for Over the past few weeks “Dina ascesina! dina ascesina! Already ringing in the streets of several of Peru’s larger towns and cities. Unfortunately, the name of the country’s president rhymes with “murderer” in Spanish. Dina Boluarte is the legitimate constitutional head of state. But at least 58 people have been killed in protests since she took over on Dec. 7, 46 of them civilians in clashes with security forces, according to the Ombudsman’s office. Her name has become toxic, and for many Peruvians her government has lost any legitimacy.
Peru is experiencing outbreaks of street clashes of the kind that occurred in Chile in 2019, Colombia in 2021 and Ecuador last year. Peru has been particularly violent, incendiary and dangerous. It also has a racial advantage: The country’s indigenous population has long been disadvantaged and has been at the forefront of protests. At stake is the survival of democracy. Society has become so polarized that some Peruvians talk of an impending civil war, though that seems far-fetched.
At least ten people were killed as protesters blocked roads. Dozens of highways, especially in the southern highlands, remain blocked, as are some large mines and a tourist railway to the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu. Several airports were shut down for most of January. In some towns, there are shortages of food, petrol and oxygen for hospitals. Intimidation of travelers and businesses that ignore roadblocks and stop-work orders is common.
According to the Ministry of Economy, the conflict cost about $625 million (0.3 percent of the economy) gross domestic product) by late January, in addition to damage to infrastructure, factories and farms, there was a loss of production. In the center of Lima, hidden behind a protective fence erected by the police, the trinket shops are empty of tourists. Demonstrators tried to reach the Capitol nearly every night. Crowds of young men attacked police officers wielding sharpened sticks, rocks, slingshots and Molotov cocktails. On 28 January, a demonstrator was killed, the first fatality in the capital.
The conflict was sparked on Dec. 7 when leftist President Pedro Castillo, narrowly elected in 2021, ordered the closure of Congress and the takeover of the judiciary. This failed and Mr. Castillo was arrested. It echoes the more successful “self-coup” of Alberto Fujimori in 1992, who ruled Peru as democratically elected dictator until 2000. For this reason, many on the left, as well as Mr Castillo’s conservative opponents, initially condemned it. Congress voted swiftly to remove him by 101 votes to six with ten abstentions, and appointed Ms Boluarte, his elected vice-president.
But Mr Castillo and his supporters quickly spread an alternative narrative, that the perpetrators of the coup became the victims. As leader of teachers’ unions and Aboriginal heritage, he mismanaged as president, appointing more than 70 different ministers, few of whom survived for more than a few weeks. He and his circle were corrupt, according to prosecutors, which he denied. He put many unqualified far-left activists in state jobs. His defenders argue that the right and Lima’s elite never allowed him to govern. His opponents claimed, without evidence, that he had won by fraud, and immediately set out to impeach him.
He retains the support of about 30 percent of Peruvians, mainly in the Andes, who identify with him. “He’s useless, he’s corrupt, you name it, but he’s one of those things,” said former social affairs minister Carolina Trivelli. Now, according to pollster Alfredo Torres Torres, about half of Peruvians — and two-thirds of Andeans — believe his false claims about the victims and see Ms. Boluarte as a usurper aligned with the right.
Protesters want Ms Boluarte to resign, parliament to be shut down and a general election to be called immediately. This year’s election may indeed be the only way to restore calm. But they also want a constitutional convention to create a new constitution. They want Mr Castillo released, although that demand is waning. Most of them are very popular. Nearly 90% of respondents to a poll released on Jan. 29 by the research group Instituto de Estudios Peruanos disapproved of Congress and 74% wanted Ms Boluarte to resign. These demands both mirrored and accelerated the breakdown of the political system in a country that seemed to be a Latin American success story for much of this century.
In the 1980s, as today, Peru was at an impasse. It suffered from hyperinflation, recession and a terrorist insurgency by Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), a fundamentalist Maoist group founded in the Andean town of Ayacucho. In the eyes of many, Mr Fujimori saved the country. His authoritarian government suppressed terrorists. His free-market policies, reflected in a new constitution in 1993, unleashed more than two decades of rapid economic growth. Between 1990 and 2013, per capita income grew at an average annual rate of 3 percent, compared with an average of 1.7 percent in Latin America. Some 55 percent of Peruvians were officially poor in 1992, and by 2014 that had dropped to 23 percent, the fastest decline in the region.
