Racist sentiments are never far from the surface in Peru, but last week saw them projected into the headlines. Prominent fujimorista and congresswoman, Martha Chávez, remarked that former prime minister Vicente Zeballos, recently appointed Peru’s ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), would have been more suitably appointed as a diplomat to Bolivia on account of “his Andean features”.
Her remarks, made during a session of the constitutional commission in Congress, raised major controversy exposing her party, Fuerza Popular, to strong criticism for harbouring racist sentiments. The public procurator of the regional government in Moquegua, for one, has promised to formally denounce Chávez this coming week before the president of Congress, Manuel Merino.
Chávez is a longstanding supporter of the Fujimori cause and an experienced politician. Her comments are therefore unlikely to be a casual outburst, rather a calculated move designed to curry favour in a large segment of the population in which racist sentiments are omnipresent. By pandering to popular prejudices, she was seemingly seeking to raise her profile and that of her party.
There can be no precise measures of racism in Peru, but it undoubtedly runs deep. Of course, it is not a new phenomenon but one that has provoked numerous indigenous rebellions over the country’s history.
Since Peru became an independent republic two hundred years ago, race and class have mirrored one another: the darker your skin, generally speaking, the lower your place in the social hierarchy. There have been attempts to change this, notably during the Velasco government (1968-75) when barriers to inclusion were broken down and the use of Quechua and Aymara re-evaluated as official languages.
But the advent of democracy in the 1980s (when universal suffrage was established for the first time as illiterate people won the right to vote) did little to transform social values even though laws were passed to prohibit racial discrimination. The current scale of racial prejudice is only too clear to observe from a brief sampling of social media content.
Of course, Peru is not alone in this respect. One has only to look across the border to Bolivia to see how the ‘interim’ government of Jeanine Añez repeatedly uses racial slurs to denigrate her opponents, notably former president Evo Morales and others who sought to elevate the status of the country’s indigenous majority. Nor is it just a Latin American phenomenon. The role played by race in dividing society and polarizing politics in the United States plays out week after week. And Britain is no paragon in this respect either.
But the scale of the Covid-19 pandemic and the strains it is putting on Peruvian society is bound to exacerbate social and racial tensions as those that are poor (and mostly with darker skins) suffer disproportionately while the lighter-skinned elite receive the benefits to which they have long grown accustomed.