Protesters in Peru refuse to back down as political crisis deepens


LIMA, Peru — The political crisis gripping Peru deepened on Saturday as the new government of President Dina Boluarte neared collapse and protesters across the country refused to back down despite the military imposing a state of emergency.

A total of 20 protesters have reportedly been killed in clashes with security forces, including eight allegedly shot Thursday by soldiers using live ammunition in the southern mountainous region of Ayacucho.

Protesters stormed several regional airports, looted businesses and blocked highways, mainly in the impoverished mountainous regions of the Andean nation. Last year, those areas voted heavily for Pedro Castillo, a rural schoolteacher and former wildcat strike leader, who was ousted as president last week after he tried to dissolve Congress and restructure the judiciary.

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The violence led two ministers to resign from the Boluarte government on Friday. She left the vice presidency to replace Castillo and was also forced to announce Saturday that she would replace his current center-right technocratic cabinet.

Two cabinet members resigned after deadly protests over the ouster and arrest of former Peruvian President Pedro Castillo last week. (Video: Reuters)

Meanwhile, prosecutors announced investigations into the deaths of the protesters, and Peru’s official human rights watchdog called on the security forces to ensure officers had “sufficient experience, training and ability to engage in protest control without committing abuse.”

The protesters, who have no clear leader, have a variety of demands, ranging from the reinstatement of Castillo as president to the establishment of a constituent assembly to restructure the economy in favor of the poor.

The only common denominator is that almost the entire country… 83 percent of Peruvians — wants new elections and to get rid of the current scandal-ridden Congress.

“Castillo is our president, elected by humble and hard-working people from the countryside. He represented us. He understood our struggles, our needs,” said Alfonso Nahuinche, 47, a tailor who has been taking part in the daily protests in the Lake Titicaca city of Puno.

“That is why they did not like him in Lima. I think it was laid out by the right, by Congress,” said Nahuinche. “The political trial was not just a repudiation of Castillo. It was also a rejection of us.”

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Conspiracy theories about Castillo have run wild, with Guido Bellido, a congressman and Castillo’s first prime minister, even claiming that the former president had been drugged when he appeared on television last week, hands visibly shaking, to announce that he was dissolving Congress and would rule by decree.

Nahuinche said: “I think the president was under pressure when he read that statement. He could see that he was scared. He was not himself.

Another protester, Brígida Curo, accused members of Congress of being “coup-mongers, neoliberals and racists” who could not tolerate Castillo as president because of his origins as a peasant, which in Peru refers to someone of indigenous or mestizo descent who also works on the land.

“That’s why we need a constituent assembly,” added Curo, 40, undersecretary of the Puno Peasant Federation.

“Evo Morales had a plan in Bolivia,” he said of the former socialist president of neighboring Peru. “He brought development. Castillo was trying to do the same here. That’s why he had to be stopped.”

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Some of the protests have been violent. But many protesters have simply tried to vent their anger over the removal of a president whose populist promises to end poverty had gained traction, particularly in rural areas.

But senior officials, including Boluarte, who hails from the same Marxist-Leninist Peru Libre party as Castillo, have dismissed at least some of the protests as “terrorism” — a particularly charged word in Peru, where conflict between Maoist insurgents and the state has killed nearly 70,000 people.

Eduardo González, a sociologist who advised Peru’s official Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the violence of the 1980s and 1990s, warned that authorities urgently need to recognize the legitimacy of protesters’ discontent.

“It is a weaponized language. With our history, calling protesters ‘terrorists’ takes away their humanity,” González said. “It justifies the use of violence against them. We are reaching a level of polarization from which there is no return.”

The chances of de-escalation appeared to diminish on Friday when lawmakers rejected Boluarte’s proposal to hold early general elections. The congressional move was widely interpreted in Peru as a desperate attempt by lawmakers to keep their high-paying jobs.

Peruvian President Boluarte has urged the country’s congress to hold general elections on December 17. Deadly protests have rocked Peru since the ouster of his predecessor. (Video: Reuters)

Push for an early election was blocked by both far-right lawmakers who spearheaded the campaign to oust Castillo and their far-left counterparts, who still support the former president. That alliance has become a feature of Peruvian politics over the past 17 months, as the two sides found common ground to block anti-corruption measures.

The vast majority of Peruvians today disapprove of congress, and there are growing calls for Boluarte, whom Castillo’s supporters view as a “usurper,” to force new elections by resigning. But even that probably wouldn’t quell the riots.

Under the constitution, she would be replaced by the president of Congress, currently José Williams, a former conservative general who would be anathema to most protesters. Boluarte’s resignation would also prevent any attempt at political reform to ensure that the upcoming elections yield more sustainable results.

Congressmen are “more corrupt and mediocre than Pedro Castillo”, columnist for the newspaper Augusto Álvarez Rodrich wrote on Saturday, warning that his obstinacy is tantamount to playing with fire in a society that has become a “powder keg.”

“Peru is going to improve, let no one doubt it,” wrote Rodrich. “But first it will get worse.”

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