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Protesters in Peru demand the president’s resignation

Mariana Aljovin Mendoza explains the causes and possible conclusion of the deadly mass protests engulfing Peru

A woman poses for a portrait in Sicuani, Cusco, during 2023 protests where hundreds of people demand the resignation of Dina Boularte; Aldair Mejia/EFE

In November 2020, protesters took over the streets of Lima, Peru's capital. The protests peaked when an altercation between police and protesters resulted in the deaths of two young men. The president at the time, Manuel Merino, was forced to resign, after being in power for less than a week. Two years later, protests have erupted again in the south of Peru, a mostly rural and impoverished region.

These protests followed the impeachment of the elected president Pedro Castillo, on December 7th, 2022. Castillo was quickly replaced as his vice president, Dina Boluarte, took office. Now, after one month of Dina Boluarte's government, there have been 46 deaths and more than 1000 people injured, including civilians, journalists, and police forces. Despite this, Boluarte shows no intention of resigning.

The recent protests in Peru are yet another symptom of the political crisis that the country has been experiencing since 2018. To start with, there have been issues maintaining sustained executive power: in five years, six presidents have come and gone, and countless cabinets and ministers have proven unfit for the challenge. There is also a build-up of malcontent towards Congress. According to the last survey, 85% of the population disapproves of their performance.

"On top of everything, as usual, Boluarte’s strategy to delegitimise the protesters has been to criminalised them, claiming they are linked to terrorist groups, drug trafficking, and illegal mining."

New elections were held in 2021 in this hostile and unstable context. Pedro Castillo, a rural schoolteacher, ran for office with the hard-left conservative party, Peru Libre, against Keiko Fujimori, the leader of the far-right party Fuerza Popular. Neither candidate enjoyed any popularity during the elections. Mrs. Fujimori represented the status quo, while Castillo appealed for controversial social and economic change. Despite Castillo's faults, he won by a very thin margin.

Castillo’s victory represented a change for the systemically forgotten regions of the Andes, mainly indigenous communities in the southern Andes. It could have meant a new multicultural, more inclusive regime. Historically, the south of Peru is the region that has suffered the high rates of violence, during the armed conflict of the 1980s, by the military government and by the terrorist group the Shining Path. However, after 16 months in office Castillo showed he was unfit to rule, with unstable cabinets that lasted mere weeks and various embarrassing corruption cases. Castillo´s desperate final card was attempting to shut down Congress, effectively a coup d’état, on December 7th, 2022. He was impeached for committing treason under Article 117, and was replaced by then vice president Boluarte. Nevertheless, Castillo´s supporters are protesting against what they consider an unrepresentative coup from Congress, blaming the “elite” in Lima for removing the elected president.

A policeman points at protesters and a photojournalist outside Juliaca Airport, where thousands took to the streets to march for the closure of Congress and the resignation of Dina Boularte; Aldair Mejia/EFE

Protesters have been further discontented with Dina Boluarte’s political performance, primarily because she did not tread the expected, and promised, political line – in an interview, Richard Hancco, governor of Puno, said, “we feel betrayed” by her divergence from Castillo´s policies. As soon as Boluarte assumed office, she established dialogue with Fuerza Popular, the far-right party that had been hindering Castillo's rule. Boluarte's efforts to make alliances with the centrist and right-wing parties are seen as a betrayal, possibly because of the precedent of left candidates who turned their policies to appease or win the support of the right.

On top of everything, Boluarte’s strategy to delegitimise the protesters has been to criminalise them, claiming they are linked to terrorist groups, drug trafficking, and illegal mining activity. Until now, there is little evidence to support these claims. To link the protests to terrorist groups is not a light accusation, but rather it recalls historical wounds. Peru has a heterogeneous and fragmented society, which is why the ongoing protests do not have one unanimous representative. Protesters’ demands are diverse, reflecting the people taking to the streets. Nevertheless, they also agree on a few points: Congress's closure, a new constitution, and Dina Boluarte’s resignation.

"There is also no doubt that law enforcement has utilised excessive force and adopted an indiscriminately abusive attitude toward both peaceful and violent protesters alike."

To protest peacefully is a right according to Article 2.12 of Peru's political constitution. Yet repression seems to be the common answer in Peruvian politics. The protests and the violence happened simultaneously in the last two months as well. First, it started with roads being blocked by protesters, and attacks on the press. This included the burning down of radio stations, and attacks against journalists to express their discontent with the media. The worst of the violence occurred when a large group of protesters tried to seize the airports. When there is such a large protest, it is a common strategy to try to seize the airport since it is the main communication center, and they are a key for tourism and the economy. They feel this is how Congress will take their demands seriously. This has happened in four regions: Cuzco, Puno, Arequipa and Apurimac. In the case of Apurimac, protesters were successful in seizing the airport and seriously damaging the infrastructure. During these events, police responded without restraint.

However, many protest peacefully with legitimate demands, driven by a sense of overdue social debt. Peaceful protesters too, unfortunately, have become entangled by the government’s generalisations of all protesters as violent and “terrorists,” accusations which only motivate and encourage an irresponsible narrative creating larger divisions within Peruvian society. There is an undeniable faction of protesters committing violent acts. Yet, they do not aim to revive the terrorist groups of the 80s who declared war on the state, nor are they an armed terrorist group. There is also no doubt that law enforcement has utilised excessive force and adopted an indiscriminately abusive attitude toward both peaceful and violent protesters alike.

The protests see no clear end in sight, with the death toll rising daily, and more people coming onto the streets. New demands are not linked to the original discontent but rather to additional unattended issues like the excessive centralism in the country, years of unfulfilled political promises, and the many governments who have turned their backs on the population's basic rights.

These uprisings are an effort by poorer parts of the country as well as a larger cross-section of citizens to be heard, to have their worsening political and economic situations finally addressed. Unfortunately, these aims are hindered by continuing racism, the criminalisation of the protests, and other divisive narratives that are too often peddled by government officials themselves. In the last month, the course of the protests has changed from a spark to a sustained, fuelled flame. The capital is the target, and there is only one demand: that Dina Boluarte should resign.


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