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A Vaccine for Venality: Peru’s Pandemic-Era Path to a Post-Fujimori Polity

Image depicts protests in the city center of Lima, Peru in November 2020.

In mid-February, Peruvian governmental corruption made international headlines once again when reports came out that almost 500 well-connected elites received Chinese Sinopharm vaccines before they were available to health professionals and the public. Though disheartening,  “Vacunagate” (Vaccinegate), as the media called it, wasn’t entirely out of the ordinary for Peru’s political class: all but one of Peru’s last eight presidents are currently in prison or under criminal investigation, as are 68 of 130 members of the unicameral legislative chamber. However, this scandal was particularly frustrating for Peruvians because it ensnared former president Martín Vizcarra, who—until his groundless removal by Congress last November in what many called a coup—had championed accountability reform for the historically corrupt legislature. Vacunagate was just the latest instance of governmental iniquity for the beleaguered Peruvian populace, which had fervently protested against the ascension of Vizcarra’s short-lived successor. Now, with an impending April 11 election that will decide the presidency and all 130 congressional seats, Peru is teetering on the precipice of change. Though the country is still contending with a deep-rooted legacy of corruption, it is nevertheless clear that the force transforming modern politics worldwide—the coronavirus pandemic—has paved the way for a new Peruvian polity.

Peru’s political plight has been shaped in large part by the authoritarian shadow of former President Alberto Fujimori. In the 1990 presidential election, Fujimori, a then-unknown engineer, upset preeminent Peruvian intellectual Mario Vargas Llosa. As president, Fujimori successfully quelled the violent left-wing terrorist group Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and revitalized the economy by aggressively taming hyperinflation. However, from the beginning he also displayed despotic tendencies that ultimately dealt untold damage to Peru’s governmental structure. In 1992, ostensibly to better combat terrorism, Fujimori dissolved Congress and suspended the 1979 Constitution, arrogating to himself unprecedented power. He quickly filled the new legislature and Peru’s judiciary with fierce loyalists. Then, with the help of his infamous intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos, Fujimori methodically dismantled the already-weak traditional political parties. Capping off his autogolpe, or self-coup, by attacking the free press and forging close ties with the military (whose sundry human rights abuses he agreed to overlook), Fujimori steadily enclosed Peru in a vice grip.

Even so, most Peruvians supported his initial power grabs. Fujimori deftly harnessed Peruvians’ antipathy toward the impotent government establishment, which had roundly failed to address the economic and terroristic crises. This support gradually diminished before plummeting at the beginning of Fujimori’s already-controversial third term, when the press aired the so-called “Vladi-videos”—leaked tapes in which Montesinos is shown bribing politicians to support Fujimori. The backlash prompted Montesinos to go into hiding and Fujimori to resign. 

But even in his ouster, Fujimori left a ticking time bomb for the Peruvian political system. Fujimori faxed his resignation from Japan, where he had fled, but Peru’s Congress rejected the resignation, instead choosing to impeach the disgraced strongman. In order to constitutionally justify the impeachment, though, Congress reinterpreted a presidential vacancy clause—originally intended for the replacement of medically incapable presidents—to remove Fujimori for general “moral incapacity.” What was intended as a band-aid to a dark chapter of Peruvian history instead gave future Fujimorists (like his far-right daughter, Keiko, who espouses her father’s strand of authoritarian populism and is currently running for president) a dangerous political weapon: the precedent of impeaching a president at whim.

20 years later, on November 9th, 2020, an overwhelming congressional majority impeached and removed President Martín Vizcarra via the same constitutional workaround—a fate his immediate predecessor had resigned to avoid. But, unlike Fujimori, there were only allegations—not evidence—of the corruption Vizcarra’s opponents charged him with. Moreover, Vizcarra was removed despite possessing the support of over 75 percent of Peruvians, who had lauded his ongoing campaign against the rampant corruption in Congress. Peruvians consequently denounced Vizcarra’s dismissal as a “parliamentary coup” and took to the streets in droves. Vizcarra’s replacement, the far-right Speaker of the Congress Manuel Merino, held power for only six days, resigning after police murdered two student protesters. Given the outpouring of resistance on Vizcarra’s behalf in November, the former president’s involvement in Vacunagate was a dispiriting stab in the back for Peruvians. The current president, cool-headed centrist Francisco Sagasti, is now tasked with leading both an enraged populace and a belligerent legislative chamber amidst the cascading crises of the Covid-19 pandemic and the attendant economic fallout.

