Peru: New President Dina Boluarte battles to contain widespread protests

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One week into her presidency, Peru’s new President Dina Boluarte is battling to contain widespread protests that erupted after the ousting of former President Pedro Castillo. She is the country’s sixth president in less than five years.

Boluarte announced Tuesday the government will set up a crisis management committee as protests calling for political change continue across the country. The committee will be led by Pedro Angulo, President of the Council of Ministers of Peru, and will include other representatives including the heads of the defense, transport, interior and communication ministries among others, the presidency announced on Twitter Tuesday.

Truck drivers wait as demonstrators block a highway to Lima while demanding early elections and the release of ousted leader Pedro Castillo, in Ica, Peru December 13, 2022.

Demonstrators continue to protest despite a government proposal to bring forward elections following the ouster of Peruvian leader Pedro Castillo, in Lima, Peru on December 13, 2022.

Castillo has denied allegations of conspiracy and rebellion, following his impeachment and arrest last week.

The former president has been detained last week. His seven-day preventive detention order was due to end at 1:42 p.m. ET on Wednesday. In a handwritten letter posted on Twitter, Castillo called for supporters to gather at that time at the detention center in Lima where he is being held.

However, a hearing to determine whether Castillo’s detention will be extended has been postponed to Thursday morning, said Judge Juan Carlos Checkley at a virtual court session on Wednesday. Checkley said that Castillo will remain detained until then.

Protesters in Arequipa, Peru.

The military stand guard at an official building after demonstrations turned violent.

Castillo’s supporters have been protesting since his arrest and impeachment last week. As of Tuesday evening, national roads in at least 14 regions across the country have been blocked by protests, the National Police of Peru said in a statement.

The army has been deployed in Peru to protect public spaces across the country amid ongoing protests, according to a statement by Peruvian Defense Minister Luis Alberto Otárola on Tuesday evening.

“The immediate protection by the Armed Forces of the strategic points of national assets, airports, hydroelectric plants and all that infrastructure that, due to its strategic value, serves to guarantee the life and subsistence of all Peruvians, has been ordered,” Otárola explained in a statement broadcast by Peru’s state-run media, Peru TV.

Castillo's removal from power accelerated long-simmering political tensions in the country.

The defense minister also declared a state of emergency for the national road network.

“We are going to assume control of the national road network throughout the country, to ensure the free transit of all Peruvians,” Otárola said.

He also said that a state of emergency has specifically been implemented in the southern cities of Arequipa and Ica, “so that the Armed Forces and the National Police can take control of the internal order.”

What has sparked Peru’s recent unrest?

Peru was plunged into more political turmoil when Castillo was impeached and arrested on December 7, after he announced plans to dissolve Congress and install an emergency government ahead of a looming impeachment vote by lawmakers.

Boluarte, his former vice president, has since become president, and on Monday proposed bringing general elections forward two years to April 2024 during a televised speech.

Castillo’s removal from power accelerated long-simmering political tensions in the country. Since last week, demonstrations have erupted in cities across the country, sometimes marked by clashes with Peru’s security forces. Some are protesting in support of Castillo, while others want a total reset of the country with fresh general elections and a dissolution of Congress.

Who is Pedro Castillo?

Elected in July 2021 by a narrow margin in a runoff, the former leftist leader promised “to govern with the people and for the people” but his short-lived presidency has largely focused on his own political survival.

A former rural school teacher, Castillo survived two impeachment attempts in his first year as president and faces six ongoing investigations by the office of the National Prosecutor.

His government was mired in chaos since inauguration, with dozens of ministers appointed, replaced, sacked or resigned in little over a year – piling further pressure on the embattled president ahead of his ousting last week.

Castillo has railed against the opposition for trying to remove him from the first day he was in office and accused Peru’s Attorney General, Patricia Benavides, of orchestrating what he called a new form of “coup d’état” against him.

In October, Benavides filed a constitutional complaint against him based on three of the six investigations her office had opened. The complaint allowed congress to carry out its own investigation against the former president.

The national prosecutor’s office has looked into a cascade of investigations on whether Castillo used his position to benefit himself, his family and closest allies by peddling influence to gain favor or preferential treatment, among other claims.

Castillo has repeatedly denied all allegations and reiterated his willingness to cooperate with any investigation. He argues the allegations are a result of a witch-hunt against him and his family from groups that failed to accept his election victory.

Are the protests violent?

At least seven people have died in the protests ongoing in Peru, according to a tweet from the health ministry on Wednesday.

Two minors are among those killed, Peru’s ombudsman’s press office said on Tuesday. And at least 47 individuals were hospitalized as a result of protests in the cities of Lima, Apurímac, Huancavelica and Arequipa, Peru’s Health Ministry tweeted.

Boluarte on Tuesday called for calm to be restored to the country, and said that she had instructed police not to use any lethal arms against protesters.

“Everyone has the right to protest but not to commit vandalism, burn hospitals, ambulances, police stations, assault airports, (these) are not normal protests, we have reached the extreme,” Boluarte added.

What other disruption has the unrest caused?

Trail and air travel across some regions of Peru has been affected by the demonstrations. Trains to and from Machu Picchu were suspended from Tuesday, rail operator PeruRail said in a statement.

“We regret the inconvenience that these announcements generate for our passengers; however, they are due to situations beyond the control of our company and seek to prioritize the safety of passengers and workers,” the statement read.

Flights have also been disrupted due to protests, with LATAM Airlines Peru announcing the temporary suspension of services to and from airports in the cities of Arequipa and Cuzco.

Protesters attempted to storm the terminal at Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport in Cuzco on Monday, according to the Peruvian Corporation of Airports and Commercial Aviation (CORPAC).

So far there have been no reports of injuries, arrests or damage to the airport, according to CORPAC.

What do the demonstrators want?

Demonstrators have called for a general election, the dissolution of Congress, and the creation of a new constituent assembly.

Fernando Tuesta Soldevilla, a professor of political science at Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (PUCP), told CNN the protests represented a violent show of anger against “everything that has accumulated in the last few years: increasing social and economic ruptures.”

He added that protesters were also demonstrating over social and environmental issues, on top of their “furious rejection of Congress.”

However Peruvian lawmakers hold the key to calling new elections and they are unlikely to do so as they would be voting themselves out of a job, according to Tuesta Soldevilla.

Will Boluarte’s ascendency bring stability?

Peru has been racked with political instability in recent years, with many Peruvians calling for political change, according to a September poll by the Institute of Peruvian Studies, which found 60% of those surveyed supported early elections to refresh both the presidency and Congress.

It is unclear if Boluarte’s ascendancy to the presidency can gain widespread political buy-in.

Boluarte “does not have a recognized political career,” said Tuesta Soldevilla. “And without partisan support, political party or social organization behind her, she is weak from the beginning.”

“Everyone knows when Dina Boluarte’s government began, but no one can be sure how long it will last,” he told CNN.

Boluarte also doesn’t belong to a political party after she was expelled from Peru Libre due to internal disagreements. She would need to build bridges and achieve some consensus with the opposition in Congress to stay in office.

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