In December, thousands took to the streets of Peru in mass demonstrations, general strikes, and road blockades. Initially rising up against the arrest of populist president Pedro Castillo, the protesters broadened their demands to include new elections, the resignation of President Dina Boluarte (formerly Castillo’s vice president), and the convening of a constituent assembly to revise the 1993 constitution.
Demonstrations began in Peru’s southern regions, largely populated by indigenous people and poor campesinos or farm workers. Protesters shut down airports, halted tourism, and paralyzed the economy. Groups like el Comité Unitario de Lucha del Departamento de Puno, militant fighters from Peru’s southern province, organized demonstrations with students and trade unionists in Lima and other major cities.
Predictably, the state responded with gunfire and bloodshed. During the three-month-long uprising, security forces murdered more than sixty protesters, 80% of whom were indigenous Peruvians.
As of early May, demonstrations have largely receded. But fires of revolt continue to burn as does the call for fundamental change.
Rise and fall of Pedro Castillo. Peruvians had high hopes when longshot Castillo defeated establishment candidate Keiko Fujimori in 2021. Castillo’s humble origins as a schoolteacher from the rural north spoke to those who felt abandoned by the wealthy political elite in Lima. A former strike leader and self-proclaimed Marxist, Castillo promised much needed reforms to the country, including a new constitution.
But Castillo turned out to be all talk and no action. He appeased the right-wing opposition in Congress instead of challenging them and made it clear that he had no intention of disrupting big business. Castillo’s brief time in office was a disaster, replete with corruption charges, multiple impeachment attempts, and popular protests against his leadership. His administration had no path forward to address the multiple crises facing Peru, and neither he nor his party had a working-class program to take on the bourgeoisie. His presidency was doomed from its inception.
Castillo’s final attempt to dissolve Congress and convene a constituent assembly was an adventuristic act of desperation. Abandoned by his party and the military, Pedro Castillo was arrested while trying to flee to Mexico.
Constitution problems. The debate surrounding Peru’s constitution begins with Alberto Fujimori, a right-wing populist of Japanese descent who rose to power in 1990. His “Cambio 90” campaign claimed to support working people. But he immediately abandoned his platform once elected and instituted neoliberal shock treatment to Peru’s economy. This put Peru on the map of capitalist success stories, but the cost to working people was massive. Opponents of Fujimori were tortured or murdered and countless women were forcibly sterilized under his regime.
In 1992, Fujimori performed a successful coup, dissolving Congress in order to consolidate his power. Although the pretenses for the coup were highly fabricated, he had strong military backing and the “Fujigolpe” would later be codified in the 1993 Constitution. The revisions allowed Fujimori to make laws by decree and established a unicameral legislature, which is still dominated by political elites.
The question of a constituent assembly. Today, nearly 70% of Peruvians support revising the 1993 constitution. This overwhelming majority is as much a vote of no confidence in Peru’s government as it is an endorsement of the demand itself. But would a constitutional convention really alter the power structure?
Historically, constituent assemblies have been multi-class institutions, meaning they are composed of both bourgeois and working-class organizations. In some situations, they may be a means to win, or at least fight for, certain freedoms – for example, under a military dictatorship or in a country that has not yet had a bourgeois democratic revolution, like czarist Russia in 1917. But in circumstances where people are rising up today, the call for a constituent assembly is most likely a path toward dead-end reformism.
Russian revolutionaries Lenin and Trotsky insisted that constituent assemblies have the authority to act on behalf of and be led by working people. Gaining “a seat at the table” with the ruling class was not the goal. Rather, assemblies provided an opportunity to carry out the class struggle towards revolution. Neither were constituent assemblies substitutes for independent workers councils, or soviets. In fact, while the Bolsheviks supported the constituent assembly up to a point during the course of the eight-month revolution, their main focus was tireless organizing in the soviets, which would eventually take power.
Latin America has seen its fair share of calls for constituent assemblies. In two cases, Presidents Evo Morales and Hugo Chávez each had support for nationalizing industry under workers’ control through constituent assemblies, but forfeited the opportunity. Instead, they opportunistically conciliated with Bolivian and Venezuelan capitalists by allowing them to maintain power over the government and economy.
Undoubtedly Peruvians deserve a government that represents them instead of the wealthy elite. Many leftists boldly claim a constituent assembly will restore Peru’s democracy; instead, it will offer a lifeline to the failing bourgeoisie. As witnessed from Castillo’s own inept governance, Peru’s established left parties will not challenge the capitalists in Congress. And even when a constituent assembly is held, there is no guarantee that a new constitution will be adopted, as shown by Chile’s painful failed attempt in 2022 to replace the document codified during the Pinochet dictatorship.
Which way forward? In the end, power is not what is written on the page. Rather, it rests in the workers, campesinos, and indigenous Peruvians who continue to challenge the ruling class.
What’s needed is for these disparate groups to join together and form independent organizations to challenge Boluarte, Congress, and imperialist forces. Such a united front could form the foundation of a movement that is revolutionary. One that finally puts oppressed and working-class Peruvians in control.
Expanded May 26, 2023, from the Freedom Socialist article.