Lima, Peru – Dozens of civilians shot dead by armed forces. The gates of a prominent public university are stormed by a military tank. Police stations set on fire.
Nearly seven weeks after Dina Boluarte ascended to Peru’s presidency in the wake of the chaotic ouster of her predecessor Pedro Castillo, the protests that have ravaged the south of the country have spread to the capital Lima, where they severe repression.
The protesters, many of whom are Castillo supporters, have called for Boluarte’s resignation, new elections and a revised constitution. An estimated 50 civilians have been killed since the protests began.
Now the burning question for millions of Peruvians is: How will their nation overcome this deadly political impasse?
In a press conference on Tuesday, Boluarte called for a “national ceasefire” to “establish dialogue and set an agenda” for the country.
But she also used her speech to denounce the protesters for failing to organize “a social agenda” and for committing violence and destruction, including through the use of home-made weapons.
“My country lives in a violent situation, caused by a group of radicals with a political agenda,” she said.
Al Jazeera spoke to protesters, political analysts and everyday Peruvians about possible solutions to a crisis that exposed Peru’s deep-seated social inequality — and warned academics about a possible slide into authoritarianism.
‘Peru wakes up,’ protester says
Celia, a potato farmer from the Puno region, spoke with tears in her eyes and in a raucous voice from protesting for days, saying the time had passed for a dialogue with the Boluarte government. She refused to give her last name for fear of police reprisals.
“After all the blood she shed from my brothers, [Boluarte] must step down,” said Celia, the Aymara native. She is one of many protesters from Peru’s provinces who have gathered in the center of Lima to call for reform.
To get there, she’d traveled a day’s journey, past police checkpoints and blocked highways, from her native Ilave, a village along the Bolivian border shaken by recent violence.
Amid the noise of protesters in the streets of Lima, Celia denounced a government she says has rejected its indigenous and peasant classes for too long.
“Peru wake up,” she said. “We have been taken advantage of for too long. Without our hard work on the land, Lima would starve.”
The demands of anti-government protesters like Celia once centered on the release of former President Castillo, who is being held in pre-trial detention while he is being investigated on charges of rebellion. But now protesters are increasingly focusing on ousting Boluarte, as well as calling for new elections and a reformulation of the 1993 dictatorship-era constitution.
Rising tensions ‘going to explode’
Analysts note that, as Castillo’s former vice president, Boluarte’s succession to the presidency is constitutionally legitimate. She was sworn in the same day Castillo was impeached and removed from office, on December 7.
But her use of force against demonstrators, coupled with a refusal to recognize the legitimacy of their demands and a broad portrayal of them as far-left agitators, has hampered her ability to build consensus.
“She and her government have dealt with it [protesters] with so much violence and repression that it undermines the legitimacy of her government,” said Jo-Marie Burt, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, a nonprofit organization.
“If she continues to rule with her back to the people and use repression to keep protesters at bay, it may take a while, but at some point it will explode.”
In an effort to defuse protests in Lima last week, Boluarte’s government has declared a state of emergency in seven regions, including the capital, which has hampered basic civil liberties, including the right to assembly.
On Saturday, an anti-terrorism squad used an armored vehicle to ram the gates of San Marcos University to drive out nearly 200 rural protesters housed inside. It was a show of force similar to the repressive tactics of disgraced ex-president Alberto Fujimori, who ordered a similar raid on the university in 1991.
Narrative counterweight ‘is on the street’
Analysts warn that as Boluarte’s government resorts to such tactics, the door to dialogue with peaceful protesters is closing.
“The government has abandoned the possibility of a political solution and is instead seeking an authoritarian solution, one that rests on what we call firm handshake [iron-fisted] politics,” said Paolo Sosa Villagarcia, a political scientist at the Institute of Peruvian Studies.
Sosa Villagarcia noted that rather than seek broad cross-cultural dialogue, Boluarte has chosen to criminalize the protests and forge a governing coalition with her former far-right enemies in Congress, as well as the police and military.
The political scientist also cautioned that, with the national press largely broadcasting a law-and-order mantra and limited investigations into state violence, there is little to contradict the administration’s narrative of events.
“The only counterweight to her government at the moment is in the streets, and they are strongly repressed,” Sosa Villagarcia said. “I am afraid that at some point the government will succeed in containing the protesters. After that, she is free to do whatever she wants.”
A poll this month shows Boluarte’s disapproval rate is 71 percent. With the death toll likely to rise amid the unrest, a majority of Peruvians see new elections as the best way forward.
Under pressure from the public, Peru’s deeply divided Congress will hold a referendum next month to ratify the 2024 elections, which would require constitutional amendments.
Far-right factions in Congress have already put conditions on their votes, hoping to get assurances that the administration will remove independent election authorities. That worries observers like Jo-Marie Burt, who sees elections not as a panacea, but as the least fraught way out of a deepening crisis.
“I don’t see any other way forward that doesn’t mean more repression, possible loss of life or extreme instability, deadlock and paralysis,” she said.