Erika Guetti Suca is a PhD student and fourth-generation Adventist from Peru. She tells Spectrum readers about the reasons behind the latest crises in Peru and why people are angry at the government, how local churches have been impacted, the progressive Adventist student group in São Paulo, Brazil, where she is studying, and her family’s Adventist roots.
Question: Protests and upheaval have marked the last few months in Peru, with airports, shops and tourist destinations like Machu Picchu closed. Things seem to have calmed down a bit now, although Dina Boluarte is still president. Can you give us a brief lesson on what has caused the nationwide crisis in Peru?
Answer: Peruvian society is repeatedly in crisis for recurring reasons, but in my view, the main reason is consecutive corrupt governments.
Regarding the latest crisis, I would summarize the following causes: an elected government with little approval, a divided congress without political maturity, and a political system with a unicameral congress.
Former President Pedro Castillo won the election in 2021 largely because many voters simply were voting against Keiko Fujimori. But once the leftist Pedro Castillo became president, he was unable to execute a government plan, nor was he able to get approval for his proposals from the various ministers. After a failed coup attempt and accusations of corruption and other crimes in December 2022, Castillo was impeached, arrested, and sent to prison.
Peru was left without a president, and we fell into chaos and violence, with the south of the country becoming the epicenter. These regions were mostly those that voted in favor of Castillo: Arequipa, Apurimac, Cusco, and Puno. The populations of these regions are mostly of the Aymara and Quechua ethnic groups—historically forgotten peoples, with low education rates, a poverty rate well above the Peruvian average, and little investment in educational infrastructure. The southern part of the country sees itself as a constant target of racism and exclusion from the centralist government. The poverty in southern Peru contrasts with the richness of raw materials in the region, which represent an important economic income for the whole of Peru.
Another event that ignited tempers was the behavior of Dina Boluarte, who was elevated from the vice presidency under Castillo to become the current president of Peru. She came to power from a left-wing party, then allied herself with the majority of the right-wing congress to remain in office, despite the protests against her.
The posture of the congress and the aggressive repressions of President Boluarte increased the climate of violence. The congress has very little support. Many of the political parties represented in the congress have no experience in legislation and simply continue to advance the interests of the social elite in the capital city of Lima. Yet the congress retains considerable power because the Peruvian political system is a unicameral congress, and there is no counterweight.
Do you have any predictions as to what might happen next? Or any ideas as to how the problems can be resolved?
In my opinion, Peru needs economic reform. The government must add sustainable development into the economic model of the country, protecting natural resources and the environment for the benefit of local inhabitants.
The Peruvian state needs to create policies and raise awareness of the responsibility to contribute financially according to economic capacity. It needs to formalize small businesses and prohibit precarious employment.
I think it is important to discuss new elements that could help Peruvian society: the values of solidarity in a multiethnic society, the decentralization of power, and emphasized awareness among the most powerful economic classes and the moral responsibility to return benefits to at-risk communities.
When it comes to vulnerable communities, I believe Peru needs to implement policies that value human rights, such as the right to prior consultation for projects that impact Indigenous peoples or their territories, quality education, the right to internet, the right to food, health, and a universal minimum pension.
The Adventist Church has a long history in Peru, beginning in 1898 with the first evangelist canvassers, continuing with many local lay workers, and then in the early part of the 20th century with much work among Indigenous populations and the work of Fernando and Ana Stahl in the Andean region. There are numerous Adventist schools and media outlets in Peru, and in some parts of the country, as many as 1 in every 40 people is an Adventist. The Adventist Church is the second-biggest religious organization in Peru, after the Catholics, I believe. What part of Peru are you from and how did you come to Adventism? Is your family Adventist?
I was born in Arequipa, in the southwest of Peru. When she was young, my mother came to work in Arequipa from Puno, on the shore of Lake Titicaca in Peru’s southeast. The lack of health, education, and transportation infrastructure have encouraged many people from southern regions of Peru to migrate to the bigger cities of Arequipa and—especially—to Lima, where they often struggle to be accepted.
Puno, where my mother is from, is an Indigenous region where the Aymara language is widely spoken. It is one of Peru’s poorest regions. Puno is also the province where Ferdinand and Ana Stahl, maybe the most well-known Seventh-day Adventist missionaries in the world, lived between 1911 and 1918.
My family on my mother's side is Adventist, including my mother's two grandfathers, both on her maternal and paternal side. My two great-grandfathers on my mother's side, Manuel Mamani and Cristobal Suca, lived in the surroundings of Lake Titicaca, and according to my family's stories, they were baptized into Adventism. My great-grandfather Cristobal Suca had to learn to speak English in order to communicate with the evangelizers who visited Puno.
I believe that baptism for them was a way to encourage the culture of reading and the search for education as a way of empowerment and of overcoming the extreme poverty they lived in.
How have the violence and demonstrations affected the Adventist Church? How have local churches been affected?
The latest wave of protests in Peru left at least 66 people dead, and most of the dead were from the Puno region. It was a series of brutal deaths that highlight Peru's deep divisions that date back to colonial times. The poverty and marginalization that the Stahl missionary couple encountered in these regions still persists.
The number of Adventists in the Puno region is quite large because of the work of the Stahls more than a century ago. During the protests, churches—mainly in the Puno region—had to close. It was this region that remained in a state of emergency and their activities were paralyzed for several days, affecting many Adventist institutions located in the region.
