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Barbara FraserJanuary 26, 2023
Anti-government protesters clash with the police in Lima on Jan. 23, 2023, as they demand the release of protesters detained in demonstrations in support of former Peruvian President Pedro Castillo. Peru's bishops pleaded for peace as violent protests against the country's current president and legislature have claimed the lives of dozens of people. (OSV News photo/Angela Ponce, Reuters)Anti-government protesters clash with the police in Lima on Jan. 23, 2023, as they demand the release of protesters detained in demonstrations in support of former Peruvian President Pedro Castillo. Peru's bishops pleaded for peace as violent protests against the country's current president and legislature have claimed the lives of dozens of people. (OSV News photo/Angela Ponce, Reuters)

Peru’s Catholic bishops have called for an end to the violence that has left more than 50 people dead in anti-government protests since early December—a plea echoed by Pope Francis in his Angelus message on Jan. 22. “These atrocities that have left the country in mourning must not go unpunished. They must be investigated quickly, individually identifying and sanctioning those responsible,” the bishops wrote in a statement on Jan. 20.

“As church, we suffer with everyone,” Augustinian Auxiliary Bishop Lizardo Estrada of Cusco, secretary general of the Peruvian Conference of Bishops, told America. “Christ is crucified again” in people who have experienced “years of indifference, broken promises and government neglect. People are tired of so much exclusion.”

The bishops called for dialogue and offered the church as a mediator between protest leaders and government officials, but as the crisis drags on and protests spread, such a process looks unlikely in the near future.

While the violence makes headlines, peaceful protests that have drawn thousands of campesinos from around Peru’s Altiplano have received no attention.

The wave of demonstrations and roadblocks, some marked by violent clashes with police and the burning of government buildings, is the worst seen in Peru in several decades. It was sparked by the ouster on Dec. 7 of former President Pedro Castillo, but is sustained by anger at his former vice president and successor, President Dina Boluarte, because of the fierce crackdown on Mr. Castillo’s supporters by police using tear gas and live ammunition.

As of Jan. 25, according to the Ombudsman’s Office, an autonomous human rights watchdog within the government, 46 civilians had died in clashes with police, mainly in the southern Andes, where Mr. Castillo had the greatest support. That figure includes eight killed on Dec. 15, when a crowd converged on the airport in Ayacucho, and 18 killed on Jan. 9 in similar events at the airport in Juliaca, in the southern Puno region.

Most of the deaths reportedly have been from gunshots; in some cases, witnesses have reported police firing at close range. The day after the Juliaca massacre, the charred body of a police officer was found beside his burned-out patrol car.

Demand for new elections

A general strike on Jan. 19, accompanied by demonstrations in Lima that drew caravans of protesters from the southern highlands, shut down businesses and transportation in much of the country. Police later stormed San Marcos University in Lima, where some protesters were lodged, using an armored vehicle to break through a fence.

The wave of demonstrations and roadblocks, some marked by violent clashes with police and the burning of government buildings, is the worst seen in Peru in several decades.

Videos of police suppression of demonstrators that circulated on social media immediately after drew comparisons to the heavy-handed administrations of former presidents Alan García and Alberto Fujimori during the political violence of the 1980s and 1990s. Government officials’ characterization of protesters as “terrorists” and “vandals” were further reminders of those years of conflict.

Besides the deaths in clashes between police and protesters, the Ombudsman’s Office has reported at least 10 related deaths, including people killed in traffic accidents at roadblocks. Patients enduring unrelated emergencies have also died when ambulances were stopped by protests.

On Jan. 24, Health Minister Rosa Gutiérrez called for demonstrators to lift the roadblocks and allow safe passage for ambulances, as well as medicines and food for areas that have been cut off. The Health Ministry has also reported nearly 1,000 protest-related injuries, and the national police have reported 580 police officers injured.

Government officials and business leaders have estimated the economic cost of the protests at several billion dollars. Tourism, which employs many people in Cusco, has come to a standstill, Bishop Estrada said. After being forced to evacuate tourists from the 15th-century Inca citadel of Machu Picchu several times, the government closed the iconic site to visitors on Jan. 21.

