Dina Boluarte: Can Peru’s President strike a truce with protesters?

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When Dina Boluarte was anointed Peru’s sixth president in five years, she faced battles on two fronts: appeasing the lawmakers who had ousted her boss and predecessor Pedro Castillo, and calming protesterse enraged by the dethroning of yet another president.

She called for a “political truce” with Congress on her first day of her job — a peace offering to the legislative body that had been at odds with Castillo and impeached him in December after he undemocratically attempted to dissolve Congress.

But nearly two months on, her presidency is looking even more beleaguered than Castillo’s aborted term. Several ministers in her government have resigned while the country has been rocked by its most violent protests in decades. She was forced to once again call for a truce on Tuesday – this time appealing to the protesters, many of whom hail from Peru’s majority-indigenous rural areas, saying in Quechua that she is one of them.

Boluarte, who was born in a largely indigenous region in south-central Peru where Quechua is the most spoken language, might have been the leader to channel protesters’ frustrations and work with them. She has made much of her rural origins, and rose to power initially as Castillo’s vice president on the leftwing Peru Libre party ticket, buoyed by the rural and indigenous vote.

But her plea for mutual understanding with protesters now is likely too late in what analysts are calling the deadliest popular uprising in South America in recent years. Officials say 56 civilians and one police officer has died in the violence, and hundreds more have been injured, as protesters call for fresh elections, a new constitution and Boluarte’s resignation.

Boluarte has tried to placate protesters, asking Congress for an earlier election date. But Peru watchers say she already made the fatal error of distancing herself from rural constituents after she took the top job as Peru’s first woman president.

“One has to understand Boluarte’s own ambitions, she was clearly willing to sacrifice her leftist ideas and principles in order to build a coalition with the right to hold onto power,” Jo-Marie Burt, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America and an expert on Peru, told CNN. “And to use force against the very same people who voted for the Castillo-Boluarte ticket.”

Castillo’s brief term saw him face a hostile Congress in the hands of the opposition, limiting his political capital and capacity to operate. ” (Boluarte) had to make a choice: either she went the Castillo way and spent the next four years fighting a Congress that wants to impeach her or she sided with the right and got power,” Alonso Gurmendi, a lecturer in International Relations at the University of Oxford, who is a Peruvian legal expert, told CNN.

The country has been rocked by its most violent protests in decades following the ouster of former President Pedro Castillo.

She chose the latter, experts say, distancing herself from Castillo and instead relying on support of a broad coalition of right-wing politicians to stay in presidency. CNN has reached out to Boluarte’s office for comment and has made repeated requests for an interview.

During her inauguration, former political rival Keiko Fujimori – whose father Alberto Fujimori is a former president who used security forces to repress opponents during his decade-long rule of Peru – said Boluarte could “count on the support and backing” of her party.

Boluarte’s woes are a far cry from her early days in Peruvian’s civil service, working at the National Registry of Identification and Civil Status in Surco, as an advisor to senior management and, later, as the head of the local office.

She ran as a candidate for mayor of Surquillo with the Marxist-Leninist Peru Libre Party in 2018. She failed to gain a seat in the 2020 parliamentary elections, but had better luck the following year, as Castillo’s running-mate.

In an interview with CNN en Espanol that year, Boluarte clarified a statement she made about dissolving Congress: “We need a Congress that works for the needs of Peruvian society and that coordinates positively with the executive so that both powers of state can work in a coordinated manner to meet the multiple needs of Peruvian society. We do not want an obstructionist Congress … At no time have I said that we are going to close Congress.”

Castillo, a former teacher and union leader, was also from rural Peru and positioned himself as a man of the people. Despite his political inexperience and mounting corruption scandals, Castillo’s presidency was a symbolic victory for many of his rural supporters. They hoped he would bring better prospects to the country’s rural and indigenous people who have long felt excluded from Peru’s economic boom in the past decade.

Indigenous women take part in a protest against Boluarte's government in Lima on January 24.

His ousting from power last year was seen by some of his supporters as another attempt by Peru’s coastal elites to discount them.

The public have long been disillusioned with the legislative body, which has been criticized as being self-interested and out-of-touch. In a January poll by the Institute of Peruvian Studies (IEP) more than 80% of Peruvians say they disapproved of Congress.

The public also have a dim view of Boluarte, according to polling by IPSOS, which found that 68% disapproved of her in December. That figure rose to 71% in January, according to the poll. She is more unpopular in rural areas, according to the same poll, which found that she had an 85% disapproval score in rural regions in January compared to urban areas (76%).

In January 2022, Peru Libre expelled her from the party. She told Peruvian newspaper La República at the time she had “never embraced the ideology of Peru Libre.”

As protests spread through many of Peru’s 25 regions following Castillo’s detention, Boluarte’s government declared a state of emergency and doubled down on law-and-order policies.

The country has since seen its highest civilian death toll since strongman Alberto Fujimori was in power, say human rights advocates, when 17 civilians were killed during a protest in the south-eastern Puno region on January 9. A police officer was burned to death in Puno on the following day. Autopsies of the 17 dead civilians found wounds caused by firearm projectiles, the city’s head of legal medicine told CNN en Español.

Human rights groups have accused Boluarte of using state violence to stymie protests and on January 11, Peru’s prosecutor launched an investigation into the president and other key ministers for the alleged crime of “genocide, qualified homicide, and serious injuries” in relation to the bloodshed.

Boluarte has said she will cooperate with the probe, but plans to remain in office and has shown little sympathy for the demonstrators. “I am not going to resign, my commitment is with Peru, not with that tiny group that is making the country bleed,” she said in a televised speech days after the investigation was announced.

Boluarte has tried to placate protesters, asking Congress for an earlier election date.

When asked why she has not prevented security officials from using lethal weapons on protesters, Boluarte said on Tuesday that investigations will determine where the bullets “come from,” speculating without evidence that Bolivian activists may have brought weapons into Peru – a claim that Burt describes as “a total conspiracy theory.”

Boluarte has done little to ease the angry rhetoric deployed by public officials, parts of the press and the public in criticizing the ongoing demonstrations. Boluarte herself described the protests as “terrorism” – a label that the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) has warned could instigate a “climate of more violence.”

She again inflamed tensions during Tuesday’s press conference. When asked how she intended to implement a national truce, she said attempts for dialogue with representatives in the region of Puno had not been successful. “We have to protect the life and tranquillity of 33 million Peruvians. Puno is not Peru,” she said. At least 20 civilians have died in clashes in the region, according to data by Peru’s Ombudsman office, and the comment led to an immediate online backlash.

The presidential office later apologized for the statement on Twitter, saying Boluarte’s words were misinterpreted, and that the president intended to emphasize that the safety of all Peruvians was important. “We apologize to the sisters and brothers of our beloved highland region,” it wrote.

As the protests show no end in sight, Boluarte on Wednesday dialed down the inflammatory rhetoric when she spoke at a special meeting on the Peruvian crisis at the Organization of American States (OAS).

She announced plans to investigate the alleged abuses by security forces against protesters, adding that while she respected the “legitimate right to peaceful protest, but it is also true that the state has the duty to ensure security and internal order.”

The violence had caused around $1 billion in damages to the country, and affected 240,000 businesses, but she was “deeply pained” at the “loss of lives of many compatriots,” she said.

Boluarte, again, appealed to her former base of voters, indigenous Peruvians. “You are the great force that we need to include to achieve development with equity,” she said. “Your contributions to national development needs to be valued as well as your strength.”

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