Ottawa sides with Peruvian right-wing amid social uprising
In Latin America, Canada has a long history of supporting the removal of democratically elected left-wing leaders
Pedro Castillo was never allowed to govern.
That is the unavoidable truth. Elected president in April 2021 after running with the Marxist-Leninist Perú Libre party, Castillo embodied hope for millions of rural, Black, and Indigenous peoples in the South American country, many of whom had opposed the imposition of neoliberalism under dictator Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) and faced threats, violence, and allegations of terrorism as a result.
Among other positions, Castillo vowed to reform the dictatorship-era constitution and implement the Second Agrarian Reform, a sustainable development plan aimed at promoting food security, family farming, and small-scale production in the countryside.
In foreign policy, he promised to disband the Lima Group, a coalition of right-wing Latin American governments (plus Canada) formed with the intention of overthrowing the Venezuelan state. The Trudeau government, which took a leading role in the creation of the Lima Group through Chrystia Freeland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, likely found Castillo’s declaration that the coalition was “the most disastrous thing we have done in international politics in the history of Perú” unsettling.
The Peruvian elite, concentrated in Lima, were shocked by the victory of a rural schoolteacher of Indigenous descent who ran for president with an openly Marxist political party. This represented the clearest possible refutation of their economic agenda. As such, they set out to undermine the elected government from the start and thereby prevent the hopes of Castillo’s supporters from becoming a reality.
In response to Castillo’s victory, the National Society of Industries, the leading business group of Peru’s oligarchy, vowed to “throw out communism” by making the country ungovernable. The military, a deeply pro-Fujimori institution, would also play a key role by pressuring Castillo to remove his own leftist cabinet members.
Castillo, a man who had never held political office before becoming president, caved to the oligarchy’s threats on multiple occasions. He began his presidency with a cabinet largely comprised of left-wingers, including socialist professor Hector Béjar, but ended up forming a total of four cabinets in his time in office in the hopes that he could appease a conservative elite which would only be satisfied with his ouster. This frequent reshuffling gave the impression, not exactly unfounded, that his government was flailing. This played into the right-wing’s insistence that Castillo, the first president of Peru to come from the country’s rural poor, was unfit to rule.
Meanwhile, disputes between right-wing members of Congress and Indigenous representatives grew heated, with conservative Congress members vehemently opposing the speaking of Quechua on the floor of Congress. Castillo and his cabinet members were also frequently accused of terrorism—a farcical yet extremely common tactic in Peru known as “terruqueo,” which is designed to smear any progressive political force as violent and extremist.
As Manolo De Los Santos outlines in Alborada:
In the face of these attacks, Castillo became more and more distanced from his political base. [He] formed four different cabinets to appease the business sectors… He broke with his party Peru Libre when openly challenged by its leaders. He sought help from the already discredited Organization of American States in looking for political solutions instead of mobilising the country’s major peasant and Indigenous movements. By the end, Castillo was fighting alone, without support from the masses or the Peruvian left parties.
Héctor Béjar August 2021 removal from the position of foreign minister foreshadowed the events of earlier this month. After making comments criticizing the Peruvian Navy and the CIA for inflicting violence on the country’s population in the 1970s, the military threatened to put Béjar on trial and made clear to Castillo that he had to be booted from his post. Castillo assented in an early example of the amenable position he would often assume in clashes with entrenched power.
In an interview the day after his removal, Béjar stated: “I still think Señor Castillo is an excellent person [but] I do believe that this is a weak government; I am not going to deny it, and one that refuses to reinforce itself for some reasons that I can’t explain…the provinces [not Lima] won the elections, and it is up to them to govern, that is to say, to the Peruvian people, who have never governed.”
Regarding the viciously hateful reaction of Lima elites to Castillo’s 2021 victory, Béjar noted: “It is a racist contempt, as we all know, because the citizens of Lima, regardless of whether they are poor or rich, for the most part feel superior to the people of the provinces…racism is another thing that Peru refuses to recognize: we are a racist country.”
Finally, he explained that the opposition would not stop until the will of the majority was neutralized:
The Congress wants to set up a government of those who lost the elections, that is to say, a new edition of a coup d’état. There are many ways to carry out a coup d’état. [My removal] has been a soft coup d’état. The heads of the armed institutions, who should obey the president, met with him to guarantee the resignation of a chancellor. It is a soft coup d’état or the beginning of one…It started with me, and it will end with President Castillo.
By the day of his removal, Castillo had survived two impeachment attempts and was facing his third. Rather than waiting for the vote—which, according to polls, he may have survived—he made the surprising move of dissolving Congress, declaring an “exceptional emergency government,” and instituting a curfew. Congress, the police, and the military rejected these acts and Castillo was arrested as he fled for the Mexican embassy. He has been placed in “preventive detention” for 18 months as he awaits trial.
On the day of his arrest, Castillo had a rather low approval rating (31 percent). However, it was significantly higher than the approval rating of the Congress that removed him (about 10 percent). The right-wing opposition forces that took power after Castillo’s removal are, despite media efforts to paint them in a positive light, even more unpopular than the former president. This explains why social movements have mobilized across Peru, calling Castillo’s removal a coup and fighting for his release, the holding of new elections, and the drafting of a new constitution. A number of social organizations are even urging a nationwide strike in opposition to Peru’s new unelected president, Dina Boluarte.
