk about the situation that has happened in the past few days? What do you think about this coup? How is it being portrayed outside of Peru? And what do people not understand about what’s going on?
DANIELA ORTIZ: Thanks a lot for having me. What we’re seeing these days is the end of a long process that started the first day that Castillo was elected.
Since the first day, the right wing, together with the media – not only the national media, also the international media – have been creating a lot of strategies in order to take Castillo down.
Strategies that went from accusing not only Castillo, but everybody that was around him, of “terrorism”; several lawfare processes that happened against Castillo, against Vladimir Cerrón, who is the leader of Perú Libre, that was the party that Castillo entered with,
Then a lawfare that also was against citizens that only were at the polling tables during the election and the voting. And they were accused of committing fraud, what they called “fraud in the table,” like the fraud was committed by the people that were in charge of the tables during the elections, when Castillo won.
So this is one of the many attempts they had, all the “vacancy” impeachments and all these processes. And they finally did what they wanted.
That is not taking down Castillo; it is putting themselves in power, because it’s something also that we’re seeing from before.
This is not the first president to be taken out by the right wing; he is actually the third president.
And we’re not talking of just any right wing. We’re talking about the Fujimori right wing that wants to be in power and continue that dictatorship that we had with Alberto Fujimori.
But now where we have Keiko, his daughter, and all the people from Fuerza Popular, the party of Keiko Fujimori, that are aiming basically to take power and not let anyone be in the executive power.
Because it is not just now; it has been for many years that Fuerza Popular has been controlling the congress, and then also creating the laws, in order to be able to control executive power and not let the Peruvian people have the president that we have elected.
BEN NORTON: This is very important. For people who don’t know the modern history of Peru, there was a fascist dictator, Alberto Fujimori, who governed until 2000.
And both his son and his daughter are prominent politicians in the congress in Peru. And his daughter, Keiko Fujimori, was the other candidate who ran against Pedro Castillo in the second round of the elections.
And the Fujimori dictatorship committed genocide, sterilization of indigenous women. So they represent the far-right wing of Peruvian politics.
Now, you mentioned something very important, Daniela, which is that the right-wing-controlled congress has taken out multiple presidents.
In fact, Peru has had six presidents in five years, because of this Fujimorista constitution that allows the Congress to remove elected presidents because of “moral incapacity,” which really means whatever they want.
Can you talk about why the political system is so unstable, and why Castillo and also people in the streets right now have been demanding a new constitution where the elected president can actually be allowed to govern?
DANIELA ORTIZ: Another demand that is happening now is not only that we need a new constitution, not having the constitution that was imposed by Alberto Fujimori during the dictatorship in 1993, by a real a coup d’etat that he carried out.
He [Fujimori] closed the congress not in these conditions, not in this situation we are in now.
And they have been manipulating all the laws for many years, in order to impose power and to demand things like, for example, that the president has to ask permission from the parliament in order to travel.
So they, for example, didn’t allow Castillo to go to the inauguration ceremony when [Colombia’s President Gustavo] Petro won. And they decided not to let him go to that, but yes to Chile, for example.
So they have absolute and total control in regard to this.
All the proposals that come from the executive power in order to make the changes that we need – like, for example, in regard to gas, or that there is needed in regard to the second agrarian reform, that was one of the big promises of Castillo – these were, blocked by the parliament.
So then there is the accusation that Castillo is not doing anything, but he cannot do anything because he has a parliament that is operating in this way.
And then something really important that is happening in this context is the media power. There is a situation in which, if you listen nowadays, the media in Peru, they are claiming that Castillo was the one that carried out a coup d’etat, and they are using, literally, the word “dictator.”
So there is an absolute misconception, or manipulation of that situation.
And obviously there is no control over what is going on in the parliament.
But something good in regard to the media is that happens in Lima, and that is what people mainly from Lima or the big cities claim.
But if you go to the countryside, for example, and if you go to many places where Castillo has a lot of people that defend him, where they have more community radios – it’s not that there is no access to that media; it’s that people from the countryside, and people who are Indigenous, people who are mestizo, don’t feel identified with the media from Lima.
Therefore there is a possibility of having another type of information and another type of of a perspective, in regard to the situation of what is going on.
And that is why, since the beginning, people mostly outside Lima have been defending their vote. That is basically what is going on.
They [the opposition] haven’t accepted that Castillo won the elections until now.
