How Peru Got Close to Democratically Electing a Dictatorial Dynasty
By Micaela Bullard
To the average inhabitant of Lima, San Martin square is the undisputed center of political dissidence. Located just four blocks from the city’s Palace of Government, the square’s beautiful, colonial buildings surround the equestrian statue of José de San Martín, who liberated Peru from the Spanish monarchy in 1821. Yet Peruvians do not visit the square simply to pay homage to Republican heroes. Whenever the country’s political circles give cause for large-scale protesting, Limeños flock to the square with their banners and slogans held high. From there, they walk the Peruvian via crucis of opposition to the House of Congress, the Palace of Justice, and all the other architectural manifestations of government inefficiency found within a few blocks of San Martín’s watchful eye.
The square has held a number of historical protests, including those that took place in the waning days of Alberto Fujimori’s controversial government-turned-pseudo-dictatorship. First elected in an upset during the 1990 elections, Fujimori, a former university rector, became wildly popular for his defeat of the Shining Path guerrilla and his restoration of Peru’s economy after a decade-long recession.
Yet, in the latter years of his government, Fujimori exploited the enduring mass hysteria brought on by years of armed conflict to commit numerous human rights violations and allow corruption to run unchecked; his government was accused of forming death squads, forcibly sterilizing over 2000 women, altering the constitution to permit a third presidential term, and buying off the press and the opposition using funds from the state’s coffers.
Assailed by a massive public scandal after the bribing of opposition congressmen was captured on tape, Fujimori escaped the country and took refuge in Japan, faxing his resignation as president as a ridiculous final act. Nevertheless, Fujimori was extradited to Peru after visiting Chile in 2005, and in 2008, found guilty of three counts of human rights violations, as well as numerous corruption crimes. He is currently locked behind bars, serving a 25-year sentence in Lima.
Hardly a decade later, on the 5th of April of 2016, San Martin square became the setting of yet another mass protest, and the Fujimori name was once again to blame. This time, Keiko Fujimori, Alberto’s eldest daughter, had decided to run for president on a platform whose tacit centerpiece was releasing the elder Fujimori from prison. Capitalizing on her father’s victory over the Shining Path to earn votes, Keiko promised to counter violent crime spikes in Peru’s cities by increasing security spending and to rekindle many of her father’s populist policies. At the time of the San Martin square protest, Keiko had already reached the runoff election, capturing 40% of the vote; with elections five days away, polls projected she would sail to a six-point victory over her opponent Pedro Pablo Kuczynski.
To the fifty thousand protesters who flocked to San Martin square chanting “for justice and dignity, Fujimori nevermore,” the prospect of a second Fujimori presidency was inconceivable. Gustavo Gorriti, arguably Peru’s leading investigative reporter, whose kidnapping Fujimori was tried for, broke an entire career’s worth of political neutrality to attend the march, stating that “being here does not mean supporting a particular party, it means being willing to defend democracy.”
“Under Keiko, Peru will become a narco-state,” voiced community leader Olga Veracruz, who also attended the event, “we who march today are the sons and daughters of the peasant women Fujimori failed to forcibly sterilize.”
Ultimately, to the great relief of Gorriti, Veracruz, and every other Fujimori opponent, the march had a surprising and tangible effect on the election. Coupled with a series of drug-related scandals that weakened Keiko’s party leadership, this final show of defiance to what many viewed as a sign of Peru’s lacking collective memory tilted the election’s momentum in Kuczynski’s favor. In a nail-biting finish, he managed to snatch the presidential seat with 50.12% of the vote.
Despite this triumph, Kuczynski’s government has major challenges ahead; Keiko’s party captured the absolute majority in congress, and is expected to strongly oppose Kuczynski in preparation for the 2021 elections. Yet the protesters can rejoice in that, in an ironic turn of events, the difference in poll results amounted to only 46 000 voters, roughly the same to the number of those who gathered at San Martin square.
Micaela Bullard is a junior in Calhoun College double majoring in Global Affairs and Latin American Studies. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.