Amid this social uprising, police have responded with hugely disproportionate violence, killing 18 protestors and wounding dozens more. In a video of police preparations in the Andean city of Andahuaylas, a hot spot of Indigenous resistance to anti-Castillo forces, the police chief can be seen telling his men to “kill [protestors] or die.”
"Kill or die", says a police chief in Andahuaylas, Peru.— Kawsachun News (@KawsachunNews) December 14, 2022
The indigenous Andean region has been a hotbed of resistance to the right-wing coup against Pedro Castillo. Police have killed numerous protesters in that area. pic.twitter.com/5m1S3pZnSZ
On December 15, Boluarte declared a national state of emergency, removing major constitutional protections from citizens, including freedom of movement and assembly, and allowing police to search citizens’ homes without permission or judicial order.
In the midst of this nationwide conflict, Castillo has continued to write letters from jail that are published on his Twitter account. The letters state that he was kidnapped and unjustly imprisoned, that the Boluarte government needs to put a stop to murders by the police, and that the US government is playing a role in ongoing state violence.
While the US hand in Castillo’s ouster is not confirmed, there are few noteworthy facts worth considering. Shortly before Castillo’s victory in the 2021 election, the US assigned Lisa Kenna, a former CIA agent, as the new ambassador to Peru. The day before Castillo’s removal, she met with Peru’s Minister of Defence, Gustavo Bobbio. After he was deposed, she issued a tweet blaming Castillo for the crisis and siding with the right-wing opposition.
There are also allegations that a top-ranking US military advisor in Peru gave the military the go-ahead to remove Castillo. It has also been said that Castillo’s final phone call as president was with the US embassy, which “warned [him] to flee to the embassy of a friendly power, which made him appear weak.”
Joining the US and the right-wing Congress, Canada has sided with the conservative opposition and blamed Castillo for the political crisis. Shortly after the elected president’s arrest, Canada’s representative at the OAS stated: “Canada would like to express its deep concern over President Castillo’s attempt to dissolve congress and establish a government of exception in Peru. Such destabilizing actions…risk jeopardizing Peru’s adherence to democratic norms.”
In the midst of police repression of pro-Castillo protestors, Canada’s ambassador to Peru tweeted: “In view of the most recent events in Peru, Canada calls for calm and invites all actors to avoid the escalation of tensions through civil and democratic dialogue. The right to peaceful assembly must be respected and protected.”
When it comes to protest movements against neoliberal governments in Latin America, Canada almost always ignores the massive disproportionality of police violence while releasing statements calling for “all sides” to defuse the conflict, effectively whitewashing state violence (the Trudeau government did this during recent protests against right-wing administrations in Colombia and Ecuador).
Despite the apparent neutrality of its public statements, however, Ottawa has always taken sides in Latin America, often by diplomatically or materially supporting the removal of elected left-wing leaders (Jacobo Árbenz, Salvador Allende, Manuel Zelaya, Fernando Lugo, Dilma Rousseff, and Nicolás Maduro, to name a few).
In the midst of social uprising, Canada and the US have clearly sided with the Peruvian right-wing. At the same time, many important Latin American governments have taken the opposite position, denouncing Castillo’s removal and placing the blame for the crisis at the feet of the opposition.
After Boluarte’s assumption of the presidency, three of the four most populous Latin American countries (Mexico, Colombia, and Argentina) joined with Bolivia to release a statement calling Castillo a “victim of undemocratic harassment” and stating “[o]ur governments call on all the actors involved in the previous process to prioritize the will of the citizens that was pronounced at the polls.”
The ten member states of the ALBA organization—Antigua and Barbuda, Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Grenada, Nicaragua, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Venezuela—also condemned the circumstances of Castillo’s removal. They declared: “We reject the political framework created by right-wing forces against Constitutional President Pedro Castillo…We repudiate the repression by the forces of order against the Peruvian people who defend a government elected at the polls and we call for dialogue.”
Mexican president AMLO offered some context that Canadian statements on the matter omit. “Because of the interests of economic and political elites,” he tweeted, “since the beginning of the legitimate presidency of Pedro Castillo, an environment of confrontation and hostility was maintained against him, leading him to take decisions that have served his adversaries to remove him.”
President of Colombia Gustavo Petro recalled, “When I met Pedro Castillo, they [the right-wing opposition] were trying to break in to the presidential palace to detain his wife and his daughter… He received me distressed. A parliamentary coup was already being developed against him.”
Bolivian President Luis Arce wrote: “Since the beginning, the Peruvian right tried to overthrow the government that was democratically elected by the people, by the humble classes that seek more inclusion and social justice… The constant harassment by anti-democratic elites against progressive, popular, and legitimate governments should be condemned by everyone.”
The violence against protestors in Peru, inflicted by the repressive apparatus of an unelected president, should be condemned unequivocally. At the same time, Castillo’s recent actions must be placed in their proper social, economic, and political context in order to grasp the circumstances that motivated his attempt to dissolve Congress on December 7.
Such an understanding, however, is totally absent from Ottawa’s response to Castillo’s ouster and the social uprising that has followed. Ottawa’s response matches its reaction to similar crises throughout Latin America, in which the right wing earns Canada’s complete support and progressive forces, be they political leaders or popular social movements, are either demonized or ignored.
Owen Schalk is a writer based in Winnipeg. He is primarily interested in applying theories of imperialism, neocolonialism, and underdevelopment to global capitalism and Canada’s role therein. Visit his website at www.owenschalk.com.