In some ways, Peru has been here before. President Vizcarra’s post-Fujimori forerunners—from the nominally left-wing firebrand Ollanta Humala to the establishment-favored economist Pedro Pablo Kuczynski—all came into office pledging a new Peru before eventually falling into disgrace. Even under Sagasti’s steady hand, graft remains endemic in Peru’s Congress. And there is no clear path to rapid reform: Fujimori-era assaults on the political system and the non-stop corruption of his successors have left most Peruvians extremely apprehensive of the state. Currently only 3 percent of Peruvian adults feel represented by Congress, and there is no history of strong democratic traditions for Peru to fall back on. Fleeting political parties frequently form around specific populist candidates rather than ideologies; double-dealing politicians and lawless police officers are seldom punished. It’s estimated that corruption alone cost the country 23,000,000 soles, or around $6.5 billion, in 2019.

But the political tumult of the coronavirus era could also mark an inflection point in the arc of Peru’s democracy. In many ways, the Vacunagate scandal encapsulates how the Peruvian government’s pandemic response has brought its graft, alienation from its constituents, and general ineptitude to the fore. This phenomenon is not without historical precedent: as far back as the Black Death in the 14th century, severe disease outbreaks have routinely led to anti-authority unrest. Covid-19 has similarly unleashed the discontent of throngs of protesters around the world. Unruly crowds have agitated against state-ordered lockdowns, workers have staged strikes against unsafe conditions and inadequate protective gear, and movements against long-standing societal issues like systemic racism and government misconduct have gained renewed fervor. Peru has been no different. Even before the November groundswell, tremors of anti-government outcry were growing, with the coronavirus as a common driving force—one study found that almost 90 percent of the demonstrations from March to June 2020 were spurred by pandemic-related grievances. 

Indeed, the Peruvian republic’s perennial struggles with corruption are inextricable from its failure to protect Peruvians from the coronavirus. Although the government implemented a comprehensive social aid net and swiftly imposed strict lockdowns, the vast tracts of the population that do not have any formal contact with the government were completely ignored (around 75 percent of the wage-earning population works in “absolute informality.”) The inability of the government to reach these people led to Peru experiencing one of the worst Covid-19 epidemics in the world. And throughout 2020, the Peruvian state medical apparatus has been plagued by insufficient oxygen, scant healthcare worker protections, and many instances of naked contractor corruption, of which Vacunagate is only the most recent. In a crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic, an incompetent, venal government is no longer a thing to scoff at or ignore—it becomes a matter of life and death.

Surging youth activism and increased social media usage due to social distancing policies have added more propulsive wind to the sails of protest in Peru. Peru is no stranger to large-scale protests, but the recent mass demonstrations that precipitated Merino’s hurried resignation were exceptional, both demographically and geographically. The nation’s youth, who are normally politically disengaged, came out in unprecedented numbers: over half of Peruvians aged 18-24 reported participating, along with about a third of Peruvians over 40. Moreover, because these protests were organized predominantly on Gen Z platforms of choice like Twitter, TikTok, WhatsApp, and Instagram, they were uniquely accessible and decentralized; protests in Peru have historically cropped up in heavily concentrated areas like Lima, but the November ones were practically everywhere. Powered by hashtags like #SeMetieronConLaGeneracionEquivocada (They messed with the wrong generation) and #MerinoNoMeRepresenta (Merino does not represent me), long-simmering discontent stoked by the pandemic exploded into a novel expression of genuine hope.

Protesters have been clear about their desires: police reform, better anti-graft oversight, and, above all, a new Constitution. The current Constitution serves as a symbolic and literal remnant of Fujimorismo, and in a future reform-focused government it would invariably be altered. Hearteningly, Keiko Fujimori’s right-wing nationalist party Fuerza Popular (Popular Force), which for years enjoyed a sizable congressional majority, faced a devastating defeat in the 2019 elections and lost most of its ill-used influence. Peru’s youth are undergoing a tectonic political awakening, and are clearly looking to shed the status quo—ahead of the April election, high-polling candidates like former soccer star George Forsyth are banking their political futures on the “new generation.” Throughout the world, the coronavirus pandemic and the social unrest it begets have universally jolted democratic structures, many for the worse. But sometimes, as in Peru, a once-in-a-generation crisis opens the door of possibility for a brighter future.

Photo from Samantha Hare on Flickr