A Letter from Jed and Jenny Koball, serving in Peru
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At the time of this writing, 48 Peruvians have been confirmed dead due to police and military violence. Hundreds more have been injured. Protests—mostly peaceful—continue throughout the country. What the people are asking for is the resignation of President Dina Boluarte, the closure of Congress, new elections, and a Constitutional Assembly to write a new constitution. Under the leadership of Boluarte, the police and military have sought to repress the protests. International human rights organizations have called attention to the excessive use of force by the State. Churches have called for an end to all violence, regardless of where it comes from.
Indeed, let us pray for peace in Peru.
The uprisings began in early December following the impeachment and subsequent arrest of former President Pedro Castillo. Having been in office for a little more than a year, he had already faced two impeachment attempts. Anticipating a third, he tried to close Congress and declared he would rule by decree until a replacement government was installed. As his acts were deemed unconstitutional, he was impeached later that same day by the very Congress he tried to close. He was later detained for acts of treason. That night protests denouncing his arrest began throughout the countryside.
The sheer number of people who raised their voice in opposition to his arrest and impeachment was somewhat unforeseeable given President Castillo’s low approval rating at the time – hovering at around 20%. Then again, the approval rating of the Congress that impeached him was near 10%. As the weeks have passed and the protests have increased, it has become clear that the reasons so many continue to take to the streets are not shaped by partisan politics or ideology. The people are moved because they feel neglected—unheard, unseen and unrepresented.
The majority of protestors are people of indigenous descent from the Andes and Amazon regions, far from the capital city of Lima. Castillo himself is from the Andes and was the first “campesino” to become President. The people could see themselves in him, and so they trusted him. They also placed high expectations on him to address the immense and growing inequality in the country.
Despite the highest rate of economic growth in Latin America from 2000-2020, Peru today also has the highest rate of food insecurity in South America. Over the years, successive governments from across the political spectrum opened the doors as widely as possible to foreign investment, especially in the mining sector, and generated immense wealth. Much of that wealth left the country. Much of the rest stayed in urban sectors like Lima where a middle class began to thrive. Very little was invested in strengthening public systems like health, education and social security. Next to nothing was invested in protecting rural and indigenous ways of life. When the pandemic hit, the country was ill-prepared and suffered greatly: to this day Peru still claims the highest fatality rate in the world from COVID-19. As significantly, the economy was devastated – contracting by 13% – due to the fact that 70% of the workforce was employed informally, living hand to mouth with no safety nets to sustain them in the hard times.
Castillo effectively faced the challenge of re-distributing the wealth in the face of a Congress controlled by those who wanted to grow the economy in the same ways that lead up to the pandemic. He was unskilled in dealing with them and proved to be ill-equipped to handle the political machinations of Peru that are also fraught with corruption and scandal: Boluarte is the sixth president of Peru in the last six years! And so, even his most ardent supporters turned on him. Nevertheless, when he was placed behind bars, those who could see themselves in him felt the blow of generational oppression by the powers of an urban elite—a blow that felt like a bomb when those powers and the media they control spouted anti-indigenous rhetoric to discredit the protests.
One can point to the impeachment of Castillo as the catalyst for the uprisings. Likewise, one can attribute the unrest to the acute suffering caused by the pandemic. And while both are indeed factors, one must take a more honest look not only at the twenty years of economic “boom” that preceded the pandemic, but at the historical harm done to indigenous peoples dating back centuries that have left them feeling forever unheard, unseen and unrepresented.
Recent public opinion polls show that the majority of Peruvians support the cause of the protestors and stand in opposition to the violent reaction of the State to repress them. And yet, congress does nothing to expedite new elections. International polls also show that in the entire Western Hemisphere only the people of Haiti have less confidence in the democratic institutions of their country than do the people of Peru. It is not hyperbole to say that democracy is in peril. A long-suffering people are exasperated. They are tired. They are crying out for an end to the darkness.
From where might that light come?
Our faith tells us the answer to this question. Perhaps the more pertinent question then is whether or not we who carry such faith in our hearts will have the courage to act on it in meaningful and responsible ways. Indeed, let us pray for peace in Peru. But let us also pray and work for justice in Peru. Let us pray, work and be in solidarity with the unheard, the unseen, and the un-represented. As Pastor Rafael Goto, friend and colleague, spoke recently from the streets of Lima as he walked in the company of dozens of other people of faith,
“We protest because we are part of the people. We are part of this country that is demanding justice and democracy… We denounce the violence, and we stand with the victims… God walks with the people. God walks with us.”
In the Spirit of this journey we share,
Jed and Jenny
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