The protesters’ main demands are for Ms. Boluarte to resign, the congressional leadership to change (José Williams, president of the Congress of Peru, who would normally follow Ms. Boluarte in the line of succession, is a retired army general) and new elections to be held. Some also seek a constituent assembly to rewrite Peru’s constitution.

Government officials’ characterization of protesters as “terrorists” and “vandals” were further reminders of those years of conflict.

Ms. Boluarte has said she will not step down and has called elections for April 2024, although Congress must still approve that. Many have urged moving the date up to late this year, which would require a faster decision from Congress.

In a letter on Jan. 21 to Ms. Boluarte and Mr. Williams, Bishop Ciro Quispe of the Juli Prelature in the Puno region expressed “pain” at seeing “brothers and sisters” facing off in the conflict. Saying the people “demand to have their requests heard,” Bishop Quispe wrote, “I beg, implore and pray that you, our authorities, show a visible and concrete sign to stop this terrible wave of injuries and deaths and avoid all kinds of repression and violence.”

Addressing Ms. Boluarte on behalf of the diplomatic corps at an official event on Jan. 25, Archbishop Paolo Rocco Gualtieri, apostolic nuncio to Peru, said, “Behind the rejection of certain visible forms of violence is sometimes hidden another, more insidious violence, which is that of those who disregard [those who are] different, especially when their demands are somehow detrimental to their interests… Ignoring the interests and rights of the rest sooner or later provokes some unexpected form of violence, as we are witnessing these days.”

An accidental president

The protests began after Mr. Castillo, facing an impeachment vote in Congress, announced on Dec. 7 that he was closing down Congress and ruling by decree. The armed forces failed to back him, and Peru’s Congress—including several members of his own party—voted overwhelmingly to impeach him.

Mr. Castillo was jailed and Ms. Boluarte became Peru’s sixth president in seven years. Although she shared the leftist Perú Libre party’s ticket with Mr. Castillo, Ms. Boluarte was expelled a year ago after criticizing the party line. Mr. Castillo’s supporters considered his ouster illegal and Ms. Boluarte a traitor.

Protesters demand that Ms. Boluarte resign, congressional leadership change and new elections held. Some also seek a constituent assembly to rewrite Peru’s constitution.

In many ways, Mr. Castillo had been an accidental president. A rural school teacher and farmer from the northern Cajamarca region, he was also a union leader best known for his role in a 2017 teachers’ strike over reforms to the country’s educational system, when he opposed the government’s plan to fire teachers who failed three times to pass a competency exam.

He had no experience in local or national politics when Perú Libre recruited him to run in the April 2021 election. But his pledges to improve the lot of Peru’s long-marginalized campesinos, while short on details, resonated especially among rural Quechua and Aymara people in the southern Andes.

He swept much of that region, and although his overall percentage was barely in the double digits, in a field of 18 candidates it was enough to take him to a runoff against right-wing candidate Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of Alberto Fujimori, president of Peru from 1990 to 2000. He won by just 44,000 votes, and Ms. Fujimori claimed fraud in a move reminiscent of the Biden-Trump contest in the United States seven months earlier.

Once in office, Mr. Castillo failed to deliver on his promises and became enmeshed in corruption scandals involving alleged kickbacks and bribes. He appointed party loyalists without vetting them thoroughly, resulting in a constant turnover in top ministry posts, and admitted publicly that he was not prepared to be president.

But that’s “the Castillo of flesh and blood,” said Omar Coronel, a sociologist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru in Lima, who is from Ayacucho. Calls for the former president’s reinstatement have largely vanished from the protesters’ demands, leaving the “Castillo of myth,” the poor, campesino teacher who rose to the country’s most powerful political position, giving him “enormous symbolic importance,” Coronel said.

In many ways, Mr. Castillo had been an accidental president. A rural school teacher and farmer, he had no experience in local or national politics when Perú Libre recruited him to run in the April 2021 election.

Peru’s southern highlands, especially Ayacucho, were at the epicenter of political violence in the 1980s and 1990s, caught in a crossfire between the Maoist Shining Path guerrillas and Peruvian security forces that killed tens of thousands of people, mainly Quechua-speaking campesinos.

The killing of protesters, especially in Ayacucho, “reactivated a memory of pain and rage against the government,” Mr. Coronel said. “They see Dina Boluarte not only as a traitor, but also as a murderer.” That perception, he adds, makes it even more difficult to launch a dialogue, as urged by politicians, bishops and international human rights envoys.

