Lima, Peru – Dozens of civilians killed by the armed forces. The gates of a prominent public university stormed by a military tank. Police stations burned down.
Nearly seven weeks after Dina Boluarte assumed the presidency of Peru following the chaotic impeachment of her predecessor Pedro Castillo, the protests that have rocked the south of the country have metastasized, spreading to the capital Lima where they met with fierce repression.
The protesters, many of whom are supporters of Castillo, called for Boluarte’s resignation, as well as new elections and a revised constitution. An estimated 50 civilians have been killed since the protests began.
Now, the burning question in the minds of millions of Peruvians is: how does their nation overcome this deadly political stalemate?
At a press conference on Tuesday, Boluarte called for a “national truce” to engage “a dialogue and set an agenda” for the country.
But she also used her speech to denounce protesters for failing to organize a “social agenda” and for committing violence and destruction, including by using homemade weapons.
“My country is going through a violent situation, generated by a group of radicals with a political agenda,” she said.
Al Jazeera spoke to protesters, political analysts and working Peruvians about possible solutions to a crisis that has laid bare deep-rooted social inequalities in Peru – and warned academics against a possible slide towards authoritarianism.
‘Peru is waking up’, says protester
Speaking through tears and with a raw voice after days of chanting during the protests, Celia, a potato farmer from the Puno region, said the time had come for 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 resign,” said Celia, who is indigenous Aymara. She is one of many protesters from the provinces of Peru who have converged on central Lima to call for reforms.
To get there, she had traveled a day’s drive, past police checkpoints and blocked highways from her hometown of Ilave, a village along the Bolivian border that has been rocked by recent violence. .
Amid the din of protesters on the streets of Lima, Celia denounced a government she says has rejected her indigenous and peasant classes for too long.
“Peru is waking up,” she said. “We have been exploited for too long. Without our hard work in the fields, Lima would starve.
Demands by anti-government protesters like Celia once centered on the release of former President Castillo, who is being held in pre-trial detention as he is investigated on rebellion charges. But now protesters are increasingly focused on overthrowing Boluarte, as well as calling for new elections and an overhaul of the 1993 dictatorship-era constitution.
Rising tensions “will explode”
Analysts note that as Castillo’s former vice president, Boluarte’s succession to the presidency is constitutionally legitimate. She was sworn in on the same day Castillo was impeached and removed from office, December 7.
But his deployment of military forces against protesters, combined with a refusal to recognize the legitimacy of their demands and a crude portrayal of them as far-left agitators, have hampered his ability to build consensus.
“She and her government have dealt [protesters] with such violence and repression that it undermines the legitimacy of his government,” said Jo-Marie Burt, senior fellow at the nonprofit Washington Office on Latin America.
“If she continues to rule by turning her back on the people and using repression to keep protesters at bay, it might last for a while, but at some point it will explode.”
In an attempt to defuse protests in Lima last week, the Boluarte government imposed a state of emergency in seven regions, including the capital, which has hampered basic civil liberties, including the right to assembly.
On Saturday, a counterterrorism squad used an armored vehicle to break down the gates of San Marcos University to evict nearly 200 rural protesters housed inside. It was a show of force that drew analogies to the repressive tactics of disgraced former president Alberto Fujimori, who ordered a similar raid on the university in 1991.
The narrative counterbalance “is in the street”
Analysts warn that as the Boluarte government resorts to such tactics, the door to dialogue with peaceful protesters is closing.
“The government has left behind the possibility of a political solution and instead seeks an authoritarian solution, which is based on what we call hard hand [iron-fisted] politics,” said Paolo Sosa Villagarcia, a political scientist at the Institute for Peruvian Studies.
Sosa Villagarcia noted that, rather than seeking broad cross-cultural dialogue, Boluarte has instead opted to criminalize protests and forge a governing coalition with his former far-right enemies in Congress, as well as the police and armed forces.
The political scientist also warned that with the national press largely broadcasting a policing mantra and limited investigations into state violence, there is little that contradicts the government’s account of events.
“The only current counterweight to his government is in the streets, and they are heavily suppressed,” Sosa Villagarcia said. “I fear 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 rating at 71%. With the death toll likely to rise amid the unrest, a majority of Peruvians see new elections as the best way forward.
In the face of public pressure, Peru’s sharply divided Congress is expected to hold a referendum next month to ratify the 2024 elections, which would require changes to the constitution.
Far-right factions in Congress have already set conditions for their votes, hoping to win guarantees that the government will scrap independent electoral authorities. That worries observers like Jo-Marie Burt, who sees elections not as a panacea but as the easiest 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, stalemate and paralysis,” she said.