Home / Global Governance and Human Rights / Idealismo – A Century-Long Battle for Indigenous Rights in Peru Leads to Explosive Anti-Government Protests

Idealismo – A Century-Long Battle for Indigenous Rights in Peru Leads to Explosive Anti-Government Protests

28 March, 2023

by Sam Biden, Research Assistant

Ongoing Protests

In July 2021, Pedro Castillo, a prominent left-wing politician, would be elected President of Peru, serving a short term of 17 months. Castillo’s victory was an unconventional one, being the first indigenous, working-class man ever to be elected, described as a true ‘man of the people’. Despite high hopes for Castillo, his implementation of public policy and cabinet formation would be disastrous. 78 ministers would be appointed during the presidency, yet Congress, dominated mainly by right-winged politicians, would repeatedly block and disrupt Castillo’s political agenda, including multiple threats of impeachment. In a final impeachment effort, Castillo would attempt to dissolve Congress, resulting in him being removed from office and replaced by the leader of the Free Peru party and stark opponent, Dina Boluarte. Newly sworn-in President Boluarte would have Castillo arrested.

This change of power would spark nationwide protests that security forces reacted to with violence under the new Peruvian government. The protestors primarily consisted of working-class people from organizations such as teacher’s unions and the Workers General Confederation of Peru. Despite these protests being quite small, the disproportionate response by security forces resulted in the deaths of 22 people in December alone. This forced a much wider protest to emerge, attracting Castillo’s critics to rally behind those being attacked by security forces, including the Human Rights Movement, one of the largest social movements in the state. More deaths followed in January with 17 people being killed in a single day, causing a further enlargement of the protest, now being called the largest demonstration since the 2000 protests against President Alberto Fujimori. In total, 48 protestors have been killed since December 2021, while another 1,301 people have been injured and hundreds more arrested. As of March this year, a state of emergency has been called to try and mitigate the developing resistance.

The methods used to disperse the protests can only be described as inhumane. The Army and National Police of Peru (PNP) have used both lethal and non-lethal means of protest dispersion. Lethal methods include the use of live fire that was deployed primarily against indigenous protestors, yet was also used indiscriminately against protestors in general. In Ayacucho, Andahuaylas, Chincheros and Lima, 46 cases of human rights violations and 12 deaths were recorded in just 13 days. Many of these human rights violations have not been investigated properly, per Amnesty International. One analysis conducted by Amnesty looked at public death statistics from the Peruvian Ombudsman office, focusing on the concentration of protests in geographical areas and the deaths associated per region. They found overwhelming evidence that Indigenous regions had the highest concentration of deaths caused by the PNP. Statistically, the Indigenous population only accounts for 13% of the Peruvian population, yet they were the victims of 80% of the human rights violations during the ongoing protests. Also in the report, Amnesty confirms correspondence with other stakeholders such as state officials, security forces, lawyers, journalists and civil organizations where they gathered 36 pieces of photographic and video evidence of human rights violations, 11 of these reports involved the deployment of unjust lethal force.

Deep-rooted Classism and Racism

The protests are not merely representative of frustration with the fall of a politician whom the protestors support but relate to feelings of anguish and distrust that minority groups have felt in Peru for over 100 years.

In 1919, a new class of ‘morally superior’ individuals would begin to emerge in Peru, splitting minorities such as the Indigenous population apart from the well-educated centrists in control of finance, politics and academics. The 11-year reign of Augusto Leguía would result in the creation of ‘idealismo’, a class of individuals that superseded those of ‘inferior’ moral qualities below them, a standard that became associated with centrist thinking. Idealismo individuals amalgamated education alongside morality, creating an assumption that uneducated people could not be idealismo or morally sound, essentially cutting off any Indigenous or minority group living outside of central Peru from ever obtaining a decent quality of life. Idealismo centrists attempted to make clear that all races were equal and had no innate biological differences, yet they were fully aware of how they were causing a major rift between the powerful centrists and their Indigenous neighbours. This caused a new definition of ‘race’ not predicated on the colour of one’s skin, but based on whether they could be classed as idealismo, which was improbable for the Indigenous population at the time. Despite this new definition arising, critical thinkers such as Victor Belaunde denied the inferiority of the Indigenous population, claiming that the centrists were contributing to the biological degeneration of anyone not considered idealismo.

The 1930s saw the rise of two new populist parties, the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA) led by Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre and the Communist Party candidate Eduardo Quispe Quispe. Both candidates were defeated by Luis Sanches Cerro, the first Indigenous-looking man to ever take office. Upon his victory, Cerro would be accommodated by the elites in the Peruvian capital, Lima. He was taught how to dress and began to become educated in the centrist life that many were excluded from. Academic exclusivity would begin to show signs of change as a new wave of ‘serrano’ or Indigenous ‘mountain dwellers’ would take centre stage in academia. In particular, a serrano named Jose Antonio Encinas would be appointed as the Rector of the University of San Marcos, something strictly limited to idealismo people. However, challenges to the definition of idealismo would be scarce as new changes to the concept began to develop. The race element that had been excluded from the definition of idealismo was replaced by a cultural aspect, targeting individuals who were ‘mestizos’ or mixed race/cultural, such as former President Cerro. This allowed centrists to exclude people from participation in morally virtuous activity due to not just their race, but their culture as well, under the guise of group superiority.