And as you mentioned, also something really important, is that even the Fujimori party, Fuerza Popular, even they took down a right-wing president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski.
Because, as I said before, it’s not about not letting Castillo be in the presidency; it’s not about having only the right wing; it’s about having this extreme right wing that is a continuation of a dictatorship that has persecuted, killed, disappeared student, union leaders, workers, and people who were getting organized in the ’90s.
BEN NORTON: You mentioned the role of the media. In fact, there has been a video clip going viral on social media showing a right-wing TV presenter literally saying that the police should “shoot protesters in the head.”
So we see an incitement to a massacre.
En un canal peruano el conductor le pide abiertamente a la Policía que le "metan un balazo en la cabeza" a los manifestantes. La situación cada vez más crítica en Perú. pic.twitter.com/mL2qhC3OgT
— Marco Teruggi (@Marco_Teruggi) December 9, 2022
And of course, it was a massacre in 2019 of working-class Indigenous people in Bolivia that is what solidified the coup against Evo Morales.
And, of course, Peru and Bolivia have differences, but they also have a lot of similarities. And one of those similarities is that both countries have a very large Indigenous population that has been excluded from the bourgeois political system for many decades.
And Evo Morales in Bolivia was the first ever Indigenous president. And similarly, Castillo represents the Indigenous-descent communities in rural areas.
He himself is from a very humble background. He was a teacher in a rural area who led a teachers’ strike.
And the media coverage against him has often been very racist. Of course, in Peru, the political class has been dominated by many people of European descent who look down upon the Indigenous-descent majority.
So can you talk about the the racism that Castillo has dealt with, and also the classism, given that he represents the poor and working-class majority of the country who have been marginalized and excluded from politics for so long?
DANIELA ORTIZ: That comes from a media, and precisely with this Congress, that do not allow to have laws and to execute the laws that protect population from that media that is so aggressive, not only against Castillo, but all his ministers have been accused with racist arguments, classist arguments of not being capable.
That’s the the argument they usually use. And it’s absolutely normalized in the context of Peru, of saying they are not capable of doing this.
But also of really complex things like accusations of being “terrorists,” for example.
That was what we call “terruqueo,” the practice of claiming that somebody is linked to terrorism comes from the ’90s. And that has absolute impunity in the media.
And the level of racism, for example, going from comparing Castillo with animals. We saw one day that there was a party of the elite, that they were dressing up like Castillo, and making fun of him, and killing him.
This is the level of violence.
And we can see in Argentina, before the attempt of murdering Cristina [Fernández de Kirchner], there were a lot of contexts in which this violence was being represented. One was the media, but also in parties, and also in Twitter.
Everywhere there was this type of of aggressiveness, with absolute impunity.
And also, it’s not only Castillo. It’s all the people who entered into the parliament.
It’s the first time, for example, that we could have – before the use of Quecha in the parliament was like a symbolic thing. Like, for example, somebody saying hello and presenting in Quecha, or doing something symbolic in Quecha.
But in this moment, and this parliament, where some of the parliamentarians at the beginning were from Perú Libre, the party of Castillo, we saw figures like Guido Bellido, for example, giving full speeches in Quecha, making a political use of Quecha.
And that is frustrating white people who do not understand the language that is spoken by a great proportion of the population here in Peru, and that is one of the languages of Peru.
And they were even trying to file legal complaints because some politicians were using Quecha in the context of the parliament.
The level of racism at that moment was was really strong.
And then in the past few days we saw the humiliation of the family of Castillo. They had to take their things out of the presidential palace in bags.
And that is the image that the right wing and the elite from Lima wanted, because they cannot accept having in power somebody who comes from a rural area, who is a teacher, who comes from a humble background.
BEN NORTON: Absolutely. And I want to talk now about the complex situation in terms of the dissolution of the congress, the way in which Castillo temporarily at least tried to dissolve the congress.
We know from day one, as you mentioned, that the right-wing-controlled congress, which has an 11% approval rating, has constantly tried to overthrow the elected President Castillo.
In just over a year, they tried, they were on their third attempt to impeach him.
And unlike the impeachment system in other countries, if the congress has a majority vote to impeach the president, the president has to step down in Peru. It’s not like, for instance, in the United States where President Donald Trump was impeached, but he did not step down.
In Peru, it has led to six presidents in five years. And this is the context in which Castillo dissolved the congress.
