Mildred Rooney

Protests, violence and democracy in Peru today: A reflection on international NGOs

Lawyer with a master's degree in political science and government with a mention in international relations, she is one of the main Peruvian academics on international cooperation. She is currently a professor at the Antonio Ruiz de Montoya University, the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru and the Diplomatic Academy of Peru (ADP). In the Peruvian public sector, she has been part of the legal advisory team of the Peruvian Agency for International Cooperation. (APCI).

By Mildred Rooney

Democracy is often elusive in Latin America. In Peru’s recent history, we have seen unconstitutional dissolutions of the Congress of the Republic that have been successfully consummated, such as the self-coup of former dictator Alberto Fujimori in the early nineties; and another, which did not become a reality, on December 7 of last year, carried out by the now former president Pedro Castillo. Along with these coups d’état, we have witnessed a constant give and take between the Legislative and Executive powers. It was almost six years of constant crisis that led to the removal of two presidents from office, the resignation of two others and the dissolution of a congress, whose constitutionality was validated by the Constitutional Court.

Dina Boluarte, Castillo’s successor, with a precarious and increasingly delegitimized government, like that of her predecessors in this lost six-year term – fast on track to becoming a seven-year term in 2023 -, is also stumbling between resignation, the stalemate of bringing forward elections in Congress and, most seriously, a tax investigation for genocide, among other crimes-[1] and the recent decision on February 5th to declare a state of emergency in several south-eastern departments for sixty days, with the provision of leaving the control of internal order in Puno to the Armed Forces[2]. All this in the context of spiralling violence that has left almost 60 people dead and is suffocating the regions of Cajamarca, Junín, Ayacucho, Madre de Dios, Apurímac, Puno and Cusco, due to road blockades and the restriction of the transit of people, goods and even ambulances[3]

Actors at the center of the debate

Although the preceding paragraphs fall short in describing the complex situation in the country, I felt that this preamble was necessary before referring to the purpose of this brief text: to offer some notes, probably insufficient, on the role that international NGOs, as agents of development, could play in the current crisis and with a view to the future.

Whether they are international or domestic, NGOs are always controversial actors. They can be demonized or perceived as great allies on the path to development. It depends on the viewpoint and on which part of the political spectrum they are positioned, and also on how the NGOs identify themselves, how they function and where their funding comes from. In short, NGO participation will always be the subject of discussion and challenge.

In this text I will try to take a more positive stance, although there is undoubtedly critical academic and professional literature on the work of international NGOs and the challenges they face in achieving the objectives that sustain their existence, such as: focusing more on the interests of the funding sources (governments or companies) rather than the development needs of the countries in which they operate; substituting the State; reducing the power of the citizenry due to a lack of mechanisms for transparency and accountability; applying a top-down approach in project formulation and implementation; among others[4].

However, in countries such as Peru, where state capacity has structural and functional limitations, international NGOs play a significant role in the construction of citizenship and as a correlate of democracy and development. And it is from this point of view that I would like to focus my reflections.

Democracy in decline, rights in danger

In a complex context such as the one we are experiencing in Peru, with few options for dialogue, with little willingness to address the problems, among so many shades of grey, the only clear conclusion is that we must strengthen our weak democracy which, just a few days ago, the Economist’s «Index Democracy 2022» no longer considered a «flawed democracy», but a «hybrid regime». In summary, the «hybrid regime» attributed to Peru is explained by the low level of «political culture» which went from 3.75 in 2021 to 3.13 in 2022, and by the reduction of «civil liberties» which went from 7.06 in 2021 to 6.47 in 2022.

It is important to note that in the «political culture» indicator, the Index measures the desire for a strong authoritarian leader, the preference for a military regime, disaffection with democracy (the proportion of the population that believes that democracies are not good for maintaining public order), among others. And, «civil liberties» include freedom of the press, expression and protest; the right to petition the government; the use of torture by the State; the independence of the judiciary; equality before the law; citizen security; the guarantee of personal freedoms; the public’s perception of human rights protection; the degree of discrimination; the restriction of civil liberties by the government with the justification of risks and threats; and so on.

It should be noted that The Economist Index refers to the year 2022, so it includes the 24 days of Dina Boluarte’s government, as well as the other eleven months of Pedro Castillo’s administration. As we have seen, this study shows that the democratic deterioration is centred on the low political culture and the violation of civil liberties, which have intensified in the last year and have accelerated in the last two months. And here comes my appeal to international NGOs to contribute to democracy.