But Mr. Fujimori, who is serving time at the same prison where Castillo is being held for human rights abuses, has also planted some seeds for the current unease. His regime achieves its goals through bribery and corruption. He has no time for political parties. In some ways, he weakened the country. Since 2000, the democratic government has continued to implement economic growth and free market policies. But corruption is rampant and the political system is decaying.
Growth has not been accompanied by institutional development. Three quarters of the workforce work in the informal economy in unregistered businesses. In recent years, illicit economic activities have expanded. According to former Interior Minister Carlos Basombrío, as many as 200,000 people work as illegal miners, mainly in gold and copper mines. He estimates that illegal operations, including mining and drug trafficking, generate at least $7 billion a year. Others believe the figure is much higher.
Increased political instability. Ms Boluarte is the sixth president since 2016. No one has a legislative majority. Six of the nine presidents since 2001 have been accused of corruption. The party system is fragmented: the 130-member parliament is divided into a dozen parties. Many of these are run as businesses by legally registered holders. For many Peruvians, the state is a fragile existence. With such a large informal economy, “the role of political parties becomes irrelevant,” says political scientist Carlos Meléndez.
Ms Boluarte’s adviser, Raúl Molina, said the protests “express structural fatigue in politics and the lack of national response to demographic issues”. This fatigue is particularly acute among the predominantly indigenous populations of the rural southern Andes. The pandemic has also exacerbated economic pressures on poorer Peruvians. The poverty rate rises to 30% in 2020 and 26% in 2021.
Since December, spontaneous outrage has increasingly given way to organized, coordinated action by a range of forces with dubious democratic pedigrees. These started with a Marxist left-wing party that supports Mr Castillo and has ties to Cuba and Venezuela. They also include remnants of the Shining Path, which has reorganized itself into a far-left party that controls a teachers’ union and has a special presence in Ayacucho and Puno. According to Mr. Basombrío, the coordinated attempt to seize the southern airport smacks of the Shining Path.
The Aymara people of southern Puno are culturally related to the people of the Bolivian Altiplano region. An aide to former Bolivian President Evo Morales of Aymara descent has been active in southern Peru. Then there are illegal miners, who appear to have barricaded several areas, including Madre de Dios in the Amazon. Ordinary criminals may be behind the arson attacks on 15 courthouses, 26 prosecutor’s offices and 47 police stations, officials said.
Ms Boluarte said on January 19 that the protesters “want to create chaos and disorder and use that chaos and disorder to gain power”. Such ambitions do seem to support the idea of a constituent assembly, a means used by Mr Morales and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez to secure absolute power, which until recently had few supporters in Peru. Polls now show that about 70% like the idea, perhaps because Congress is so annoying. Luis Miguel Castilla, economy minister in a centre-left government from 2011 to 2014, said a referendum on a constituent assembly would be “very dangerous”. padlock,” he said.
Ms Boluarte’s missteps and a self-serving Congress have fueled protests. When the protests began in December, the first casualties were troops and police. Anger flared up again after 18 people died in Juliaca, far outnumbering the police force and apparently panicking. Perhaps the government’s biggest mistake was not ordering a swift, independent investigation into the deaths.
Ms Boluarte is from the highlands and, unlike Mr Castillo, speaks Quechua, the main indigenous language. She is a mid-level civil servant and a political novice. She appointed some competent ministers but made mistakes in others. “The government is losing the communications battle,” Mr Castilla said. “The issue has become government excess.”
Early elections appear to be the only way forward. But Congress, whose members enjoy generous salaries and perks, has stalled, and the administration has been slow to press. Constitutional amendments required for the election must be approved at first reading by Feb. 14. If the opportunity is not seized, “Peru will be thrown into chaos,” one official said. But the left insisted on linking the election to the constitutional convention. The right wants to hold elections next year. They fiddled while Peru burned. ■