Chaos seizes Peru, with about twenty deaths and a president on a tightrope

Ten days after democracy imploded in Peru following the desperate self-coup attempt by Pedro Castillo and his sudden dismissal by Congress, the Andean country is at a crossroads. The president Dina Boluarte, whom Castillo’s supporters accuse of being a traitor, has responded to the protests with a heavy hand and declared a state of emergency. The repression already shows a balance of twenty deaths and hundreds of wounded. While the Justice decreed a year and a half in provisional prison for the former left-wing president, accused of rebellion, Congress rejected the electoral advance demanded by protesters in the streets of half the country. The clamor of “they all go away” flies over Peru under the ever-present fear that those who come will be even more incapable of resolving the crisis.

Boluarte was Castillo’s vice president until December 7, when the rural teacher announced on television the dissolution of a congress that that day he was preparing to vote on the third motion of no confidence against him. Without political support, Castillo was dismissed by Parliament and arrested when he was going to the Mexican embassy to request asylum. Boluarte then took the reins of the country with a call for the unity of all political forces. Three days later, she formed a cabinet made up of technocrats and she was willing not to exhaust the legislature (scheduled until 2026) and advance the elections to April 2024, at first, and December 2023 later. But the protests over the arrest of Castillo and the urgent holding of elections, far from abating, became more acute.

Police brutality, encouraged by some of the media (the presenter of a television channel went as far as to ask the chief of the Lima Police why they had not shot the protesters in the head), has already caused some twenty dead. The hospitals of several cities in the south of the country, where the protests have had the greatest follow-up, receive several wounded from bullets and pellets every day. The repression has already led to the resignation of two Boluarte ministers (the head of Education and that of Culture) who took office just a week ago.

If Dina Boluarte, a 60-year-old lawyer with little political experience, tried to calm things down with her corrected proposal for an early electoral period to one year, she did not succeed. Her initiative also received a jug of cold water on Friday after the Congress rejects the call for early elections. He only added 49 votes out of the 87 he needed (two thirds of the total). Votes against and abstentions came from both far-right and left-wing parties, albeit for different reasons. Some do not even want to hear about new elections until 2024 and others demand that they be held in April 2023.

Supported by her cabinet and by military and police commanders, Boluarte has appeared publicly this Saturday to condemn the “violent”, criticize Congress for its rejection of the electoral advance and announce that she will not resign despite her political weakness. The president has revealed that she was by Castillo’s side until he wanted to raise a matter of confidence before Congress at the end of November. With two rejections by Parliament of the questions of confidence raised by the Government, the president would have had the power to dissolve the chamber and call elections.

Boluarte: “My resignation will not solve the problem”

“Peru is not for political revenge. With my resignation the problem is not solved. Here we are going to be firm until Congress resolves the advancement of elections. I demand that the vote be reconsidered“, declared the president, aware that she and her entire cabinet are in the hands of a Congress in which they do not have their own bench. She has reminded legislators that, according to a recent survey, 83% of the population wants that advance of the elections.

Congress in sight

With 86% disapproval, the unicameral Parliament is in the crosshairs of the protesters. Most of its congressmen are reluctant to give up their seats since re-election of legislators is not possible. After the 2021 elections, in which Castillo became president, Congress is dominated by the right and the extreme right. The very weakened left advocates holding elections as soon as possible and a referendum to get one new constitution to replace the current one, signed in 1993 by the then dictator Alberto Fujimori. There are voices that call for the resignation of Boluarte with this objective, such as the former minister of Castillo and former leader of the progressive party Nuevo Perú Anahi Durandwho has claimed on his Twitter account that the president’s departure to “facilitate electoral progress.”

But such a strategy would not be without risk. If Boluarte resigned, he would temporarily assume the presidency (until the formation of a government that emerged from the elections) the president of Congress, Joseph Williams, in its capacity as third authority of the country. Williams is a retired military member of the far-right Avanza País party and is accused of human rights violations during his time in the Armed Forces. The political scientist Fernando Tuesta He believes, for his part, that an electoral advance would have to be accompanied by political reforms. In an interview in the newspaper The RepublicTuesta expresses the complexity of the situation in this way: “Two desires and demands collide: on the one hand, to advance an election as much as possible; but, on the other hand, there is a demand to expand the political offer and reforms, and this requires time. In other words, the closer the election, the less possible the latter and vice versa”.

Be that as it may, the Boluarte government does not seem to have assimilated the magnitude of the crisis. The President of the Council of Ministers, Pedro Angulo, has criminalized the protest and has blamed its exacerbation on the left. While the country burns, the premier subscribes to inconsequentiality, as if he did not want to see the fire on the other side of the curtains of the Government Palace. He meets, for example, with the Group of University Volunteers of the Church of God, which has offered the government to contribute to “campaigns to clean beaches, rivers and streets.” And on his agenda there are meetings with the deans of the colleges of notaries, architects and merchant marines or with the Patriotic Society of Peru.

Castillo’s judicial situation also aggravates the crisis. A judge on Thursday ordered an 18-month provisional prison for the former president, who could face prison terms of up to ten years. The prosecution accuses him of rebellion and conspiracy for trying to dissolve a Congress that tried by all means to oust him from power since he took office in July 2021. He is imprisoned in the Barbadillo prison, where Fujimori is also located. The rural teacher has been busy these days writing letters to defend himself against what he considers political persecution: “The abuse, humiliation and mistreatment continues […] I hold judges and prosecutors responsible for what happens in the country […] Only the people save the people”.

Castillo has requested protection from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Four governments in the region immediately spoke out in his defense. Colombia, Mexico, Argentina and Bolivia signed a joint statement in which they ask that the popular will that emerged from the polls be respected, a position that has caused the discomfort of Boluarte, for whom it is an interference in internal affairs of his country. His foreign ministry has called his ambassadors in those four countries for consultations. Venezuela and Honduras also back Castillo. But the regional left is divided. The Chilean ruler Gabriel Boric has distanced himself from the initiative promoted by the Colombian Gustavo Petro. And to Luiz Inacio Lula da Silvawho will take office for his third presidential term on January 1, the dismissal of Castillo occurred within the constitutional framework.

The demonstrations these days in various regions of the country, with roadblocks and airport seizures, are a reflection of the deep disconnect between citizens and a political class that lives with its back turned to the most pressing problems of the population. Not all of them explicitly support Castillo (who obtained 19% of the votes in the first round and just over 50% in the second) but they do agree on disdain the new government and Congress. Without a political solution to their demands, Peru seems doomed to fail.

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