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Peru students re-emerge as political force

With less than two weeks before a presidential runoff, young people are shaking things up again.

When Alejandra Alayza started college in 1993, there were few politically oriented students. The nation was just recovering from more than a decade of war with guerrilla groups, many of them recruited on campuses in the '80s.

In response, the government intervened at a number of universities, stationing tanks and soldiers on campuses through 1998, and stepping up intelligence-gathering among students to levels that many considered witch hunts.

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All this, combined with a general apathy toward politics, produced a generation of university students who were disaffected, repulsed, or even outright fearful of engaging in politics.

Ms. Alayza, now president of the Catholic University's student federation, recalls living with a curfew and hearing bombs go off at night while in high school. "When a 14- or 15-year old lives in violence and this level of fear on a daily basis, her openness to proposals for change ... is more than reserved; it's fearful," she says. "That's the context in which this generation of university students and recent graduates has lived."

But on the night after last month's presidential elections, when suspicions mounted that the government might commit fraud to ensure President Alberto Fujimori a third five-year term, tens of thousands of students flooded the streets in Lima and the provinces demanding a fair vote count in the largest protests in Peru's recent history.

According to many analysts, these massive youth protests have heralded the rebirth of student activism in Peru.

"In the 1990s, the universities were totally apolitical," recalls Lima political analyst Carlos Tapia. "Whoever wanted to be political in the universities was accused of being a terrorist." He says last month's protests "represent the reconstruction of a new student movement, a protest movement against the lack of democracy."

In the past two years, various student groups have banded together in Lima on a number of occasions. The first big march protested the 1997 decision by a Fujimori-controlled Congress to fire three judges who had voted against Mr. Fujimori's right to run for a third consecutive term. But observers say neither this nor subsequent protests had the effect that last month's did.

Many, including populist candidate Alejandro Toledo, believe the student protests in the days after the elections were a key factor in preventing the government from committing fraud and declaring Fujimori the outright winner, as many suspected would happen. Instead, after four days of protests and intense international pressure, official results were released indicating that he and challenger Toledo would face a runoff.

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According to analysts, the international community's threats of economic and diplomatic sanctions, indeed, staved off a fraud. But, without the students' presence in the streets, the statements would have been "more timid and formal," says Mr. Tapia.

With 12 days left before the May 28 vote, students and other young people took to the streets again last week demanding fairer conditions for the second round.

"We are here to tell Alberto Fujimori that we aren't going to allow him to continue to insult the intelligence and dignity of the Peruvian people," says student leader Imer Del Aguila. "The youth of Peru is more aware than ever of our role and responsibility."

Regardless of the outcome of the second round, the students have vowed to continue their involvement in politics - marching on the presidential palace again if necessary.

But many realize that if the student movement wants to go beyond protesting and get more involved in the political process, it has some maturing to do.

"You can't organize a democratic movement based solely on the minimum respect of the right to vote and electoral rules. It has to reach a much more profound proposal, and this is the challenge they face," says sociologist Romeo Grompone.

Nonetheless, students' renewed interest in politics is widely considered to be a positive step and may be a harbinger of bigger changes to come. "Whenever a historic political movement is formed, the bases and foundation ... are university students," says Tapia.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society