Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Peru’s Failed Presidential Coup Sparks Democratic Crisis

Protesters see the president’s dismissal as a power grab by an unpopular Congress.

By , a journalist based in New York, and , a journalist covering migration, social movements and human rights.
Supporters of former President Pedro Castillo hold a blockade.
Supporters of former President Pedro Castillo hold a blockade.
Supporters of former President Pedro Castillo hold a blockade on a highway at the entrance of Abancay, Peru, on Dec. 19. Martin Bernetti/AFP via Getty Images

CUSCO, Peru—Pedro Castillo’s ouster as Peru’s president on Dec. 7 initially appeared to be just another act in the long-running political drama that has seen six Peruvian presidents take the stage in less than five years. The left-wing leader, whose approval rating had been around 20 percent, had brazenly, and illegally, tried to dissolve Peru’s Congress to stave off a third attempt at impeaching him after surviving the first two, drawing widespread condemnation for undermining the constitution. Hours later, the legislature impeached him anyway, and he was arrested for “breaching constitutional order.”

Yet in the aftermath of Castillo’s attempted self-coup, Peruvians have reacted with fury over new government measures many consider to be the most severe threat to democracy since the 1990s. After days of initial calm, protests swelled last week throughout the country, particularly in the Andes regions, as Peruvians of all political backgrounds reacted with fury to what they see as a power grab by a self-serving and corrupt Congress, whose popularity hovers around just 11 percent. Protesters crafted makeshift roadblocks of burning tires and wood logs and closed airports in Peru’s second largest city, Arequipa, and its tourist hub Cusco, snarling vital transportation links for days and stranding hundreds of foreign nationals visiting the famed Machu Picchu ruins.

Many Peruvians also want a citizen’s assembly to draft a new constitution, replacing the 1993 document implemented after notoriously corrupt then-President Alberto Fujimori himself dissolved Congress to remove parliamentary rivals in a self-coup one year earlier. That constitution allows the legislature to impeach presidents by a two-thirds vote without cause, effectively giving it the power to undercut the executive. Because of constitutional quirks that align legislative elections with the first round of presidential elections, rather than the runoff, Peruvian presidents never take power with a legislative majority, making it inevitable that the two branches will be at odds—just as Castillo’s agenda was hamstrung by constant bickering with right-wing legislators during his 17-month tenure.

CUSCO, Peru—Pedro Castillo’s ouster as Peru’s president on Dec. 7 initially appeared to be just another act in the long-running political drama that has seen six Peruvian presidents take the stage in less than five years. The left-wing leader, whose approval rating had been around 20 percent, had brazenly, and illegally, tried to dissolve Peru’s Congress to stave off a third attempt at impeaching him after surviving the first two, drawing widespread condemnation for undermining the constitution. Hours later, the legislature impeached him anyway, and he was arrested for “breaching constitutional order.”

Yet in the aftermath of Castillo’s attempted self-coup, Peruvians have reacted with fury over new government measures many consider to be the most severe threat to democracy since the 1990s. After days of initial calm, protests swelled last week throughout the country, particularly in the Andes regions, as Peruvians of all political backgrounds reacted with fury to what they see as a power grab by a self-serving and corrupt Congress, whose popularity hovers around just 11 percent. Protesters crafted makeshift roadblocks of burning tires and wood logs and closed airports in Peru’s second largest city, Arequipa, and its tourist hub Cusco, snarling vital transportation links for days and stranding hundreds of foreign nationals visiting the famed Machu Picchu ruins.

Many Peruvians also want a citizen’s assembly to draft a new constitution, replacing the 1993 document implemented after notoriously corrupt then-President Alberto Fujimori himself dissolved Congress to remove parliamentary rivals in a self-coup one year earlier. That constitution allows the legislature to impeach presidents by a two-thirds vote without cause, effectively giving it the power to undercut the executive. Because of constitutional quirks that align legislative elections with the first round of presidential elections, rather than the runoff, Peruvian presidents never take power with a legislative majority, making it inevitable that the two branches will be at odds—just as Castillo’s agenda was hamstrung by constant bickering with right-wing legislators during his 17-month tenure.

Dina Boluarte, formerly Castillo’s first vice president and currently serving the rest of Castillo’s term, responded by declaring a 30-day state of emergency, instituting curfews in several regions and restricting gatherings and free movement—an escalation unseen since Fujimori suspended civil liberties in 1992 during his campaign against the far-left Shining Path terrorist group. At least 20 people, including several teenagers, have been killed in the past week’s demonstrations. On Thursday, at least eight people were killed in the central Ayacucho region when soldiers opened fire on protesters storming the local airport’s runway.

“Peru has suffered a coup,” said Nelida Kcalla Ríos, 48, who sat on the steps of the historic Cathedral of Cusco as a policeman lazily toyed with his baton and watched over her left shoulder. “I am a defender of democracy. I am tired of opportunist coup plotters who have done nothing for my country.”

