On 29 May, President Martín Vizcarra accepted the resignation of the minister of culture, anthropologist Sonia Guillén, nominally in response to a scandal involving generous contracts awarded by the ministry to singer and political ‘animator’ Richard Cisneros. However, the minister’s downfall was no surprise as she had been facing a growing chorus of criticisms from indigenous leaders and cultural critics.

The immediate cause of Guillén’s fall was revelations of a series of generous contracts awarded by the ministry to the flamboyant singer, who calls himself Richard ‘Swing’, in order to motivate ministry employees. ‘Swing’ had been active in the 2016 election campaign of ex-president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, whose campaign manager was Vizcarra. Swing had worked briefly as an advisor to a former minister for culture, Patricia Balbuena, now a vice-minister in the Ministry for Development and Social Inclusion (MIDIS).

Although the public prosecutor’s office is investigating the case, including searching offices in the ministry and presidential palace, the contracts do not appear to have been illegal, rather yet another example of political cronyism and frivolous use of public funds at a time of national emergency.

The hapless minister was unaware of the contracts awarded to Swing and expressed her surprise and embarrassment when they were revealed in the media. She has been replaced by writer and diplomat Alejandro Neyra, previously minister of culture under Kuczynski in 2017. The ministry has seen 13 ministers come and go since its creation in 2010.

The Culture Ministry is a sort of ‘Frankenstein’ creature supposed to defend and promote two very distinct constituencies: those involved in cultural activities and the preservation of the country’s cultural heritage on the one hand, and those who represent the country’s cultural diversity, especially its Andean and Amazonian indigenous peoples and Afro Peruvians on the other.

No minister has so far been able to satisfy both constituencies. Furthermore, successive governments, including the present one, have chosen to ignore the ministry’s claims on both the budget and government priorities.

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 emergency in March indigenous leaders and their allies have persistently criticised the ministry for not defending their rights and eliciting a government response to their particular needs in the face of the virus. When the pandemic was already impacting indigenous communities in the Amazon, the government issued a strategy document so general that it infuriated its critics.

Following further delays, three indigenous organisations, together with the National Human Rights Coordinator, called for Vizcarra to accept the minister’s resignation, and that of the vice-minister for indigenous affairs, and to spearhead a wholesale reorganisation of the ministry. Cultural critic Víctor Vich also called for a change in leadership.

Political commentator Javier Torres scathingly claims that this may be the ministry’s last opportunity. He says that “if before the pandemic the incapacity of the bureaucracy installed in the Ministry of Culture was well known, with the abandonment of the indigenous peoples and the whole area of cultural activity, the laziness and indolence of a group of high-level functionaries who abdicated their responsibilities and have not assumed any responsibility has been revealed.”

He has called on the new minister to take immediate and concrete steps to attend to the needs of indigenous peoples impacted by the pandemic, ensure effective free, prior and informed consent for indigenous peoples affected by extractive projects, defend the archeological heritage threatened by the proposed airport at Chinchero (in Cuzco), and appoint officials truly committed to the defence of the country’s culture.