The 1960s saw the already harmful definition of race become even more cynical. Marxist ideology began to emerge as a strong political force. Highly-educated academics took leadership over far-left parties, particularly the Communist party, inciting people to believe that the only true path to success was through Marxist thought, something only really achievable through academia at the time. Because of this restriction, the term ‘peasant’ would arise to describe Indigenous people, meaning they lacked the required knowledge to succeed in Peru and occupied the ‘lowest ranks among leftist groups’. One prominent leftist lawyer claimed that if peasants wanted to turn rebellion into revolution, they must abandon their ‘magical religious beliefs’ in order to join the centrists, these beliefs were considered to represent an inferior stage of knowledge, showing evidence of religious as well as racial hatred. One major shift in political participation would arise when Indigenous people were officially granted the right to vote in 1979, something they had been denied for over 100 years. Indigenous communities would be terrorized even further during the Fujimori administration. Mass sterilization, a dangerous form of permanent birth control, would affect over 300,000 men and women between 1990-2000. Fujimori would be implicated for these crimes in 2021, facing over 25 years in prison for both sterilisation and crimes against humanity, particularly murder and military-style executions of agricultural workers.

In 2006, a law was passed to protect a predicted 5000, uncontacted Indigenous people living in the Peruvian rainforest, partially reverting the Forest and Wildlife Law (FWL) No.29763 that granted the government complete control over forestry in Peru, whether inhabited or not. The agreement that prompted the legislation was between Peru and the US, focusing on improving trade, yet Indigenous communities that were contacted did not receive the same level of protection. Extractive companies were granted the right to operate on Indigenous land, but this would be overturned in 2011 when the Peruvian government enacted legislation that required Indigenous communities to be consulted prior to any extractive or harmful project that may affect their land. Protective measures granted by the FWL would begin to slip in 2022 as Congress would subtly attempt to pass a bill that would strip all uncontacted Indigenous tribes of the rights to both their land and any reserves made for them.

Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination (CERD) – Annual Reports (2014-2018) 

CERD has produced a number of key reports that highlight racial issues between the Peruvian government and the Indigenous population, some highlights are as follows.

1. Institutional measures

CERD congratulates Peru on the creation of the National Commission against Discrimination. The role of the commission is to minimize racial tensions and ensure that racial minorities are guaranteed political, social and economic participation in Peru. While the creation of this establishment has the potential to be of great benefit, a lack of resource allocation and an action plan for how the commission will conduct itself is a major red flag. Alongside this, there is very little public information about the commission. This issue was raised in the 2014 periodic report on Peru, yet the same issues are highlighted in the 2018 report, confirming again that the commission was not only failing to allocate resources but also that it appeared entirely ineffective in combating discrimination as a whole.

2. Discrimination and Human Rights

One major highlighted issue of the 2014 CERD report is the inclusion of Article 323 in the Peruvian criminal code, defining discrimination and its incitement as a criminal offence. While no definition of discrimination was found in the legislation at the time, significant efforts to define it have been made in the following years. New regulations adopted after 2014 include a definition of discrimination focusing on the differentiated, exclusionary or restrictive treatment of an individual or group with the intent to limit their enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

In 2018, CERD reported a dangerous and consistent use of violence against minority groups, specifically those of Arab-Peruvian descent. In particular, human rights defenders have been repeatedly targeted due to their advocation. One such instance is that of Olivia Arevalo, an indigenous rights advocate and healer who was murdered by a Canadian citizen for her identity. This use of force is not limited to the case of Ms Arevalo but has been seen across the country for decades. As mentioned prior, extraction projects are a major source of friction between the Peruvian government and Indigenous people, leading to the assault and murder of innocent Indigenous people. This issue has been glossed over by the PNP to an extent that CERD described as impartial. This impartiality is due to the complacent role the PNP play in allowing mining companies to house agreements to operate in Indigenous regions that are currently protected, going so far as to disregard preventative states of emergencies applied to the regions in question.

Land rights have been a cause of concern for the Indigenous population for over a century, continuing today as there are no effective mechanisms to identify whether the land belongs to an Indigenous group or not. This causes many issues regarding land titles since many are never filed on behalf of the owner, resulting in private entities and citizens being free to begin operations on these lands without official permission from the land owners.


The Peruvian government are holding onto the aged ideas of their 20th-century political and academic influences in what can only be described as a century-long path of exploitation, violence and ignorance. Since minority groups got the right to vote in 1979, their protections against discrimination have either not been considered or if they have been considered, have not been implemented correctly or taken seriously by government stakeholders. Friction over land rights, negative racist and classist connotations, as well as the continual use of force against peaceful protestors, only demonstrates how far behind Peru is with achieving any form of egalitarianism.

Image: protests against Peruvian President Dina Boluarte and the Congress of Peru (Source: Mayimbú via CC BY-SA 4.0)

About Sam Biden

Sam Biden is a double law graduate from Aberystwyth University whose degree focused primarily in the enforcement and protection of civil liberties. His research surrounded areas such as data protection, protection from unlawful interference, environmental law, freedom from torture, inhuman or degrading treatment, humanitarian law and natural law jurisprudence. Sam’s areas of interest include the advocating for the protection of digital liberties, ensuring of safe passage and treatment for the victims of the migration crisis and the drafting of solutions to repair corporate exploitation resulting in human rights violations and exacerbated climate damage.