Rage in rural areas fuels protests against the Peruvian government

ANDAHUAYLAS, Peru (AP) — Peruvians’ anger at their government is nowhere more visible than in Andahuaylas, a remote rural community in the Andes where the poor have struggled for years and where voter support helped to end the now-ousted one President Pedro Castillo himself elect peasants like them.

Such is their anger that their protests have continued despite the deaths of four people on Monday, including two young protesters over the weekend, including 17-year-old Beckham Romario Quispe Garfias.

As thousands of people spilled onto the streets, Raquel Quispe remembered her brother as a talented athlete who was tired of feeling invisible in the eyes of politicians. It was named after English soccer star David Beckham and Romario, the Brazilian soccer phenomenon-turned-politician.

Standing in front of the hospital where his body was being kept, clouds above her, and with a simmering anger in her voice, sometimes betrayed by tears, she summed up what had driven him and others to protest since Castillo’s fall last week: one exclusionary democracy.

“For you who are there in Congress, the only valid opinion is that of Peruvians who have money, of wealthy people,” said Quispe, an early childhood education teacher.

“They do what they want. For them… the provincial vote is not valid, it is useless. But the vote of the people of Lima is taken into account. This is an injustice for all of Peru.”

About 3,000 people gathered on the streets of Andahuaylas on Monday to protest, mourn and pay their respects to the white caskets of the young men who died over the weekend. Across the community, rocks lay strewn on streets still scarred by smoldering fires. An airstrip used by the armed forces remained closed, black smoke still clung to a nearby building.

Protesters in rural communities, including Andahuaylas, continued to call on President Dina Boluarte to step down and call general elections to replace her and all members of Congress. They also want authorities to release Castillo, who was arrested Wednesday when he was ousted by lawmakers after trying to dissolve Congress ahead of an impeachment vote.

While protesters have also gathered in Lima, the capital, demonstrations have been particularly heated in rural areas, strongholds of Castillo, a former schoolteacher and political newcomer from a poor Andean mountain region.

Protesters went a step further Monday by blocking access to an international airport in southern Peru for several hours and occupying its runway. A protester died during demonstrations in Arequipa, where the airport is located, Defense Secretary Alberto Otarola told lawmakers during a session of Congress focused on the civil unrest. Another protester was killed in the state that Andahuaylas is part of, lawmakers said.

The escalation came even after Boluarte hours earlier gave in to protesters’ demands and announced in a nationally televised address that she would submit a proposal to Congress to bring the elections forward to April 2024 – a reversal of her previous claim that she was in favor of the remainder should remain President 3 1/2 years of the term of her predecessor.

Boluarte, in her address to the nation, also declared a state of emergency in areas outside of Lima, where the protests were particularly violent.

“My duty as President of the Republic at this difficult time is to interpret … the aspirations, interests and concerns … of the vast majority of Peruvians,” said Boluarte, announcing that she would propose early elections to Congress.

Boluarte, 60, was quickly sworn in Wednesday to replace Castillo, hours after he stunned the country by ordering the dissolution of Congress, which in turn sacked him for “permanent moral incompetence.” Castillo was arrested for rebellion.

Members of Boluarte’s cabinet appeared before Congress on Monday to give an account of the protests. Far-right lawmaker Jorge Montoya called for adequate action to end the unrest, telling Castillo’s supporters that now that he has been removed, “the chapter is closed”.

“These are not protest actions, these are acts of terrorism that must be severely punished,” Montoya said. “You cannot defend an extreme situation.”

Peru has had six presidents in the past six years. In 2020, it went through three in one week.

The latest presidential crisis comes as the Andes and their thousands of small farms struggle to survive the worst drought in half a century. The country is also experiencing a fifth wave of COVID-19 cases.

Castillo’s supporters had hoped the populist maverick would address some of the challenges they have long faced. But during his 17-month tenure, Castillo failed to complete any outstanding project and faced racism and discrimination that his impoverished supporters often experience.

In Andahuaylas, about 80% of voters who cast their ballots in last year’s runoff supported Castillo. Among his proposals was the rewrite of the country’s constitution, last drafted and adopted in 1993 during the administration of Alberto Fujimori, the disgraced former president whose daughter Keiko lost the presidency to Castillo.

Rosario Garfias was among the protesters outside the hospital where the body of her 17-year-old son was being held. Expressing her sadness at the death of her son, she spoke in Quechua, one of Peru’s indigenous languages.

“My mother complains in her language. I know many don’t understand her, not even Congress understands it,” said her daughter, Raquel Quispe.

“She says that… she’s hurt deeply because they killed him, like in a slaughterhouse. And my mother, like my family, is demanding justice for my brother.”

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Garcia Cano reported from Lima.

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