South America Yesterday and Today: The Globalist speaks to Dr Gabriela Ramos

Lima, PeruLima, Peru

Dr Ramos is Director of Studies in History at Newnham College. Born in Lima, Peru, Dr Ramos has been a member of the history faculty since 2003. Her research interests are in religion, culture and politics in Latin America and she is the author of a prize winning book on death and conversion in the colonial Andes. She spoke to Robin about the current political turmoil in Peru, as well as wider contemporary trends in Latin America: corruption, indigenous rights and the Catholic Church.


President Kuzcynski’s resignation, what comes next?

President Kuzcynski’s resignation at the end of March spelled the end of the besieged President’s battle against allegations of corruption. In December, he became the next Latin American politician to be implicated in the continent-wide Odebrecht corruption scandal. When the Peruvian Congress subsequently held an impeachment vote, he was widely believed to have secured the necessary political support to defeat it by agreeing to pardon the ex-President, Alberto Fujimori, who had been in prison since 2009 for the sanctioning of death squads targeting civilians in the 1990s. The pardon sparked outrage across Peru

‘He will resign or he will be impeached.’ Dr Ramos predicted that President Kuczynski would not survive. However she reasoned that this would not be such a tragedy, especially considering the risk the allegations might pose to Peru’s strong economic growth: ‘He systematically lies…who would want to invest in a country where people do not keep their word?’

It was the suspect dealings around the December impeachment vote that doomed the President. A video was leaked of his supporters appearing to offer public works contracts in exchange for support in Congress on the eve of the vote. While still denying any wrongdoing, in an address to the nation, Kuzcynski justified his resignation as to avoid being an ‘obstacle’ to the nation. Martin Vizcarra, the former Peruvian ambassador to Canada, has been appointed in his place. He has pledged to fight corruption, but like Kuzcynski his power will be dependent on an unstable coalition in Congress

Ironically, it was the party led by Fujimori’s daughter Keiko, Fuerza Popular, who released the video implicating Kuzcynski. Despite the human rights violations of her father, Keiko has rebuilt the party and narrowly lost to Kuzcynski in the 2016 election. She was not involved in the behind-the-scenes negotiations for the release of her father in December and it clearly did little to deter her from derailing Kuzcynski’s Presidency.

Whilst remaining in opposition, Kuzcynski’s resignation is an opportunity for Keiko’s Fuerza Popular to increase their support. However, Dr Ramos is sure that this would change little in terms of state corruption. ‘It is a populist party, they turn people into clients, distributing goods, money and positions. No one knows where they are getting there money from. They walk on a very thin line between what is legal and what is not.’

According to Dr Ramos, the resurgence of Fuerza Popular under Keiko has not required her to distance herself from her father’s legacy noting that ‘unfortunately a lot of the nation thinks that human rights were the price necessary to pay in order to stabilise the country and bring security. They truly despise human rights.’


The fallout of the Odebrecht corruption scandal

Odebrecht, based in Brazil, is the largest construction company in Latin America. The revelations of its corrupt dealings has turned into one of the biggest corporate corruption cases in history. Executives of the company were found to have paid out billions of dollars in bribes to politicians across Latin America in exchange for construction contracts.

‘The scandal has impacted people all over the continent and beyond, but I think judicially it is up to each country to respond’. Dr Ramos is complementary of the Brazilian judiciary for prosecuting the leading figures like Marcelo Odebrecht himself, but is not so optimistic for Peru.

She says it is naïve to take the arrest ex-Peruvian President Ollanta Humala, for his potential involvement in the scandal, as a sign of the integrity of the Peruvian judiciary. In fact it is indicative of the opposite. ‘The problem is that he doesn’t have the opportunity to manipulate the judiciary like Garcia and the Fujimori family… If you see someone like (another ex-President) Alan Garcia, he is not even being investigated now. How can you explain that? A man that has a huge fortune, nobody has ever seen him working.’

It appears to be more severe than just Humala’s lack of political clout, Dr Ramos exclaims that even though she has no idea if he is innocent, it is still unfair. ‘Why is he in jail? Why are he and his wife in jail? He has been no trial, they are not convicted of any crime.  Something there doesn’t add up. You are not supposed to be in jail if you have not been sentenced, 3 months now he has been in jail. Why is that?’


The current state of protection for indigenous people

When the conversation moves on to the current threats to legislative protections for indigenous people in Latin America, Dr Ramos sighs. She has published historical research on indigenous culture, particularly in the Andes region. ‘It is normal that they trade these things in order to survive politically.’ It doesn’t surprise her to hear that, in Brazil, President Temer has been rolling back funding for protection of indigenous people and their environment, in exchange for support from agriculture-business interests in Congress.

‘This is happening all over the continent, in some places the situation is worse than others. Latin America has huge natural resources and governments have been subscribing to the idea that they have to exploit these resources. The people in the way, they have to find a way to push them aside.

This pursuit of economic growth at the expense of indigenous people and their land seems impossible to deny, given the increasingly frequent reports of land seizures, murders of environmental activists, and indigenous protests across Latin America. The Peruvian government recently approved the building of roads in the Ucayali region of the Amazon, which has a high concentration of uncontacted tribes.

According to Dr Ramos, it can be as bad for the farmers, many of whom are now claiming to be indigenous in order to obtain the most basic legal protection.


The Catholic Church

One prominent voice in support of the indigenous community recently has been Pope Francis. On a visit to Peru in January, he went into regions of the Amazon to meet some of the tribes’ resident there, then subsequently made a number of statements on the protection of their rights.

However, Dr Ramos warns about getting too caught up with the Pope’s activism agenda. He may have met indigenous communities, she says, ‘but he refused to meet with the victims of sexual abuse’. Just a few days ago, the Pope moved to rectify this situation by inviting the Chilean victims to the Vatican to ask for their forgiveness. However, this comes after promoting Barros, the clergyman thought to be responsible, and months of dismissing their claims of sexual assault as ‘slanderous’. In Chile particularly, protesters travelled to the capital, Santiago, from far and wide to let their displeasure at the decision be known.

Additionally, Dr Ramos brings up the criticism the Pope has taken for his comments on Nuns and other women, telling them to stay quiet. He is not a positive influence on the increasing mobilisation of women across the continent.

The Argentine Pope Francis was thought to have been appointed at least partially to tackle the decline of the Catholic Church in Latin America. The continent was estimated to be 92% Catholic in 1970, a recent poll has suggested that number is closer to 60% today. Dr Ramos believes that was the reason for the Pope’s tour, to capitalise on Pope Francis’ skill with the masses. Although, she warns that reputational damage from sexual abuse scandals is just a small part of a trend most affected by the increasing popularity of Protestant Pentecostal churches.

This decline has been less pronounced in Peru. Dr Ramos has no hesitation in articulating the reason why. ‘Peru has always been late in everything. It is a very conservative country’. She explains that Peru was the last nation to fight for independence in the 19th century and the last nation to be seriously threatened by Communism in the 1990s.

For a country that traditionally reacts more slowly to global trends, political events in Peru are moving pretty fast. Vizcarra is inheriting weak democratic institutions, an utterly discredited government and a divided political nation. President Kuzcynski resigned due to allegations of corruption. Of the four Presidents before him, one awaits trial for corruption, one is in hiding to avoid prosecution for corruption, one appears to be powerful enough to brush off allegations of corruption and one has just been pardoned for corruption among other crimes. Time will tell if Vizcarra can chart a different course.