Home More News Gustavo Meza-Cuadra: Confronting Peru’s many post-COVID challenges

Gustavo Meza-Cuadra: Confronting Peru’s many post-COVID challenges

Gustavo Meza-Cuadra: Confronting Peru’s many post-COVID challenges
Gustavo Meza-Cuadra is Peru's new ambassador to the United States. (Photo by The Washington Diplomat)

Peru is known for many things: along with Bolivia, it’s home to Lake Titicaca, which at 12,507 feet above sea level is the world’s highest navigable lake. It also boasts Machu Picchu, a 15th-century ancient city in the mountains, and easily the most familiar icon of the Inca Empire.

Less admirable is the heavy price COVID-19 exacted upon this unfortunate country. At last count, over 221,000 Peruvians have died of the disease since the World Health Organization declared the pandemic in March 2020, giving the nation of 34 million a covid mortality rate of 6,501 per million inhabitants—by far the world’s highest.

Bulgaria, the next-highest, had 5,661 covid deaths per million, followed by Bosnia & Herzegovina, with 5,057. By comparison, the world average was 872 per million.

Gustavo Meza-Cuadra, Peru’s ambassador to the United States, admits his country did not handle the pandemic very wisely.

“Nobody really knew the best way to face the covid threat. We closed the economy down, and that deeply affected business,” he told The Washington Diplomat in a recent interview. “The high death toll also reflected a lack of investment in medical facilities and housing conditions—and the government’s lockdown policy didn’t help. People were forced to stay at home, thereby transmitting the virus to each other.”

Breathtaking view of Machu Picchu, lost Inca city and Peru’s leading tourist attraction. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

On the other hand, Peru’s poor showing may also be due to excessive openness, he suggested.

“Peru was one of the most transparent in informing the world about our infection rate,” he said. “We learned afterwards that many countries were not as transparent as Peru, and this put us on top of the list.”

6 presidents in under 7 years

Meza-Cuadra, 64, was born and raised in Lima, the capital of this vast nation bigger than California, Texas and Florida combined. He took up his position as ambassador in Washington on May 1, barely half a year after Peru’s leftist former president, Pedro Castillo—facing impeachment by Congress—was removed from office and arrested on Dec. 7, 2022, after he tried to dissolve the government and seize power.

Dina Boluarte, Castillo’s vice president, was immediately sworn in as president, becoming the first woman ever to lead Peru—and its sixth president since 2016.

But massive protests have wracked the country in the nine months since her inauguration; Peru’s ombudsman has estimated that more than 60 people have died in the ensuing violence, most of them demonstrators. They are demanding the resignation of Boluarte—who currently has a dismal 14% approval rating, according to polls—and the drafting of a new constitution.

Pensioners demand higher benefits at demonstration in Trujillo’s Plaza de Armas. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

In May, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a report concluding that the government’s actions included extrajudicial killings and could constitute a massacre. And Amnesty International (AI) has accused state security forces of targeting Peruvians of poor, indigenous and campesino backgrounds in its deployment of lethal weapons.

“The police and the military have repeatedly used force unlawfully in recent months, costing the lives of dozens of people,” AI’s Americas director, Erika Guevara-Rosas, said in a July 18 statement. “These horrific scenes of state repression must not be repeated.”

Meza-Cuadra said that Castillo’s removal, which sparked the current massive protests rocking Peru, is itself proof that the country’s institutions are working.

“Yes, we have had many presidents recently, but our democracy has faced these challenges and survived,” he told us. “An attempt by the former president to shut Congress illegally was rejected, not only by society but also by the institutions. So you can take a positive view of this.”

Inequality, corruption is worsening post-COVID

That would hardly calm the protesters, who are also enraged at Peru’s worsening levels of income inequality. This is particularly evident in rural areas, where years of schooling average half that of Lima, home to 10 million people, or nearly a third of the country’s population. By comparison, Arequipa, Peru’s second-largest city, has one million inhabitants, further highlighting the concentration of wealth and investment in the capital.

Moneychangers exchange dollars and soles in the Miraflores district of Lima. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

“Inequality is a pervasive issue in the world in general. We have inequality too, but the government has invested a lot over the past 20 to reduce these gaps,” said Meza-Cuadra, noting that the share of Peruvians living in poverty fell from 50% in 2002 to 22% in 2020, when covid hit. Since then, it has crept back up due to the economic crisis sparked by the pandemic.

This year, Peru’s GDP is expected to grow by 1.1%, rising to around 3% in 2024.

“Peru, as well as other Latin American countries, were really affected by covid and the downturn of the global economy. Now we are in a more calm, stable environment, and we have a very well-managed economy and an independent central bank,” the ambassador said. “We also have a low debt-to-GDP ratio and the second-highest credit rating in South America.”