Do the Adventists have any political involvement in Peru? Do they tend to be aligned with one political faction or another?
The Adventist Church is very conservative in Peru. Officially, the church follows the principle of not talking about politics in either its churches or its educational institutions. In my opinion, this has advantages and disadvantages.
The advantage of a church remaining neutral, or at least seemingly neutral, is to create a friendly space for everyone. However, given that most Adventist members are quite conservative, beliefs against abortion, against medical research with substances considered addictive, and so on are often openly spread among the church members.
The problem arises when policies that pertain to citizens’ rights need to be talked about, they are not discussed in an open and balanced way. And in educational institutions, when politics are not discussed, sometimes teaching that is critical and tolerant of different opinions is not encouraged.
Is the Adventist Church still growing in Peru? Do you feel the message has stayed constant? Has the church changed in the last decade or so?
During the pandemic, the church grew in baptisms. But once the pandemic ended, there was a decrease in baptisms and many members did not return to church attendance.
Do you have a sense of how Adventists are perceived by fellow Peruvians?
I believe it depends a lot on the region of Peru. Adventists in the capital Lima are generally known as principled, hardworking, and honest people. In Lima, the majority do not attend any particular church. However, in the interior where several other denominations coexist, Adventists are seen as almost adversaries, and in these cities, they are considered closed and very conservative.
You are currently living in Brazil, as a PhD student in computer science at the University of São Paulo. Brazil is another Latin American country that has seen its fair share of political upheaval in recent years. On January 8 this year, a mob attacked the country's federal buildings after President Jair Bolsonaro was defeated in elections. How were things for you under the Bolsonaro government?
During the Bolsonaro government, the censorship and repression increased a lot, especially regarding issues related to sexuality, mental health, vaccines, and more. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the president did not act responsibly and did not even show empathy for Brazilian citizens. Every week there were absurd scandals, controversial statements, cases of corruption, and much more. There was a lot of uncertainty and little reliability in government decisions.
How have things changed now that Bolsonaro is gone?
Things are back to being orderly. The government is focusing again on the development of the economy and the progress of the country. President Lula da Silva’s government is working on the regularization of the economy by reducing interest rates and prioritizing the reduction of tax rates for goods such as housing, health, and education. I think a lot of things are being improved.
Brazil is another country with a strong Adventist presence. Do you attend an Adventist church there? What is it like?
I have been attending the Adventist Community of University Students for at least 10 years. It is called CAJU (Comunidade de Jovens Adventistas Universitários) in Portuguese. CAJU is a project for college students from secular universities.
CAJU aims to break down prejudices about religion, creating a pleasant environment where people can talk with God and about God, making friends, volunteering in the community, and growing together.
CAJU has adopted more progressive Adventist customs and as a result has received a lot of censorship and repression from the Adventist Church in São Paulo, Brazil, especially during the Bolsonaro government. For instance, a subject that brought us a lot of misunderstanding and criticism was our welcoming approach to LGBTQIA+ people. Also, the feminist agenda, in particular women's empowerment, is a difficult topic for most conservatives to understand.
CAJU welcomes those who are already Christians, especially Adventists, who feel that their questions in more traditional churches would be ignored or cause discomfort.
How would you compare the Adventist Church in Peru and Brazil? How is the same or different? Again, Brazil is a majority Catholic country, but the evangelicals have a very strong presence there, right?
The Adventist Church in both Peru and Brazil is very conservative, especially in the communities of the interior of these countries. The church creates a mutual aid network to help to find jobs, legal assistance, and consultations with specialist doctors, and also serves as a space for parents to leave their children after school hours (a period in which children and teenagers tend to stay in the streets in the because there are no other alternatives).
There is no doubt that these Adventist churches have helped to diversify religiosity in Peru and Brazil by reviving a somewhat dormant spirituality, providing pastoral services to underserved communities, and introducing an ethical rigor that has saved many from devastating violence and addiction.
On the other hand, in both countries, the Adventist Church has encouraged the promotion of a very particular vision of society. This vision is often in tension with the culture of equal rights, as it is particularly hostile toward the LGTBQ community and gender equality.
Where did you study for your undergrad and master’s degrees? What did you study?
I have a bachelor’s degree in systems engineering from the National University of San Agustin, Arequipa, Peru. I have a master's degree in computer science from the University of São Paulo, Brazil. Currently, I am in the last year of a PhD in Computer Science at the same university. My research areas are knowledge representation, data privacy, and linked data.
My research focuses on privacy-preserving in health-tracking systems using randomized responses. My purpose is to protect sensitive information and to measure how effective differential mathematics techniques are at protecting privacy within larger data. I am developing a model to let knowledge designers define and validate mechanisms to establish privacy.
Further reading on the political situation in Peru:
“Un Experts Call For End to Violence during Demonstrations, Urge Respect for Human Rights,” United Nations Human Rights (March 6, 2023).
“Peru’s Political Crisis: Jaw-Dropping Twists and Turns,” BBC (December 15, 2022).
“‘They Say We’re Not Peruvian’: Protester Deaths Highlight Peru’s Deep Historical Divisions,” CNN (March 10, 2023).
Alita Byrd is the interviews editor for Spectrum.
Photo courtesy of Erika Guetti Suca
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