Our political culture is extremely weak and tends to prefer a rupture of the democratic order, with strident voices that agree with the unconstitutional closure of Congress, and those who declare that a way out is through the exercise of state violence with the participation of the Armed Forces, despite the fact that neither their training and preparation, nor the means they employ are appropriate for dealing with social protests; these protests, when they include the perpetration of crimes, distort the legitimate nature of fundamental rights. The worst possible outcome of this strategy, already made official in Puno, and the most probable one, would be an increase in the number of deaths, since the only means available in this case are the weapons of war carried by military personnel, which should not be fired at civilians.

How to look to the future with international support

In the short term, the call is for international NGOs with direct or indirect links to protesting civil society, through their local allies, to help redirect the course of the situation towards an urgent process of dialogue leading to peace and concrete actions to finally meet the legitimate demands for development. International NGOs also have the means and the experience to bring the current crisis to the international agenda and to mediate so that the government opts for a pacifist strategy based on communication and consensus-building, rather than the use of state violence. In order to do so, the government[5] must show a willingness to yield on anything that is not at the irreducible core of democracy. Those who use violence in the protests undermine Peruvian democracy and so does the response of the Boluarte government. Two irreconcilable extremes that confront each other on a daily basis, overshadowing peaceful and legitimate protests, and intensifying our historical and ingrained divisions.

For the medium and long term, it is urgent that international NGOs renew their commitment to development and democracy in Peru, through participatory capacity building of citizens, not from a receptive approach, but with an actively involved civil society. As citizens, we need to understand our rights and duties, we need to stop believing that a civil or military coup d’état would help solve the complex problems we face, we need to contribute as citizens to the strengthening of institutions, as well as to activate the legal and institutional mechanisms available to transform situations of exclusion and inequality, and create new spaces to, as Professor Marisa Revilla says: “(…) produce a new form of union between society and politics”[6]. There is also an urgent need to continue and strengthen the effectiveness of international technical cooperation aimed at strengthening the mechanisms of transparency, accountability, the fight against corruption and the protection of human rights, so that we move towards a State not only focused on macroeconomic growth, which is far from being synonymous with development.

International NGOs can be of great help in all this, and they already are. Even if they tend to identify themselves as «apolitical» organizations and there are risks of a top-down structure, the impact of these actions by the international development community will undoubtedly be in the political sphere and will contribute to building a development focused on people’s wellbeing[7]. It is essential to link development with democracy and vice versa[8]. And now is the time to act for the peaceful solution of our disagreements. Procrastination in this situation of chaos and confrontational positions can only lead us to a worse scenario, more and more divided, more excluding and less democratic.

[1] On January 10, 2023, the Attorney General’s Office ordered the opening of a preliminary investigation against President Boluarte, the President of the Council of Ministers, and the Ministers of Defence and the Interior, for the alleged crimes of genocide, aggravated homicide and serious injuries, committed during the demonstrations in December 2022 and January 2023 in the regions of Apurímac, La Libertad, Puno, Junín, Arequipa and Ayacucho.

[2] The text of the regulations approved by the Boluarte government can be viewed at:

[3]  According to data from the Ombudsman’s Office, as of February 2, ten people have died in traffic accidents and incidents related to road blockades.

[4] For a review of some of the pros and cons of the role of NGOs, see: Joachim, J. (2019). 22. NGOs in world politics. In: Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[5] This text does not focus on the legislative branch, as to date no bill to bring forward elections has been passed and no convergence of agendas between left-wing and right-wing parties can be seen in the short term.

[6] For further discussion of NGOs as mechanisms for political participation see: Revilla Blanco, Marisa (ed.) (2002). Las ONG y la política. Madrid: Ediciones Istmo

[7] In the text “Desarrollo y Democracia en el Perú: Contribución de la cooperación internacional y rol de las organizaciones dela sociedad civil” (2018), the COEECI highlighted as two of its challenges: (i) to support Peruvian organisations in their work of consultation, advocacy and monitoring of public policies with or for state bodies at local, regional and national levels, as well as in international coordination on bilateral or multilateral issues; and, (ii) to promote and facilitate debate to defend and reinvent democracy, as well as its development models that include economic, social, cultural and environmental aspects on an equitable basis. See:

[8] On democracy and development see: Tommasoli, M. (2013). Democracia y desarrollo: El rol de las Naciones Unidas. Documentos de políticas. Naciones Unidas, IDEA Internacional.

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