Understanding the protests in Peru

The roots of the Peruvian crisis go beyond the standoff between former President Castillo supporters and the current government.

A woman gestures as demonstrators call for an indefinite nationwide strike during a march against the government of Peru's President Dina Boluarte, in Lima, Peru, February 9, 2023. REUTERS/Alessandro Cinque
A woman gestures as demonstrators call for an indefinite nationwide strike during a march against the government of Peru's President Dina Boluarte, in Lima on February 9, 2023 [Reuteres/Alessandro Cinque]

Over the past two months, Peru has seen a historic wave of protests and escalation of violence. Unrest erupted after President Pedro Castillo was removed from power and his vice president, Dina Boluarte, took power.

Demonstrations across the country have called for her resignation, but Boluarte has responded with hostile rhetoric and a heavy-handed crackdown. So far, at least 60 people have been killed in the upheaval.

The situation in the country is quite complex. To understand what is happening, we have to look at old rural-urban, racist, and classist faultlines which are currently feeding the growing polarisation in Peruvian society.

What kindled the protests?

In 2021, Pedro Castillo, a rural school teacher with no prior political experience, won the presidential elections in Peru. He ran as a member of Peru Libre (PL), a radical left-wing party which he had only recently joined.

Castillo’s victory was historic, as it marked the first time in the history of the Peruvian Republic that a true man of the people was elected as president. He represented a rural, working-class and Indigenous population that had long been excluded from high positions of power.

That created high hopes for Castillo’s presidency, which he was not able to meet; in fact, it is no exaggeration to say that his time in office was disastrous. Corruption and incompetence undermined the state’s capacity to implement public policy. The turnover in his cabinet was record-breaking, with 78 ministers appointed in just 16 months.

In Congress, Castillo did not have the support of a majority and his legislative agenda was repeatedly blocked by the right-wing opposition; he also faced the threat of impeachment twice. In the public sphere, the mainstream media sided with the opposition and started attacking the president and his allies.

Some key social organisations, such as the Workers General Confederation of Peru (CGTP) and the National Agrarian Confederation (CNA), continued to support the government despite its problems, as they feared the right-wing coalition would take power if Castillo were to fall. This is why, despite his mistakes in government, the president still had an approval rating of 31 percent in November 2022, while Congress had just 10 percent.

On December 7, Castillo tried to stop a third attempt to impeach him by dissolving Congress, but failed. He was removed from office, arrested and replaced by Boluarte, who had been expelled from the PL in January 2022 and who had aligned herself with the right-wing opposition.

Boluarte’s move was seen by many on the left as a betrayal. Her intention to stay in power until 2026 further flamed public anger, as only 8 percent of the public supported her decision.

The people who first took to the streets were Castillo’s supporters, including members of national organisations, such as CGTP, agrarian federations, peasant vigilante committees, and the teachers’ union, among others. They were joined by peasant communities in the south and central Andes, who had overwhelmingly voted for the deposed president.

These initial protests which called for the dissolution of Congress, new general elections, and Castillo’s release were still relatively small. But Boluarte’s government responded with brutal force and aggressive right-wing rhetoric, calling the protesters “terrorists”. The protests indeed became more violent in certain areas, but the police response was disproportionate, resulting in the deaths of 22 citizens, including four minors, in December.

This heavy-handed response only motivated more people to join the protests. Among them were university students, the Human Rights Movement, one of the largest social movements in Peru, and groups who had previously been critical of Castillo.

In January, the continuing hostile rhetoric by the government and the massacre in Puno province, in which 17 people were killed in one day, further radicalised the protest movement and encouraged many to travel to Lima to demonstrate at the seat of power. This massive mobilisation across the country had not been seen since the 2000 protests against authoritarian President Alberto Fujimori.

Deep faultines

These protests have highlighted issues of racism, classism, and centralism which have created significant divisions within society and which have remained unaddressed for decades. Tensions between the rural poor and Indigenous people and the rich elites in Lima have historically run high – and for a reason.

Illiterate people in Peru did not have voting rights until 1979; this meant that the rural and Indigenous population was overwhelmingly disenfranchised for most of the 20th century.

Just as they finally gained the right to vote, these communities were terrorised by a wave of violence triggered by the Shinning Path insurgency in rural areas and the brutal response of the government in Lima. In the 1990s, Fujimori’s authoritarian government further marginalised Indigenous and peasant communities by re-centralising the country and using a politics of fear to stave off dissent, especially in regions with larger Indigenous populations.

Since the political system in Peru finally opened up in the 2000s, the country’s poor and Indigenous people have struggled to organise politically and make their voices heard. They have been consistently underrepresented in Congress and state institutions. Whenever they have protested to express their political grievances, the political elite in Lima has dismissed their demands, labelling them as ignorant and easily manipulated.

This has also been reflected in the government’s insistence on labelling the protesters as members of the Shining Path or agents of a foreign government.

Some local leaders of the protests were associated with the Shining Path in the past, but the group is not actively leading the protests. Its only surviving military faction, the Militarized Communist Party of Peru, operates in the rainforest as a protector of narcotraffic organisations and has no presence in the demonstrations.

Such accusations thrown are deeply offensive to the protesters from rural areas and some of the organisations, as many of them had confronted and defeated the Shining Path in the countryside in the late 1980s.

The government has also blamed neighbouring Bolivia for the protests, but there is no concrete evidence of this connection besides political sympathy and cultural ties between the Aymara people on both sides of the border.

The divisive rhetoric of the government has been confronted by an unprecedented outpouring cross-class and cross-country solidarity, which came to the fore in the protest march in Lima. Protesters from across the country raised funds in their hometowns to travel and stay in the capital. When they arrived, they were welcomed and supported by Lima-based organisations and individuals. Some residents of the capital even opened their houses to host the protesters.

What comes next?

More than two months after taking power, Boluarte still refuses to step down. According to polls, support for the protests was at 59 percent at the end of January. Some 74 percent demand the president’s resignation; 73 percent are calling for new elections this year; and 69 percent are in favour of calling a Constituent Assembly.

Attempts to centralise protest demands have so far failed. While some protesters aim to rebuild the country through constitutional reform that would change the economic model and establish Peru as a plurinational state, others only seek a return to democracy and institutional changes. The one shared goal among the protesters is the resignation of Boluarte and early elections.

If she does resign and early elections are held, protests for a Constituent Assembly and justice for victims will likely continue, but most protesters will demobilise. If the new government avoids arbitrary repression and holds a fair election, the demands may be incorporated into the campaign.

On the other hand, if the president maintains power solely through repression, it is probable that protests of significant magnitude will continue, characterised by fluctuating intensity, particularly in Lima and the southern regions. The perception of impunity on one side and support for authoritarianism on the other will energise radical actors.

The weakness of Peru’s political actors makes it difficult to imagine the consolidation of an authoritarian regime, but there are other paths we must fear. Even if Boluarte resigns peacefully or transfers power following elections, Peru still faces underlying structural issues.

It has weak overall state capacity and meaningless political parties that produce politicians who lack the motivation to be accountable to their constituents. A system full of political amateurs has generated endemic instability that makes the country ungovernable.

Peru is a cautionary tale for democracies with a flawed political system. Reforms, though necessary, will take time to produce substantial change.

Therefore, it is time to explore innovative ways to engage civil society organisations in the reform debate and give the people a sense of being heard and having an impact on political decisions, or else democracy risks losing its significance.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to specify that in a poll, 69 percent of respondents supported calling a Constituent Assembly.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.