Lima, Peru – Nieves Huamani was visiting family in her village in the Peruvian mountains of Cusco when news of the impeachment and arrest of Peru’s former president Pedro Castillo reached her and “hurt” her heart.
Enrique Salazar, a radio host born in Arequipa in the southern Andes, said political developments prompted him to make a 16-hour journey to the capital Lima to defend “an ordinary man from the countryside”, just like himself.
And Teresa Ore, who is originally from the rugged highlands of Ayacucho and sells Christmas items on the streets of Lima, took to the streets to demand the overthrow of “the mafia” she says currently controls Peru’s Congress.
All three are among thousands of Campesino Peruvians from the rural heart of the country who have gathered in cities across the country to oppose a political system they say has historically excluded them.
Peru has seen a surge of anger and outrage over Congress’ decision to remove Castillo — a former rural teacher and labor leader — from the presidency last week, with many protesters defending a man they’ve come to see as some sort of representative.
“[Castillo] represented the forgotten like us, from the provinces,” said Huamani, 58, who lives in Lima, where she pushes a food cart through the city’s sprawling suburbs. “But Congress never let him rule.”
‘Message that caught on’
Since Castillo’s attempt to suspend Congress and rule by decree on December 7 ahead of an impeachment vote in the opposition-held legislature, anger over his impeachment and imprisonment on charges of “rebellion” and “conspiracy” has led to increasingly violent nationwide protests.
The demonstrations were most virulent in the country’s impoverished Andes, where Castillo has strong support.
Experts say several factors besides the latest political crisis are fueling the unrest, including a deep, cultural divide between Lima’s businesses and political classes, and residents of Peru’s Andean and Amazon hinterlands feeling betrayed by a widely loathed Congress .
These regions have also experienced years of bubbling anger and frustration over the failure of anemic state institutions to provide basic services, such as security, health care and education, outside the capital.
“There is a very old marginalization and centralization in Lima, and as a result there is a government that has little concern about providing basic public services,” Jorge Aragon, a professor of political science at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, told Al Jazeera.
Just over a year ago, Castillo, the son of illiterate farmers from the hinterland province of Cajamarca, vowed to finally give a voice to the country’s most forsaken sectors after a narrow victory over his far-right challenger, Keiko Fujimori. in a second election.
His pledge to redistribute mineral resources and rewrite the dictatorial-era constitution of the country alarmed both the left and far-right bourgeoisie, but garnered support among the campesino and indigenous Peruvians, who leaned on Castillo’s mantra: “No poor people more in a rich country”.
“He was a rural school teacher, a union leader and a man from the provinces,” Aragon said. “When he railed against inequality, poverty and the indifference of the state’s political elites, that was a message that resonated.”
Criticism of Castillo gov’t
But despite Castillo’s pledges to fight for Peru’s marginalized rural class, he remained deeply unpopular nationally after staggering cabinet reshuffles and a slew of corruption investigations that resulted in multiple impeachment attempts.
From the start, Castillo’s tenure was mired in corruption allegations, including that he received kickbacks for himself and his family in exchange for public works projects. His delayed response to rising food and fuel costs also angered ordinary Peruvians who were already facing rising poverty, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, sparking major protests this year.
And Castillo’s loyalty to far-left elements within his party, including Marxist Free Peru party boss Vladimir Cerron, raised alarms and fueled fears that he would embrace regional autocrats and introduce a radical agenda that would deter foreign investment.
It was Congress’s third attempt to remove him from office since he assumed the presidency last July, prompting Castillo’s preemptive bid to dissolve the legislature and form an emergency government on Dec. 7.
The decision, widely condemned as unconstitutional, led to his impeachment, arrest and continued detention, as well as the swift swearing in of his vice president, Dina Boluarte, as president.
Boluarte has called for calm and time to unite a highly polarized country. But her efforts to quell the unrest have so far failed, and this week her government declared a nationwide state of emergency for 30 days, as well as a curfew in 15 of the country’s 24 departments.
Meanwhile, a judge on Thursday ordered Castillo to remain in pre-trial detention for 18 months while Peruvian authorities prepare charges against him and his former prime minister, Anibal Torres.
The move further fueled protests and violent clashes between protesters and military forces erupted in the Andean department of Ayacucho. The national death toll rose to at least 18 on Friday, authorities said.
Protests are growing
Still, despite the crackdown, protesters like 50-year-old Salazar, the Arequipa radio station, say they will remain on the streets until their demands are met.
Like many protesters, he is demanding Castillo’s reinstatement as president, as well as amendments to the country’s constitution and the closure of Congress, which has an 86 percent disapproval rate, according to a November poll by the Institute for Peruvian Studies think tank.
Indigenous leaders of the Amazon also told Al Jazeera this week that mass mobilizations from their areas to Lima were underway — but the issues at the center of their protest go beyond Castillo.
“Our mobilization has no interest in liberating Castillo,” Jorge Chaoca, an Ashaninka leader from Peru’s central Amazon region, said in a telephone interview. Chaoca and other Indigenous leaders have said the state’s inability to protect tribes from drug traffickers in the region has led to death threats, territorial invasions and increased deforestation.
“Two thousand brothers and sisters are marching to Lima to oust the useless, corrupt, coup plotting, delinquent, murderous, marauding rats in Congress,” he said.
And in Lima’s San Martin Plaza, a focal point of protests in the capital, the influx of demonstrators from the heart of Peru, supported by rural unions and campesino and indigenous organizations, continues to expand.
‘He is a man of the people and comes from the countryside. And the powerful don’t like that. They don’t accept it,” said Huamani, the protester from the Cusco region. “I came here to help fight.”
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