Political system in crisis

Without a party or congressional bloc of her own, Ms. Boluarte leaned on the security forces to secure her position as Peru’s new president. On Dec. 14 she declared a 30-day nationwide state of emergency, which limits constitutional freedoms and allows the military to aid police. She and Prime Minister Alberto Otárola, a former defense minister, have said investigations should identify the individuals responsible for the deaths, but they insist police are acting within the law.

Meanwhile, paradoxically for the former vice president of a leftist party, right-wing legislators have rallied around Ms. Boluarte. Her resistance to popular demands to step down is a sharp contrast to the outcome of another recent period of disorder in December 2020, when two young men were killed during protests in Lima. Public outrage that followed forced the president of Congress, Manuel Merino, who had claimed the presidency, to resign.

Like the current crisis, the 2020 events, which resulted in three presidents in a week just months before the 2021 elections, were also sparked by a conflict between the legislative and executive branches.

In Peru, Congress can impeach a president on vague grounds of “moral incapacity,” while the president can dissolve Congress after two no-confidence votes by the legislature. That mechanism has been weaponized in a political system that saw its parties largely dismantled under Alberto Fujimori, who in 1992 successfully staged the same kind of “institutional coup” that Mr. Castillo attempted.

Peru bishops called for dialogue and offered the church as a mediator between protest leaders and government officials, but as the crisis drags on and protests spread, such a process looks unlikely in the near future.

“Not having parties means not having professional politicians,” Mr. Coronel said. “Not only do they not have experience, but they also have no interest in remaining in politics.”

Centuries of exclusion

Despite his many difficulties and unprofessionalism while in office, Mr. Castillo nevertheless represented hope for change, and that has galvanized protests in the southern highlands, said Maryknoll Sister Patricia Ryan, who has worked among the Aymara people of Puno in Peru’s two-mile-high Altiplano region since the 1970s.

What people are experiencing now epitomizes and accentuates what they have been living for centuries,” Sister Ryan said. “The discrimination, exclusion and racism is so poignant. It’s always been there, but now every time that they’re referred to as terrorists, as violent people, as ignorant—all those terms that are used by those who do not appreciate them as people, as brothers and sisters—that goes deeper and deeper into the wound that is already there.”

Peru’s southern Andes are rich in mineral wealth but economically poor. Rural areas in particular lack basic services like potable water, sewers, decent schools and health care.

Sister Ryan, who once headed the Juli Prelature’s human rights office and later helped found the non-profit Derechos Humanos y Medio Ambiente (Human Rights and Environment) in Puno, said the current grievances come on top of upheaval caused by the coronavirus pandemic—Peru suffered one of the world’s highest death rates, along with a severe economic impact—and a drought that has ruined crops in Puno, raising fears of hunger in the months ahead.

Peru’s southern Andes are rich in mineral wealth but economically poor. Rural areas in particular lack basic services like potable water, sewers, decent schools and health care.

Rural residents are also increasingly aware of the contamination of Lake Titicaca and other water sources by toxic runoff from mines, she said. Communities opposing mines face long legal battles that wear them down.

“Put it all together, and it all adds up to a tremendous cry for life” from the Aymara people, she said, “and their life is the pachamama,” or Mother Earth. “You cannot separate it. We are all one.”

Sister Ryan is frustrated that peaceful protests that have drawn thousands of campesinos from around the Altiplano have received no attention, while the violence makes headlines. She sees little likelihood that the protests will subside as long as Ms. Boluarte remains in office, although even the president’s resignation would not solve the underlying problems. What people demand, she said, is a seat at the table, a voice in decisions about policies that affect them.

Peru’s bishops maintain their call for dialogue, although Bishop Estrada, the auxiliary bishop in Cusco, said it is difficult to build bridges when it is not clear who is leading the protests. Mr. Coronel suggests a path to dialogue could be found through regional town hall-style meetings like those promoted by then-President Michelle Bachelet in Chile in 2016.

Meanwhile, said Sister Ryan, “The deaths have to stop. The use of lethal weapons has to stop. And orders from on high for weapons of these kinds to be used against the people have to stop, and those responsible [must be] brought to justice.”

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