And in fact, even ironically according to the the Fujimorista constitution, the president actually does have the ability to dissolve the congress in circumstances of obstructionism.
So can you talk about the misleading narrative that we see in corporate media, and also spread by the US embassy, claiming that Castillo was carrying out an “autogolpe,” a “self coup” against the government, when in reality of course it was the coup being carried out against him.
— Embajada EEUU Perú (@USEMBASSYPERU) December 7, 2022
DANIELA ORTIZ: Well actually the demand to close to close that Congress was a popular demand. Many of the marches, and the blockades, and the demonstrations recently were not against Castillo, but pushing him to make the agenda he entered with.
It was not for him to step down or to become more right-wing; it was for him to become more left-wing. That was a protest of the people: with Castillo, not against him but with him.
And what happened was that he did what the people was asking: to close the congress. Because everybody is conscious, and we can see it, as you mentioned it, that the congress has only 11% approval – and I don’t want to see what the number is going to be after what they did.
There is a general consensus in many contexts that the congress is interrupting.
And then also he did what [Martín] Vizcarra did, our last president. He also decided to close the congress. That was also a demand from the people at the moment.
And obviously what they came out to say is that it was a coup d’etat, and they were talking about a dictatorship, but, I mean, Castillo didn’t even appear with a military when he decided to close the congress.
And it was a policy that was closing the congress and not making a dictatorship or a coup d’etat, as what they were saying, every word, and the argument and the excuse in order for them to carry out a real coup d’etat.
What happened is that it seems that Castillo had information that the congress would have the amount of votes in order to do the impeachment and remove him.
That’s what it seems, because really, until this moment, there are many versions and theories, but nobody knows really what happened and why he took that decision.
But anyway, even though – because there are people saying that it was a mistake to do it at this time, and how he did it, and how he didn’t have support or wasn’t organized with certain groups or political groups, etc.
But the main point is that there was a general demand to close in the congress. That’s what he did.
And also something really positive is that, if you listen [to Castillo’s] message – and most people haven’t even listened to what he was saying – is that he said that he was closing the congress and was also going to open a constituent process in order to change the constitution.
That is one of the main demands.
And then the really complex thing is that, when the congress impeached him and they kicked him out of the government, the congress was already closed. They were working absolutely illegally.
So because Castillo already closed the congress, and then they took that decision, and he was detained – and even if we have these laws – they were not legal procedures.
And nobody knows what is happening in regard to him, because they are accusing him of starting a rebellion. But in the penal code that talks about this, it says clearly that you have to be armed. And Castillo was not armed.
He was basically alone. And he was detained alone. And he was not rebelling with arms.
So many of us understand that the detention of Castillo is absolutely illegal. Even under the rules that they have imposed.
BEN NORTON: Yeah, it’s almost comical in a way to see people accuse him of being a dictator when Castillo was clearly impeded in every single way.
He had no control over the political system and the congress, no control over the elite economic groups, the big corporations and oligarchs, no control over the media, which constantly attacked him every day, 24/7, and certainly no control over the military and police, which arrested him!
So this would be the weakest “dictator” ever.
DANIELA ORTIZ: And they were operating against him. We have been, for example, in the processes of lawfare in regard to supposed cases of corruption.
In one of them, they even entered his room. And actually it is the same policemen that detained him the other day.
And they even had the power to enter the room of the president, and to touch, remove, and take documents that are a secret of his state, that were not only his personal belongings, but they are part of that.
I mean, there is a law that protects the president and his belongings. And the police entered the presidential palace, and they were taking everything.
So obviously, we say, what type of dictatorship lasted three hours? That wasn’t a dictatorship.
But a dictatorship we really lived under was the Fujimori dictatorship. There were, for example, at the beginning – once he [Fujimori] was elected – there were conversations and audio recordings of Vladimiro Montesinos, who was the chief of the intelligence service, which was actually a form by the CIA.
And he [Montesinos] studied in the [US military’s] School of the Americas. And we know how many people in Latin America that were part of dictatorships studied there. And he was one of the main characters of the Fujimori dictatorship.
There were audio recordings of him [Montesinos] giving orders from prison on how to deal with the elections, in order to put in Keiko Fujimori. And nobody investigated that.
And what they were investigating [instead] – and I’m not making a joke – there was an investigation that was of how they paid for the food at Castillo’s birthday party in the palace, and who paid for the birthday party of his daughter.
