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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

What is behind the political turmoil in Peru?

The police fired tear gas to disperse crowds of supporters of Pedro Castillo, now Peru’s former president, after he was arrested on Dec. 7.

By Emma Bubola and Genevieve Glatsku

Peru has been convulsed in recent years by political turmoil, rapid turnovers of presidents and constant scandals and investigations. But this week has perhaps been one of the most tumultuous in the country’s recent history.

On Dec. 7, Congress scheduled an afternoon vote on whether to impeach the president, Pedro Castillo, on corruption accusations. But Castillo, seeking to thwart the vote, announced the dissolution of Congress and the installation of an emergency government, in what was quickly condemned as a coup attempt.

The move shocked even the president’s allies, and by day’s end, Castillo had been removed from office and was under arrest. Dina Boluarte, his vice president, became president, the first woman to lead Peru.

But what initially seemed to be a sign of the resilience of a fragile democracy dissolved into unrest just days later as supporters of the former president staged attacks against police stations, airports and factories.

On Wednesday, Peru’s defense minister declared ​​​​​a nationwide state of emergency as the government sought to control widespread violence​, an extraordinary measure even in a country accustomed to political upheaval and protest.

Here is what we know so far.

Who is Castillo?

Castillo, 53, who was elected president last year, was born to parents who were illiterate farmers in an impoverished, rural region without sewerage and with a lack of access to health care and schools.

Even after Castillo became a teacher, he farmed to supplement his income. He became a union activist, helping to organize a strike for better pay for teachers.

During his election campaign last year, Castillo, a socialist, appealed to voters frustrated with the political establishment.

He ran on the slogan “No more poor people in a rich country” and promised to improve the country’s economy and reduce its chronic inequality. High poverty rates have worsened during the pandemic, rising by about 10%, one of the steepest increases not just in Latin America but in the world, according to Hugo Nopo, a senior economist at the World Bank.

Although Castillo cast himself as a clean break from the country’s corrupt past, he quickly became embroiled in scandal once elected and failed to keep many of his promises.

Why was he facing impeachment?

For years, Peru has been hobbled by political corruption that has led to six presidents since 2016. Castillo’s tenure only worsened the sense of political dysfunction.

He named five different Cabinets and cycled through more than 80 ministers, some of whom lacked relevant skills or experience and faced investigations related to corruption, domestic violence and murder.

Castillo was the target of six criminal investigations, including over accusations that he led a criminal organization to profit off government contracts and claims that he repeatedly obstructed justice.

He denied the charges, and some of his supporters say that he was the victim of a concerted effort to reinstate the former ruling elites.

Congress had tried to impeach Castillo twice before, and the third vote was planned after he earlier threatened to dissolve the body.

What happened when Castillo tried to suspend Congress?

Soon after Castillo announced his decision to short-circuit Congress in a nationally televised address, the armed forces and police rejected Castillo’s move, top government officials resigned in quick succession, law experts called his effort illegal and even the president’s former personal lawyer disavowed him. The United States also joined the chorus of dissent.

Within hours, Congress voted to impeach him.

Who is Peru’s new president?

Boluarte, 60, is a former lawyer who was a member of a Marxist political party until she was pushed out last year after criticizing the party’s leader.

She comes from a rural area of Peru, and she ran on Castillo’s ticket last year, serving as vice president and as his minister of development and social inclusion. She resigned from her ministerial role last month, after Castillo formed his most recent Cabinet.

What do the protesters want?

After Boluarte took office Dec. 7, small protests erupted in Lima and other parts of the country. They intensified that weekend when at least six people died in the clashes, according to Peru’s ombudsman’s office. Authorities said that more than 100 police officers have been injured.

The protests are backed by the country’s largest federation of labor unions, the largest association of Indigenous people in the Peruvian Amazon and many organizations representing poor farmers, among other groups.

Many of them are supporters of Castillo who say that they feel robbed of their vote. They have demanded the shutdown of Congress, the drafting of a new constitution and new elections. Some are also calling for Castillo’s release.

How has the government responded?

The government of Peru on Wednesday declared a nationwide state of emergency. The measure suspended the rights of assembly and freedom of transit, among other civil liberties, for 30 days, the country’s defense minister said.

Experts said that the state of emergency was unusual. While past governments have done so in parts of the country, they said the measure had not been used this widely since the 1990s, when the country was brutalized by a Marxist terrorist group called the Shining Path.

What challenges does Peru face?

One-quarter of Peru’s 33 million people live in poverty. The United Nations in November warned that the country had the highest rate of food insecurity in South America, with half the population lacking regular access to sufficient nutrition.

“The most important challenge is that of shared prosperity,” said Nopo, the World Bank economist. “We are a country that has been characterized by good macro stability, but it still has serious challenges in making this macro bonanza as inclusive as would be desirable.”

The pandemic and the war in Ukraine have contributed to a huge increase in prices for basic goods and other essential products, including fertilizer, setting off widespread protests.

Mining, a key part of the economy, has been a driver of the country’s growth over the past two decades, but it is also a major source of pollution and contributes to climate change.

Chronic corruption has affected the highest echelons of power. Three presidents in recent years were forced from office after corruption accusations.

Castillo is the sixth former president to face prison time this century, a symptom of institutional instability, and Congress is one of the least-trusted institutions in the country, according to a recent poll.

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