1. What happened to Castillo?
A politically inexperienced former teacher representing a small radical-left party, Peru Libre, Castillo narrowly scraped into office in elections in 2021. In his short time in office, he was hobbled by his own missteps and stiff opposition from a congress dominated by conservatives. Accusations of corruption triggered two failed impeachment votes. On Dec. 7, just before a third impeachment trial was to begin, Castillo ordered Peru’s congress dissolved and said he would rule by decree for nine months before convening an assembly to write a new constitution. The reaction was swift: the police and the military refused to obey Castillo’s decision, most of his cabinet immediately quit, the constitutional court called his announcement a coup, the number of lawmakers backing his impeachment soared and he was voted out office within hours. Castillo was arrested as he tried to flee to the Mexican embassy.
Castillo’s vice president, Dina Boluarte, a lawyer also elected on Peru Libre’s ticket, was sworn in the same afternoon to become Peru’s first female president. While Castillo had governed with help at times from the center and more moderate left, Boluarte has found backing within the fragmented right-wing parties that together hold a majority in congress.
3. How did the protests start?
Unrest began almost as soon as Castillo was deposed, with trucks being used to block highways. The protests have been centered in Andean cities in the Peruvian south, with particularly violent clashes in Ayacucho and Juliaca. Their airports, as well as those in the larger cities of Cuzco and Arequipa, have been repeatedly closed due to demonstrators seeking to take them over. The crowds were united in demanding Boluarte’s resignation but split over whether they wanted Castillo reinstated or new elections.
4. What was the response?
Boluarte declared a nationwide state of emergency in Peru in December, suspending some civil liberties such as the right to assembly. She sent the military in to try to quash protests. The result has been at least 40 deaths, including 17 killed in a single protest in Juliaca on Jan. 9. Peru’s attorney general has opened an investigation into the actions of Boluarte and the ministers in charge of law enforcement for potential charges of genocide and homicide. Boluarte has rebuffed calls to resign, saying that would not solve anything: The next in line for the presidency is the head of congress, Jose Williams Zapata, a former head of Peru’s armed forces and a member of the right-wing party Avanza Pais. His ascension would likely keep the protests afloat.
5. What has the legislature done?
It agreed to Boluarte’s request to move general elections up from 2026 to 2024. Lawmakers also confirmed Boluarte’s cabinet, a key test for any fledgling administration, which gives her some breathing room to govern in the short term, despite the violent strife. The earlier election date, however, has not been enough to appease protesters in Peru’s impoverished rural south, where Castillo had his strongest backing. Many there approve of Castillo’s attempt to dissolve congress and want both Boluarte and the legislature out as soon as possible.
6. Is political consensus possible in Peru?
If it is, it wouldn’t be easy to achieve, based on recent trends. Boluarte is Peru’s fifth president in less than three years. Two of those presidents were forced out through impeachment while a third resigned while facing massive protests. It has been a while since an elected president finished his term in Peru. The last one was Ollanta Humala, who governed between 2011 and 2016. Congress is also not a beacon of stability. Its website currently lists 14 different blocs in the unicameral body of 130 lawmakers, including one bloc made up of lawmakers that are not aligned with any party. Creating a majority means wrangling multiple small blocs together, generally briefly.
7. What will happen to Castillo?
Castillo has been put in pre-trial detention for 18 months while prosecutors investigate him for allegedly mounting a rebellion, among other things, charges he denies. Spending time behind bars is not unusual for Peruvian presidents. Since 1985, all six Peruvian presidents who were elected through a popular vote in that time period are either currently in jail, have spent some time in jail or have faced an arrest warrant. In fact, Castillo is currently detained in the same facility as former President Alberto Fujimori, who was sentenced for corruption and human rights violations.
8. How divided is Peru on these events?
A December poll by the Institute of Peruvian Studies, a think tank, showed that only 27% of Peruvians were in agreement over Boluarte taking over as president. Business confidence, however, has soared according to monthly polls carried out by the central bank. Boluarte has appointed a cabinet with social conservatives and moderate technocrats, angering the left, and has emphasized her displeasure with the economic costs of protests, which has particularly affected agribusiness and mining.
9. What’s behind the strife?
The unrest also underscores Peru’s significant rural-urban divide. While Lima, the capital, has seen some protests they have been centered in the rural Andes, Peru’s poorest region overall, where poverty rates hit 44% in 2021, according to the country’s statistics agency. That is twice as high as the rate in the urban coast, which includes Lima. Peru is the world’s No. 2 copper producer, with its mineral wealth concentrated in the Andes. But the country continues to struggle to transform mining taxes into significant progress for its nearby rural populations. The pandemic also undid some progress and 2022 saw a spike in protests against mining operations centered on complaints about wealth redistribution.
10. What has been the reaction in Latin America?
Four countries led by left-wing presidents — Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, and Mexico — publicly backed Castillo. Mexico went as far as granting asylum to Castillo’s wife and children, prompting Peru to declare their ambassador as persona non grata. Castillo’s wife, Lilia Paredes, is the subject of a criminal investigation. More recently, Boluarte banned former Bolivian President Evo Morales from entering Peru, alleging that he was behind some of the unrest against her administration. The Conservative-led governments of Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Uruguay, along with left-leaning Chile and the US, recognize the Boluarte administration. Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva both wished Boluarte luck and regretted Castillo’s ouster.
–With assistance from Stephan Kueffner.
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