The Speaker
Friday, 12 April 2024 – 15:38

What is happening in Peru?

Peru is in the midst of a political and civil crisis.

In 2021, Pedro Castillo won Peru’s presidential elections against Keiko Fujimori by a slim 50.1% margin, reflecting the deep ideological division in the country. Since then, congress has attempted to remove Castillo from power on allegations of corruption three times. Before their third impeachment attempt on December 7, Castillo tried to dissolve congress and rule by decree, with the intent to form a constituent assembly to reform the country’s constitution. However, he lacked something essential: the military’s support. Congress refused to be dissolved going ahead with the impeachment vote and removing Castillo from power. The country’s Constitutional Court saw Castillo’s actions as a coup and Castillo was detained. The country is now being run by Castillo’s vice president, Dina Boluarte, who is the country’s sixth president in five years.

However, whether Castillo’s actions amounted to a coup is a topic of debate. Many of Castillo’s supporters claim that he was trying to stop a different type of coup, instigated by congress, as they tried to abuse their power by impeaching Castillo.

Castillo is currently being held in pre-trial detention while he is investigated on charges of rebellion, and this series of events have sparked deadly protests across Peru. Before further discussing the protesters, their demands, and the international response to the crisis, it is important to look at the country’s history in order to understand that, while the events of the 7th of December were the trigger for the current protests taking place, this is a crisis that has been long in the making.

Wider Context

Peru’s constitution, which has been amended a dozen times since its enactment, creates ambiguity regarding who has the greatest power – the president or congress. While congress is allowed to limit executive power by impeaching the president, the constitution is also ambiguous enough to allow the president to shut down congress. This allowed for the crisis at hand, however, it is not the first time that Peru’s ambiguous constitution has caused turbulence in the country.

In 1992, former president Alberto Fujimori promised to ‘temporarily dissolve the congress’, and, supported by the army, he assumed absolute power of the country, arresting journalists and opposition leaders, and censoring newspapers and televisions stations, beginning an autocratic regime that went on for almost a decade. Unsurprisingly, Castillo’s attempt to dissolve congress brought up dark memories for many Peruvians.

This is where it gets complicated: many outside the capital see Castillo as a martyr or a hope for change. This is because he is the son of illiterate peasant farmers, a former elementary school teacher, union leader, and the first member of the country’s impoverished rural community to become president. Many Peruvians, mainly outside the capital, feel represented by Castillo. There is a long history of exclusion of people from indigenous descent and areas outside of Lima; even when the country’s GDP is rapidly growing, many feel excluded and forgotten, often living in poverty, while people from the capital gain disproportionate advantage from the country’s economic growth.

Protests

On one hand, Castillo’s actions caused widespread condemnation and fear that a Fujimori situation could repeat itself. At the same time, decades of frustration over poverty and inequality outside the capital finally reached its breaking point when Castillo was removed from power, as grassroot protests started in the south of Peru, with many of the protesters having a similar background to the former president: indigenous and from rural Peru. When the protests first started, they had been mainly concentrated around the city of Puno, an area that is predominantly Quechua and Aymara – the two major Indigenous groups in the Peruvian south.

In the five weeks since protests started, around 50 people have been killed – including one police officer – and hundreds more injured. The new government, led by Boluarte, has launched a violent crackdown against protesters, and clashes between the police and military and Castillo’s supporters have become increasingly common.

In recent updates, police raided a university in Lima to crack down on protests, where students said they were beaten and thrown out of dormitories; authorities have also closed Machu Picchu indefinitely. Whilst most deaths have occurred in rural Peru, recently, at least one person is confirmed to have died in Lima – where the protests have now spread to.

The new president, Boluarte, called a national state of emergency, an exceptional measure that limits certain civil rights.

Demands

Primarily, protesters are trying to get the government to agree to a constituent assembly to devise a new constitution. They are also trying to force the resignation of the country’s current president, as many (both Peruvian citizens and world leaders) don’t recognise her as the country’s leader. Additionally, protesters are calling for the dissolution of parliament and fresh elections.

Whilst some protesters are Castillo’s supporters, many aren’t, and are protesting to see a wider change in Peru’s politics: Castillo is deeply unpopular to many, especially after his attempt to dissolve congress, but the country’s congress is probably even more unpopular than Castillo himself, with many referring to it as a ‘nest of corrupt lobbies and vested interests’. Boluarte’s approach to dealing with the protests further inflamed people’s anger against the government.

President Boluarte has said she will not resign. She is studying the possibility of calling early elections (2024 instead of 2026), but there is little chance of her agreeing to a constituent assembly at this time.

Counterprotesters are also on the streets, backed by police forces, rejecting those demands.

International Response

Despite efforts from human rights groups, most leaders have remained silent about the violence taking place in Peru, with a couple of exceptions: Chile’s president Gabriel Boric said there was an urgent need for a change in Peru because the result of the path of violence and repression is unacceptable. Mexico’s president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, demands an ‘end to the repression in Peru’.

While human rights activists agree that there have been violent actions from the protester’s side – such as the burning of private and public buildings – that does not justify the violent crackdown from the police against citizens; in multiple occasions shooting protesters in the head.

A few people, especially in urban areas, dismiss the protesters as extremist, but polls also show that a majority of Peruvians support protests, probably as a result of congress being so unpopular.

Some say that Castillo’s actions amounted to a coup and an illegal power grab while at the same time refusing to recognise Boluarte as Peru’s legitimate head of state. It is impossible to say how this crisis will develop; with a corrupt government and a deeply divided population, as well as a complicated political history, Peru will likely be seeing even more protests in the near future, and, hopefully, some change for the better.

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