Drizzling Protest

A photo from a long-ago protest in Lima. Protests there are now very few and far between. Photo courtesy of ReVista archives. 

Why Limeños Don’t Take to the Streets 

By Aaron Watanabe

As any visitor to Lima during July learns, the skies are continuously overcast with a blanket of grey clouds locals call the garúa. There are generally fewer than 30 hours of sunshine the entire month. Yet, surprisingly, it never rains. Lima is the world’s second driest capital (after Cairo), with actual raindrops hardly ever falling. Instead, limeños contend with months of clammy humidity broken by occasional drizzle.

This weather offers an apt metaphor for protests in the city. All the conditions are there for lively storminess. Despite rapid growth, poverty, inequality and poor public services remain serious problems. The state moves slowly, if at all, to fix these issues and corruption is endemic. Consequently, public dissatisfaction with the government is high—the president’s approval rating often dips into the teens; Congress’s rarely rises above single digits.

Continual, low-level protest is a response to a sluggish court system and a lack of capable political parties to channel public demands. So health workers protest for higher wages, police officers strike to get back pay, and neighborhood associations block highways to halt construction projects threatening to displace them.

Yet just as the high humidity never releases in a major downpour, these “social conflicts,” as the Defensoría del Pueblo (national ombudsman) labels them, never reach the level of mass protests experienced in many Latin American cities in the last decade. Protests in Lima are constant but ephemeral—small, short-lived and generally confined to a particular issue. Contrast this with the demonstrations that unseated presidents in Bolivia and Ecuador during the 2000s, the years-long student protests in Chile, and the wave of unrest that swept Brazil last summer. One needs not even look outside of Peru to find examples of large-scale protests. In 2002, demonstrators angered by the planned privatization of the local electric company occupied the city of Arequipa. The government had to backtrack and send in the military to restore order. In the rural interior, protests over mining and gas projects has been endemic. Yet this unrest has not reached Lima.

A series of protests in July 2013 illustrated some of these differences between Lima and the rest of South America. On the one hand, they reflected the generalized dissatisfaction with the government that fuels mass protests. As Peruvian political scientist Carlos Meléndez said in an interview with El Comercio, “the discourse of ‘que se vayan todos’ has arrived in Lima.” On the other hand, as much as Peruvians may have wanted all their politicians to go away, the ephemeral protests never reached critical mass. 

The grievances behind the July 2013 marches go back to 2011, when Peruvians elected current president Ollanta Humala. A former army officer, Humala gained a political following from his unsuccessful presidential bid in 2006, running as a left-wing populist in the mold of Hugo Chávez. Although disavowing his earlier radical positions, Humala still campaigned in 2011 for a “Great Transformation” that would address social inclusion, reduce poverty and set up programs to spread the benefits of Peru’s robust economic growth.

Inaction has marked most of Humala’s presidency. The lack of initiative is not entirely his fault. Without a well-organized political party behind him, he has little leverage to confront groups—particularly economic technocrats, business leaders and the media—who fear any reform is a step towards chavismo. As a consequence, Humala ended his first two years with falling approval ratings, having alienated many of his supporters from 2011, particularly labor unions and members of Peru’s inchoate left. 

In July 2013, Congress stoked popular discontent with several controversial decisions. On July 2, legislators from Humala’s Gana Perú party and their congressional allies approved the Ley de Servicio Civil (Civil Service Law). Designed to streamline compensation schemes for public employees, the law immediately met condemnation from labor leaders. Union officials condemned Congress for not consulting them on the bill while blasting the law for limiting collective bargaining and, they claimed, opening the door to mass layoffs.

Public employees across Peru took to the streets, expressing their discontent in a variety of ways. As reported in the Lima daily La República, state workers in Chiclayo conducted a mock crucifixion; in Iquitos, several buried themselves in the central park to hinder police efforts to remove them; in the capital, they marched on Gana Perú’s headquarters, throwing eggs at the building and burning a coffin covered in images of “the traitors” Humala and Finance Minister Luis Castilla.

Violent clashes between protesters and police in Lima took place on July 4, when Humala formally promulgated the law. Attempting to march on Congress, workers joined with students and professors, who were protesting a proposed new Ley Universitaria (University Law) that they believed would curtail university autonomy. Police in riot gear stopped the march blocks from the legislature. When protesters started burning tires and throwing rocks at the police cordon, officers responded with tear gas and batons. By the time the dust had settled, ten protesters had been arrested and labor leaders were already calling for a mass march in Lima for the Fiestas Patrias (Independence Day) holiday in late July.

Although television crews had breathlessly covered the march, interest faded quickly. By that evening, the headline on La República’s website was “Strong Mist Leaves Puddles on the Plaza de Armas,” the square in front of the Presidential Palace. Given the arid climate, precipitation of any kind is remarkable. 

The situation felt normal when I visited central Lima several days later. Tourists wandered the Plaza de Armas and pedestrians crowded the narrow surrounding streets, going about their normal business. However, the police were visible. Black-clad officers manned double rows of iron fences blocking the streets leading into the Plaza de Armas, letting people through only single file to stop protesters filling the square. Dented riot shields lay within arm’s reach and several trucks mounted with water cannons were parked conspicuously near the president’s residence. 