Yet Simeon Tegel, writing recently in Foreign Policy, says the root cause of Peru’s crisis can be boiled down to a single historical factor: corruption.

“Wherever you look in Peru, it is impossible to miss the country’s rampant graft, which—with a handful of exceptions—has metastasized into almost all public institutions. This corruption has until now been largely accepted, or at least tolerated, by a jaded citizenry,” he wrote. “It has also widened and deepened Peru’s yawning fault lines of race, class, and geography by slowing economic development and sabotaging the implementation of public policy in every sector of government, from grossly inadequate education and healthcare to public safety.”

Schoolchildren walk past an armored personnel carrier in Lima’s Plaza de Armas. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

Another enduring problem is the guerrilla group known as Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path in English. Founded by former philosophy professor Abimael Guzmán, the far-left Marxist movement terrorized Peruvians throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s, and was responsible for an estimated 25,000 deaths.

The group has since declined in importance, yet it still holds some sway in a rural area of eastern Peru known as the Valley of the Apurímac, Ene and Mantaro rivers (VRAEM in Spanish). On Sept. 4, four police officers were killed in a shootout with rebels in the province of Huanta, part of the Andean region of Ayacucho.

USTR: Peru among only 20 countries with US FTAs

The violence is the second major confrontation in the VRAEM this year. In February, seven law enforcement officers were also killed in the area, in what Peru’s Interior Ministry called the deadliest single attack on police in a decade.

“Shining Path used to be a threat to the Peruvian state because they were aiming to take power. That’s no longer in the equation,” the ambassador said. “They’re only now a very small gang of narcotraffickers in a very remote area, which is very difficult to combat.”

Gustavo Meza-Cuadra, Peru’s ambassador to the United States. (Photo by The Washington Diplomat)

A career diplomat with over 40 years of experience, Meza-Cuadra previously served as Peru’s foreign minister (2019-20), and permanent representative to the United Nations (2018-19), when Peru was a member of the UN Security Council; it has held the presidency of that body twice.

“I have been very lucky,” said Meza-Cuadra, who like all his predecessors in Washington have been foreign service officers rather than political appointees.

“In order to be a diplomat, you have to enter through the diplomatic academy. My former position was director of this academy, which awards a master’s degree. And you have to study there two years before entering the service,” he said.

“In my case, I started working in international trade and investment at the beginning of my career. And later on, I was Peru’s ambassador to the UN, so I also have multilateral experience, which is very helpful for negotiations and getting deep knowledge of international issues.”

Peru ranks second in world coca production

As one of only 20 countries that have free-trade agreements with the United States, Peru does enjoy some competitive advantages. The Peru Trade Promotion Agreement, which took effect Feb. 1, 2009, “provides a secure, predictable legal framework for investors, and strengthens protection for intellectual property, workers, and the environment,” according to the US Trade Representative’s Office.

Façade of the heavily fortified U.S. Embassy in suburban Lima. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

Since the FTA’s implementation, bilateral commerce has nearly tripled, reaching $22 billion last year. The United States is now Peru’s second-largest trading partner, after China. The country, rich in mineral resources, ranks second in world production of copper, silver and zinc; third in lead, fourth in tin and molybdenum, fifth in boron, and eighth in gold.

Peru is also the world’s top supplier of blueberries, and a major exporter of grapes, avocados and mangos. Sadly, it’s also the second-largest source of another agricultural commodity—coca leaf, from which cocaine is produced—ranking only behind Colombia.

“We have been working for decades to fight cocaine trafficking and coca production,” he said. “With US support, we have reduced coca production in several areas of Peru and replaced it with cocoa and coffee. In several places, they’re now exporting high-quality coffee.”

Nevertheless, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reports that coca cultivation soared by 35% worldwide from 2020 to 2021, a record high and the sharpest year-to-year increase since 2016. UNDOC’s Global Report on Cocaine 2023 says the post-COVID jump follows both an expansion in coca bush cultivation and improvements in the process of converting coca bush to cocaine hydrochloride.

“Because of covid, coca crops have increased because it was very difficult to organize eradication efforts,” said Meza-Cuadra. “But now it has restarted. And we recently signed an agreement for the US to provide us intelligence on non-lethal air interdiction, so we’ll know when illegal planes enter our airspace to avoid detection.”

Larry Luxner

Miami native Larry Luxner, a veteran journalist and photographer, has reported from more than 100 countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia for a variety of news outlets. He lived for many years in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Washington, D.C., area before relocating to Israel in January 2017. Larry has been news editor of The Washington Diplomat since 2005.