The protests that have rocked Peru since early December, when former president Pedro Castillo was ousted after trying to dissolve Congress and legislate by executive decrees, show no sign of abating. On the contrary, the state repression – which has already caused almost 60 deathsalmost all of the demonstrators – and the incapacity of President Dina Boluartein office since the dismissal of Castillo, to find a political solution to the crisis, have done nothing but fuel them.
Extent of protests and data on the crisis
In fact, the protests, initially concentrated in the south of the country and in rural areas with an indigenous majority – such as the regions of Arequipa, Apurímac, Ayacucho, Cuzco and Puno – have reached the capital Lima as early as early January. On the other hand, the ethnic-social composition of the protesters is evolving: it is no longer just Castillo’s supporters, rural populations with ideological or identity affinities with the former president, who saw his dismissal and arrest as an arbitrary act perpetrated by conservative sectors of the Peruvian political class.
In fact, the protests are involving the middle class, with an increasingly active role of university students. The geographical and sectarian expansion of the protests is also reflected in a diversification of demands promoted by a mostly spontaneous protest movement, without a clear leadership: from demanding the release of Castillo we moved on to the request for Boluarte’s resignation, then early elections, and again to a new Constitution that refounds the foundations of the political order, economic and social situation of the country.
Although arising from a precise political event, the protests have in fact unearthed a latent malaise, especially among rural and indigenous populations, towards the political and economic order inherited from dictatorship of Alberto Fujimori and in force even after its end, based on extractivism, the lack of representation of original peoples in political institutions and dense networks of corruption (almost all the presidents of the last 30 years have in fact been investigated or convicted of crimes related to corruption). The promises of development and reduction of inequalities arrived with the advent of post-Fujimori democracy, in fact, they did not materialize.
While Peru has the sixth highest GDP in Latin America, approx a third of its population still lives below the poverty linee nearly 17 million people (more than half of the population) face severe food insecurityaggravated by the impact on the economy of the pandemic e the increase in prices of basic necessities triggered by the war in Ukraine.
Repression and intransigence like fuel on the fire
The repression of the security forces he played a central role in the outrage and subsequent participation of other sections of society in the protests. In just over a month of demonstrations, they are at least 58 victims confirmed, almost all among the demonstrators, and many of whom have gunshot wounds to the chest and head, unequivocal signs of excessive use of force by the security forces. Several hundred are also injured, as well as more than 600 protesters are arrested. An emblematic episode was a raid della polizia in the National University of San Marcosin the capital Lima, which led to the temporary arrest of dozens of people. The raid recalled similar operations conducted by military dictatorships in the 1980s in various Latin American countries, aimed at eradicating the subversive left-wing groups that supposedly lurk among the students.
The other element that fueled the protests was President Boluarte’s inability to negotiate consensus in a Congress that has shown itself to be intransigent towards popular demands, particularly on the issue of early elections. Boluarte, who has repeatedly refused to resign, initially proposed to bring forward the elections, scheduled for 2026, to April 2024a proposal which however did not meet with a favorable response among the demonstrators.
Last week, under the pressure of a growing movement in the capital, he finally seems to have given in on this point, asking Congress to allow an early election to October this year. The proposal, more acceptable to the demonstrators, was initially rejected by the legislatorsprobably due to the fear of conservative political elites of facing a resounding defeat – according to a recent survey, approx 88% of Peruvians have a negative perception of Congress; or as the result of a deliberate attempt to corner Boluarte, forcing his resignation which would lead to the current president of Congress, the former army general and conservative José Williams.
On January 29, in a message to the nation, President Boluarte passed the ball back on the Congress court, also insisting on the need for the next legislature to address the issue of reforming the Constitution. Once again, after reopening the debate on the elections, the deputies have once again rejected the initiative, forcing Boluarte to introduce a bill by the presidency, with no greater guarantee of being approved. While institutional ping-pong bogs down the search for a political solution, the situation on the streets remains critical, and military operations to clear blockages on the country’s main arteries continue.
The regional dimension of the protests
The protests in Peru have also taken on an international dimension and represent a challenge for Latin American multilateralismfresh from a new momentum led by left turn of almost all governments in the regionin what some call a “second pink wave” (see figure 1).
In fact, the new progressive governments, led by Lula Inácio da Silva’s Brazil, have promised to put the defense of democracyseverely affected in recent years by contested elections in Bolivia e Honduras and authoritarian repressions, above all in Nicaragua e Venezuelaas well as the most recent assault on institutions in Brasilia. In the past, faced with democracies, regional bodies such as the Organization of American States (OAS), until 2020 dominated by right-wing governments, responded in a politicized manner, ignoring signs of authoritarianism in conservative-led countries and in some cases even fueling post-electoral crises as in the cases mentioned above. Faced with the loss of legitimacy of the OAS, which nonetheless remains the main regional political forum, several mandates have recently proposed reviving the role of CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) as a vehicle for regional economic and political integrationwhich has always been the weak link of the Latin American continent.
The crisis in Peru was the subject of discussion both in the CELAC plenary at the end of January, hosted by Alberto Fernández’s Argentina, and in two sessions of the OAS Permanent Council, and highlighted differences between “lefts” that could crush plans for greater integration if unresolved. While the governments of Colombia, Mexico, Argentina and Bolivia have expressed solidarity with former president Castillo, Gabriel Boric in Chile and Lula in Brazil have expressed caution, recognizing the seriousness of his attempt to dissolve the chambers.
The lack of regional cohesion has fueled the tensions between Lima and the capitals that sided with Castillo. Recently, the Boluarte government recalled its ambassadors to Bogota, Mexico City, Buenos Aires and La Paz for consultations. Tensions have been particularly evident with the eastern neighbour: the Bolivia. Lima has in fact accused the former Bolivian president, Evo Moralesto incite protests and offer logistical support and even armaments to subversive groups who have become the protagonists of violent episodes in the south of the country. In January, Morales has been barred from the country. Beyond the reasons that prompted Morales to be particularly vocal during the crisis – such as a possible electoral repositioning due to a growing divergence with the administration of his former ally Luis Arce – and of the Boluarte government – to divert attention and try to delegitimize and criminalize protest movements – diplomatic tensions between the two countries are a threat to regional stability, given the interconnectedness of the Andean region and its key role in the export of precious minerals.
The new progressive governments have promised to reform Latin American multilateralism and detach themselves from the partisan reading and management of the recurring political and social crises on the continent which, they say, belongs to the right. The situation in Peru will prove it.
Cover photo EPA/Antonio Melgarejo