That is the huge “corruption” information that they have.
And here we also have this figure of the protected witness, the person that can accuse you that you were part of a corruption process, and they have benefits in the legal process.
So there were many of these people, and many of them have been being linked to the Fujimoris’ party. And they were friends, and together with them.
And these same people – actually, one of the it protected witnesses that was accusing Castillo of being corrupt, in one of the corruption cases, she had the same lawyer as Fujimori!
How come they are not going to investigate that? This media that is so worried, how are they not going to investigate what are the links of the people that are accusing Castillo to the Fujimoris’ party?
BEN NORTON: Yeah, it’s quite incredible seeing the media and the right-wing opposition accuse Castillo of corruption.
Meanwhile, it’s in fact the Fujimori family – and especially in the infamous corruption scandal of the Mamanivideos, where we have concrete evidence; they have been proven to be engaged in corruption, bribing politicians to vote in their interests.
I mean, of course, corruption is nothing new in in Peru. But the accusations against Castillo remind me of the accusations of corruption against [left-wing President] Dilma Rousseff in Brazil that were being made by the most corrupt people in Brazilian politics.
DANIELA ORTIZ: And then with this logic of, well, now you have to prove [you’re not corrupt].
And people say like, “It’s really easy, yes, you have to prove that you are innocent.” But what they have been doing – and we see, we know how it’s a process of lawfare, and how long the process is to prove that you are not guilty.
And, for example, they detained the daughter of Castillo.
So that’s also really important to know how, in the lawfare processes in different contexts of Latin America, they kind of reinforce their strategies and create new strategies,
Something new that we have seen here – well, we also saw it in Argentina with Cristina [Fernández de Kirchner’s] daughter – but here they also detained the daughter of the president. And they opened a process against his wife.
But then, for example, with Vladimir Cerrón, the leader of Perú Libre, the party that entered the government together with Castillo, and then he stepped out – but, for example, [they targeted] the mother of Vladimir Cerrón, and all his family, everybody that is around him.
Actually one of the ministers of Castillo stepped down and he explained, almost crying, saying that he didn’t want to have – because they were starting to attack his daughter, and his ex-wife, and opening legal processes against him – and he said that he didn’t want to put at risk the well-being of his daughter, because they are detaining the families also, as a strategy of pressure.
And then they are let go, not guilty, but they have been already detained two years, or one year, or six months, and the media has already created huge headlines that then are never erased.
Because we have seen it with Lula [da Silva, president-elect of Brazil]. When everything is shown that he was not guilty, like in many other cases, for example, the media says almost nothing about that.
And then nobody is processed, or investigated, or denounced, or pays for carrying out these processes of lawfare. There is absolute impunity in regard to that.
BEN NORTON: Yeah, I mentioned earlier that there have been large protests going on demanding that Castillo be freed.
But they’re also demanding a new constitution, and specifically a constituent assembly.
And this is a tweet here from a left-wing member of congress, Guillermo Bermejo Rojas.
Can you talk about this demand for a constituent assembly, and what the people of Peru want to try to create a new constitution to get rid of the dictatorship-era constitution?
DANIELA ORTIZ: Well, like in many other countries, like Chile, for example, we have a constitution that comes from the dictatorship of Fujimori, that doesn’t allow, for example, the state to intervene in emergency situations – like the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, not nationalizing, at least momentarily, the medical services.
And for example, during the Covid-19 pandemic, we saw that the government couldn’t do anything, because the constitution was created so the interests of companies, private entities, and the interests of transnational [corporations] are absolutely [the priority].
For example, with the gas situation, there is a problem that we cannot nationalize the gas. The price of the gas in Peru is amazing, when, at the same time we have gas; we are producers of gas.
But because of the constitution, it is really difficult to make a change in regard to that.
And now you can see it is even bigger, the demand that we need to change the constitution.
But more than changing the constitution, I think the most important thing is the process, and to think about what is going to be the process that we’re going to have in order to build that new constitution.
For example, a discussion here is also to have a plurinational state.
We have so many different communities, and people, and identities, and languages in the context of Peru that have been not only excluded, they have been basically almost persecuted.
Like we saw, as I said, in the parliament, people were speaking Quecha in the parliament, and they were almost trying to process them legally because the white people couldn’t understand what they were saying.
So we need a new way of getting organized in regard to this.
