Crisis in Peru highlights Latin America’s polarized politics: When is coup not a coup?

Dec 23, 2022 | 6 comments

By Michael Stott

When is a coup not a coup?

The answer in Latin America today depends on your politics. A coup used to be straightforward. In a script which became depressingly familiar in the last century, a general or military junta would seize power, backed by troops and tanks, and sometimes by the U.S. CIA.

Today, the situation is far messier. Military coups have all but vanished in Latin America, but in their place the region has spawned a whole genre of alternative labels for the removal of an elected president or the subversion of democracy: the “soft coup”, the “self-coup”, the “judicial coup” and even, in the words of former Bolivian president Evo Morales, “the hybrid warfare of the international right”.

The current crisis in Peru over the impeachment and arrest of former president Pedro Castillo and the diplomatic chasm over how to interpret it illustrate vividly how polarised the definition of a coup has become.

Castillo, a former primary school teacher from the Andean highlands who won election in 2021 on a Marxist ticket, announced on December 7 he was closing congress, assuming emergency powers and taking over the judiciary to rewrite the constitution. He hoped to pre-empt congress, which was due to vote on a motion to impeach him for alleged corruption.

Protesters in Lima denounce the ouster of President Pedro Castillo earlier this month.

The power grab failed spectacularly when Peru’s congress voted overwhelmingly to impeach him and swore in vice-president Dina Boluarte as his successor. Police then arrested the former president on charges of rebellion, triggering protests by thousands of his supporters and the imposition of emergency rule by Boluarte.

Did Castillo attempt a coup? Boluarte quickly labelled it as such, along with most of Peru’s institutions. Human Rights Watch termed Castillo’s move “a self-coup”. The U.S., the UK and the EU all recognised Boluarte as the country’s legitimate leader and emphasised the need to support democracy and promote peaceful dialogue.

Some of the region’s leftwing presidents, however, saw Castillo as the victim of a coup rather than the perpetrator. The leaders of Mexico, Argentina, Colombia and Bolivia issued a statement declaring Castillo “the victim of anti-democratic bullying” and calling on Peru’s institutions “to refrain from reversing the people’s will as expressed in a free vote”.

Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who called events in Peru a “soft coup”, refused to recognise Boluarte and offered Castillo and his family political asylum in Mexico even though some of them are being investigated on corruption charges. Peru expelled Mexico’s ambassador in protest.

Carlos Malamud, a Latin America expert at the Real Instituto Elcano in Madrid, said the leftist outrage over Castillo was part of “a story of victimisation told by progressives over the past decade about how popularly elected governments can be removed from power by coups coming from street protests, parliament or the judiciary”.

Examples include former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, impeached in 2016, Morales, who resigned after massive street protests in 2019 and Argentina’s vice-president and former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, found guilty of corruption this year.

This time, López Obrador’s position on Peru was close to the one adopted by the hard left nations of Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia and parts of the Caribbean, who issued a statement as the ALBA group decrying “a political plot created by the rightwing forces of [Peru] against the Constitutional President Pedro Castillo, forcing him to take measures which were then used by his enemies in parliament to oust him”. 

Michael Shifter, former president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, criticised “a lack of backbone and steel in taking a stand on what was unquestionably a self-coup [by Castillo]”. “They criticise the justice system when it goes after a leftist who is one of their club but they don’t criticise it when it goes after someone like [former Peruvian president] Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who is seen as a neoliberal,” he said. “There’s so much hypocrisy.” 

The polarised debate over what constitutes a coup is unlikely to go away. As Malamud put it: “In Latin America, when you want to call something by a particular name you do, regardless of the facts. Magic realism always imposes itself and everything becomes possible.”
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Credit: Financial Times