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Peru is in crisis. How did it happen?

Anti-government protestors in Lima
Klebher Vasquez/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Former President Pedro Castillo is in jail. That’s nothing new in Peruvian politics.

Peru’s former President Pedro Castillo is in prison, at least 20 people are dead, hundreds of tourists are stranded, and the nation is in crisis after Castillo was ousted from his position on December 7. Dina Boluarte, the South American nation’s sixth president in seven years, is now struggling to maintain control in a political environment where chaos and corruption are the norm.

Castillo’s leadership came to an end after he attempted to dissolve Congress earlier this month, prior to a planned impeachment vote following corruption charges.

“We have taken the decision to establish an emergency government, to reestablish the rule of law and democracy to which effect the following measures are dictated: to dissolve Congress temporarily, to install a government of exceptional emergency, to call to the shortest term possible to elections for a new Congress with the ability to draft a new Constitution,” he declared December 7 during a televised national address.

The military and police quickly denounced Castillo, who came to power by popular vote last year, while the nation’s highest court declared Castillo’s plan unconstitutional and much of his cabinet resigned. Congress voted overwhelmingly to impeach him, and by the end of the day Boluarte, his vice president, had been sworn into the presidency.

Over the past week, protests over Castillo’s removal and Boluarte’s accession have thrown the nation into tumult. Boluarte has promised new elections in 2024, two years earlier than the end of Castillo’s term, but protesters frustrated with Peru’s political system have continued to gather, demanding reform and clashing with the military and police forces sent to pacify them.

Since taking power, Boluarte has imposed curfews in some cities and suspended some civil liberties like the right to free movement within the country and to assembly amid the ongoing unrest. In what has turned out to be an incredibly volatile situation, some Latin American political leaders, as well as Amnesty International, say Boluarte and the police forces have overstepped their bounds.

Boluarte is Peru’s first female leader, and strongly denounced her predecessor’s attempt to dissolve Congress. “I reject Pedro Castillo’s decision to perpetrate the breakdown of the constitutional order with the closure of Congress. It is a coup that aggravates the political and institutional crises that Peruvian society must overcome with strict adherence to the law,” she tweeted at the time.

Meanwhile, Castillo’s prison sentence has been extended by 18 months as of this Thursday, as prosecutors plan to bring charges of alleged rebellion, conspiracy, and abuse of power against him. Meanwhile, protesters are staging increasingly disruptive demonstrations, including shutting down the Pan-American highway near the capital Lima, and have forced five airports to close. Rural protests have been particularly violent, as protesters demand new elections and for Boluarte to step down.

Another chapter in Peru’s messy political history

Peru’s current political turmoil is part of a pattern of political instability reaching back through much of the 20th century. There have been multiple coups as well as a dictatorship throughout the 1990s under former President Alberto Fujimori, who is now in prison for gross human rights violations, including operating anti-communist death squads.

Of Peru’s last seven presidents, Bloomberg reported Friday, four have been implicated in the same graft investigation, one was impeached, and another lasted only five days in office before resigning.

Castillo, too, has been accused of corruption, with Attorney General Patricia Benavides claiming to have found “very serious indications of a criminal organization that has taken roots in the government” according to Al Jazeera. Castillo and some of his family members are facing six separate corruption investigations, though he has denied wrongdoing.

Anticipating a third impeachment vote last week, Castillo declared Congress dissolved and an emergency government in place, allowing him to rule by decree. According to the New York Times, Castillo last month threatened to disband Congress, and had apparently been exploring the possibility of a coup attempt for some time, quietly asking military leaders if they would support him in such a situation.

Castillo, a leftist populist, ran for president against Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of former dictator Alberto Fujimori. Castillo was the first leftist leader in Peru in decades, and his election indicated a repudiation of Peru’s elite political establishment, as well as the massive divide between rural and urban access to services like healthcare and education.

Fujimori, too, was democratically elected, but seized power in much the same way Castillo intended to — with the backing of the military he dissolved Congress, declared a state of emergency, and rewrote the constitution in 1993, an amended version of which Peru still uses today. That constitution does allow the president to dissolve Congress if his government fails to survive two votes of confidence, causing a consistent, low-grade conflict between the president and Congress as each tries to eliminate the other.

Boluarte, in a speech at her swearing in, seemed to tacitly acknowledge the present chaos and the turmoil leading up to it, asking the Peruvian people for “valuable time to rescue the country from corruption and misrule.”

What’s next for Peru?

After years of corruption and instability, Peru’s immediate and long-range political future is murky at best. And increasing poverty and lack of access to social services like education and healthcare in rural areas, too, is compounding Peruvians’ frustration with a government seemingly interested only in its own power, not in materially changing the lives of the electorate.

Castillo was Peru’s first campesino president, the child of illiterate farmers and a former farmer, teacher, and union leader in whom many of Peru’s rural population saw themselves represented. In a highly stratified society, Castillo’s supporters from the Andean and other rural regions see him as “an ordinary man from the countryside,” as supporter Enrique Salazar told Al Jazeera.

The protesters are not simply demonstrating to bring back Castillo, although some are calling for his reinstatement. Rather, their frustration is an indictment of a political system in which many do not feel represented, and a deeply entrenched racism and divide between rural and urban experience that was exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

“When he railed against inequality, poverty and the indifference of the state’s political elites, it was a message that resonated,” Jorge Aragon, a political science professor at Peru’s Pontifical Catholic University, told Al Jazeera.

Castillo, who had no political experience prior to taking Peru’s highest office, promised to nationalize the nation’s mining industry and to rewrite the constitution, among other improvements aimed at the rural poor. But at no point did he accomplish his campaign goals; in fact, people protested against his response to inflation just this year. Castillo also went through a dizzying number of cabinet switch-ups, cycling through about 80 different ministers during his 16-month tenure. Many of those he put into high-level government positions were political allies with no relevant experience; some were under investigation for serious crimes like domestic violence and murder, according to the New York Times.

Some Latin American leaders, including Mexico’s left-wing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, still recognize Castillo as Peru’s rightful president; López Obrador is reportedly exploring options to offer asylum to Castillo, who remains in prison as of Saturday.

With the present instability comes the question of whether Peru’s institutions can survive in such a fragile, volatile democracy.

“For Peru, this is just another episode in a dramatic trend of political instability and institutional degradation,” Erika Rodriguez, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, wrote in a blog post last week. However, it’s likely a positive sign that Castillo had so little support to carry out his attempted power grab; “He did it alone; no one accompanied him in his most recent anti-democratic drift, not his cabinet, not the army, and not his supporters,” Rodriguez wrote. Furthermore, though Peru’s politics have been bogged down by corruption and crime, the criminal justice system has made concerted efforts to bring those high-level perpetrators to justice.

Still, Peruvians disillusioned with political turmoil and the deepening inequality in the country may not see solutions to their problems any time soon. A country in a state of emergency is challenging to govern, never mind rooting out entrenched corruption and repairing the disparities which brought a leader like Castillo to power in the first place.

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