So I hope, many of us hope, that even though we have to go through this moment, it’s a moment that is going to strengthen in the streets, in order to demand this new constitution.
BEN NORTON: I am very grateful for this analysis.
Finally, just to conclude here, I know in moments like these, with a coup, it’s always the worst moment to criticize a leader who has been overthrown in a coup.
So I don’t want to ask this question to criticize Castillo in this very dangerous moment for him, but just for people outside of Peru, so they can understand the political context.
One of the narratives that we’ve seen, which is true, is that Castillo did alienate some of his former leftist allies.
You mentioned that he came in as president as part of the socialist party Perú Libre, and later had a split with the party.
And he also had multiple prime ministers, [known officially as] the president of the council of ministers – you mentioned some of them, Guido Bellido and others – and they kind of had falling outs.
So there were people in the Peruvian left who had criticisms of Castillo. Although it seems like, in this moment, the left is unified against the coup.
Just to provide that context for people to understand, how would you say the relationship of Castillo has been to the left and the social movements in Peru?
DANIELA ORTIZ: Well, I think it’s a general problem in many contexts in the Global South, and even Europe for example, that we have a problem with a unity of the left wing, many times.
And I think there is a problem in regard to that, that there is only unity when it comes to an emergency moment – like, for example, the election moment, or the moment of a coup d’état.
We shouldn’t have allowed this to happen. And mostly we shouldn’t have allowed this to happen when the left wing didn’t have any problem.
Because, obviously, there were criticisms of Castillo, because he was not accomplishing most of the promises that he entered it with. But we also needed to understand that he had a parliament that didn’t let him approve any type of laws.
And then he had such a level of the media [opposition], that it is really difficult to create any type of changes, if what you have to do in your daily life as a president, as the government is just defending yourself.
I do think that it would have helped Castillo, for example, to be a stronger if he had the first group of ministers he had and keeping it that way, and not changing it, because then he was changing, every time there was some sort of attack from the media, then he would change the minister, thinking that the media was going to stop.
And I think he some way trusted or thought that if he would get less “radical,” they were going to stop. But it was even worse, because they wanted to take him out.
And then also something that I see as a problem – I lived in Spain for 13 years, and I saw it, I see it nowadays a lot, for example, with the racist speeches from the ultra-right wing from there – that we have allowed here to have a right wing that is setting the agenda.
If there is an accusation of corruption, everybody says, yeah, maybe he is corrupt. They’re not thinking that everything that the right wing says, and the media from the right wing says, is part of the agenda of kicking him out of power.
So I do think there have been several mistakes.
There is also, I think, a need to not only discuss how to stay in the government, but there is a need to have a political project that we hope goes through the constituent process.
But I hope really that after this situation, there is a deep reflection, in every space on the left wing, on the mistakes that have been committed.
That I think, basically, is not having the unity we need, not only in moments of election, or when a coup d’etat happens and we need to go to the streets, but in the process of building that.
Also, I do not think that a president alone is going to change things. I do not think that only a group in the congress is going to change things.
And I do think that, if there is a mistake from the government, it can count on other organizations and the people that want to contribute in this process of change, and that we are going to be there to defend our president.
BEN NORTON: Very well said. I think that’s a perfect note to end on. I want to thank you, Daniela Ortiz.
Daniela is an activist and an artist, and she is involved in the anti-racist movement and the feminist movement in Peru.
People can follow her on Twitter at @DanillaOrtiz.
Daniela, thank you so much for providing this context in this moment.
DANIELA ORTIZ: Thanks a lot, and take care. We hope we get support during these days of mobilization. Thanks.
Benjamin Norton is the founder and editor of the independent news website Multipolarista, where he does original reporting in both English and Spanish. Benjamin has reported from numerous countries, including Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, Honduras, Colombia, and more. His journalistic work has been published in dozens of media outlets, and he has done interviews on Sky News, Al Jazeera, Democracy Now, El Financiero Bloomberg, Al Mayadeen teleSUR, RT, TRT World, CGTN, Press TV, HispanTV, Sin Censura, and various TV channels in Mexico, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Benjamin writes a regular column for Al Mayadeen (in English and Spanish). He was formerly a reporter with the investigative journalism website The Grayzone, and previously produced the political podcast and video show Moderate Rebels. His personal website is BenNorton.com, and he tweets at @BenjaminNorton.