The police were right to be wary. Even as Humala promised dialogue with public employees and stated “I am an enemy of mass layoffs,” Congress became embroiled in a scandal known as the repartija. Effectively, the largest parties, including Gana Perú, divvied up positions in the constitutional court, national ombudsman and central bank, promising to vote for each party’s respective candidates.

These institutions are supposed to be non-partisan. Observers immediately denounced the agreement, especially after audiotapes surfaced of party leaders distributing the positions among the parties. Little thought went to the candidates themselves, who included several controversial figures related to disgraced former president Alberto Fujimori. 

On July 17, Congress elected the candidates chosen through the repartija. That night, 1,000 demonstrators assembled near the legislature. The protestors were mostly students or members of an informal network spanning various activist groups, who had quickly organized the rally through social media and the hashtag #17J. While the demonstrators demanded that Congress reverse the repartija, they were primarily expressing a sense of betrayal. Signs labeled Humala a traitor and called on Congress to dissolve itself for ignoring the people and their promises to govern better. Headlines the next morning simply read “Indignation.”

Even though legislators quickly backtracked and annulled the elections, protestors again attempted to march on Congress on July 22. Organized by using the hashtag #tomalacalle (#takethestreet), about 4,000 people joined the march before police forcefully turned them back. As in the July 17 rally, there was not one single grievance—whether the Ley de Servicio Civil, Ley Universitaria or the repartija. Instead, there was a general sense of disappointment and anger towards the government for failing to live up to its promises. In the eyes of protesters, politicians had become indifferent to Peruvians’ concerns.

Everything seemed to be building towards the Fiestas Patrias weekend at the end of July. Despite ongoing dialogue with the government on the Ley de Servicio Civil, union leaders announced they would proceed with their planned march for the holiday weekend. They invited all to join them to express dissatisfaction with Humala and the entire political class. Pundits wondered if this would be the start of sustained anti-government protests of the kind that had pushed presidents from office elsewhere.

News outlets estimated between 2,000 and 5,000 people took part in the July 27 protests, representing groups ranging from labor unions to the Cultural Patrimony Defense Network. While the protests began peacefully, clashes eventually broke out with police, who lobbed tear gas canisters and dispersed the marchers. Police blamed the violence on fans of the "la U" soccer team, who had joined the march to protest new rules governing the finances of sports clubs.

After that point, what La República called “the dawn of the Peruvian indignados” that seemed about to happen never occurred. In the year since, Lima has seen plenty of protests but they have returned to being particularized; they are not driven by a general sense of anger and disappointment in the government. That sense still exists. Opinion polls suggest that Peruvians remain disappointed, not just in Humala but the entire political class. However, despite the abundance of fuel, the spark of the July protests went out.

Why the fire of protest did not fully catch is an open debate. A simple explanation is that limeños are willing to tolerate ineffective governance as long as the economy keeps growing. Another is the police’s liberal use of force to disrupt marches. Others would say the free-market, free-trade policies behind the recent boom are responsible, as they weakened Peru’s labor unions and thus protesters’ organizational capacity. 

The legacy of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) insurgency in the 1980s and 1990s is another possible cause. The army and guerrillas directly attacked members of Peru’s civil society, destroying more of the organizational capacity that facilitates sustained protest movements. Perhaps more importantly, as suggested by political scientist Alberto Vergara, Sendero’s violence delegitimized the political left and the pursuit of change through disruptive action. Certainly, the government tried to link the July protests with Sendero, warning organizers to stop members of Movadef, Sendero’s political wing, from infiltrating the marches.

Regardless of the longer-term causes, the protests fizzled because of lack of turnout. Judging from the wide variety of groups represented, those who showed were committed protesters embedded in activist networks. While these networks effectively united those committed to change, they are not capable of mobilizing the rest of Lima’s nine million people. Most of the city’s residents seemed indifferent to the protests. While police and protestors clashed in front of Congress, life elsewhere in the city continued uninterrupted. Were it not for newspapers, I would never have known anything unusual was occurring.

This indifference is not a false consciousness. Limeños are well aware that the government could do better. They want better schools, better roads and better hospitals. They want the government to address issues of petty crime, drug trafficking and corruption. Yet the expectation is that politicians will not fulfill these wishes.

Some see this cynicism as the ultimate failure of Peru’s political system. Peruvians are so dissatisfied that they believe the government can never do better. Others suggest this attitude reflects the internalization of liberal values that call for individuals to better themselves rather than relying on the state. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between. Limeños are practical. If the state is not going to do the job, then they would prefer it gets out of the way: incompetent politicians are just a cringe-inducing sideshow.

That does not mean Lima’s residents will never take to the streets en masse. Protests have a way of occurring when they are least expected. Certainly, the raw ingredients are there, but something will have to really provoke the anger of the city’s residents. Despite the clouds, that torrential downpour has yet to happen. 

Aaron Watanabe ’14 was a government concentrator at Harvard. He was in Peru during July 2013 conducting research for his senior thesis on populism. He is now a Master’s degree student at Oxford and hopes to eventually pursue a Ph.D. in political science.