Ríos, a nursing student, said she had led daily protests in Cusco’s main square for more than one week and had no plans to stop. As she spoke, several large marches passed by the square while dozens more protesters, holding signs on the cathedral steps, were brought buckets of noodles and chicha morada as they sat under the blistering sun.

Some groups of protesters, especially in more rural areas of the Andes, have called for the release and reinstatement of Castillo, who was sentenced to an additional 18 months of pretrial detention last week as prosecutors plan to charge him with rebellion, conspiracy, and abuse of power.

Castillo, a former elementary school teacher and the son of illiterate farmers from the northern town of Puña, is still seen by Andean farmers as one of their own: an outsider among the ruling Lima political elite. His presidency also received backing last week from the leaders of Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Honduras, and Mexico (whose president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, criticized the U.S. ambassador to Peru for meeting with Boluarte and said he would explore granting Castillo asylum).

But this time, the anger toward Peru’s political ruling class has transcended many of the usual partisan and regional lines, encompassing both supporters of Castillo and those happy to see him gone but displeased with how it happened.

“We democratically elected Pedro Castillo,” protester Rudy Roca said. “Not everyone liked him, but he won.” Roca, 35, said he had voted for Castillo as a “lesser evil” in 2021 to defeat right-wing rival Keiko Fujimori, former president Fujimori’s daughter.

Most protesters have called for the resignation of Boluarte, the removal of Congress, and immediate elections to replace the legislators. Yet Peru’s legislature has thus far ignored Boluarte’s repeated pleas to bring elections forward from their scheduled date in 2026.

“The people have been trampled on,” Ríos, the protester, said. “How is it possible that a whole country is trampled on, and a small group wants to decide the destiny of the country?”

Regardless of how Peru’s political crisis ultimately ends—and there are no immediate paths to a clean solution—the scars it has left on the country’s democracy are unlikely to heal anytime soon. Many protesters have been killed at the hands of police and military, Roca said. “That is fascism,” he said. “That is dictatorship.”

The crisis has also dealt a blow to Peru’s critical tourism industry, which had just started to rebound after being devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tourists already in Peru are being evacuated, while tour operators are reporting swaths of cancellations. In Cusco, many shops closed entirely while others nervously kept one door open, ready to bolt it shut should striking protesters march by. Women offering photos with their alpacas lingered uneasily in the main square, just steps from riot police.

“Normally, this month, [we] would be full of tourists,” Carlos Estrada, owner of Cusco’s El Mordisco restaurant, said. After deliveries were halted by the roadblocks, the restaurant was forced to pay twice as much for food to keep its doors open, but it has seen just one-fifth of its usual customers since the state of emergency was declared.

“We live off tourism,” Estrada said. “When there is no tourism, there are no sales. We are already thinking of closing.”

The economic shock delivered by the crisis could destroy fragile lifelines for millions of Peruvian Andeans already suffering due to rampant inflation and high fuel and fertilizer costs that have led to numerous disruptive protests in recent months.

Peru boasts a history rich in culture and natural resources, and it remains the world’s second-largest supplier of copper. But widespread corruption and the rapid privatization of mines and utilities under Fujimori have led to gaping wealth inequality and low wages. Peru has suffered the world’s highest COVID-19 mortality rate, and half of Peruvians are experiencing food insecurity.

“I don’t have a stable job,” Roca, the protester, said; he is an anthropologist. “I live day by day.”

“I have no health care. I have no labor rights. If something happens to me tomorrow, I won’t be able to go to a public hospital.”

As dusk arrived, Cusco’s demonstrations morphed into a vigil for fallen protesters. Children held candles and a band played solemn songs, interspersed with chants blaming Boluarte and Congress for the bloodshed. While two of Boluarte’s ministers resigned on Friday, citing state violence against protesters, many Peruvians remain furious at the legislature’s silence.

“Congress has said nothing about the deaths,” said Maria Garcia, 19, a university student in Cusco. Garcia participated in the protests before being urged not to by her sister, who feared for her safety. So instead, Garcia decided to share details of alleged military abuses and civilian deaths in places like Ayacucho, which suffered more than 30,000 deaths during Peru’s battles with Shining Path terrorists between 1980 and 2000. “The people will continue to demonstrate, and there will continue to be deaths,” she said.

In Cusco, shops and restaurants began to reopen throughout the weekend, while local and tourist buses resumed operating, some with slogans condemning Congress and Boluarte scrawled on their windows.

“We do not know how normality is going to return,” Garcia said. “We have normalized these things so much that it is seen as normal, that one day it is calm and the next day it is not.”

Nick Aspinwall is a journalist based in New York. Twitter: @Nick1Aspinwall

Alicia Chen is a journalist covering migration, social movements and human rights. Twitter: @yingyuchen9

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