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A Massacre in Peru: Death Toll Tops 17 as Protests Mount After Ouster & Jailing of President Castillo

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Mass protests are intensifying in Peru following the ouster and jailing of President Pedro Castillo, who was impeached on December 7 after attempting to dissolve Congress and rule by decree. At least 17 protesters have been killed in the unrest as police have attacked crowds with tear gas and live ammunition. On Thursday, a judicial panel ruled that Castillo should remain locked up for 18 months of pretrial detention, and Castillo’s successor, his former vice president, Dina Boluarte, has declared a state of emergency across the country, suspending some civil rights. Peruvian sociologist Eduardo González Cueva calls the government’s heavy-handed response “a coup within a coup” and says dissatisfaction with the entire political establishment is driving the protests. “This is no longer about Castillo personally,” he says. “This is about the people of Peru who do not see themselves represented in this political system and are calling for a very radical change.”

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StoryJan 11, 2023Peru: Death Toll Tops 40 as Security Forces Crack Down on Protests over President Castillo’s Ouster
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Peru, where mass protests are intensifying following the ouster and jailing of President Pedro Castillo. According to the news agency EFE, at least nine protesters were killed Thursday, bringing the death toll to at least 17 over the past week. Many of those dead are teenagers. Police have attacked protesters with tear gas and live ammunition.

On Thursday, a judicial panel ruled Castillo should remain locked up for 18 months of pretrial detention. The right-wing Peruvian Congress voted to remove Castillo on December 7th, after he moved to temporarily dissolve the Peruvian Congress ahead of an impeachment vote. Castillo’s vice president, Dina Boluarte, was quickly sworn in to replace him. On Wednesday, she announced a state of emergency across Peru. Protesters are demanding Castillo be returned to power.

ELIAZAR GALVEZ: [translated] They have declared a state of emergency because they want to shut the voice of the people. But the people will keep protesting. We will keep fighting until the end for all our fallen brothers. The politicians giving the orders are responsible for this. We are furious, outraged with everything that is happening. That is why we are here, asking for Congress to close down and for the current president, Dina Boluarte, to resign. She doesn’t represent us.

AMY GOODMAN: Pedro Castillo is a left-leaning former teacher and union leader from rural Peru who was president for less than a year and a half before his ouster. Last year, he defeated Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of Peru’s former dictator Alberto Fujimori. Protesters accused the Peruvian Congress of unfairly targeting Castillo ever since he defeated Fujimori.

MERINA CHAVEZ: [translated] It is totally unfair. I hope the Peruvian people will rise and defend the popular vote. We elected him. The Peruvian people elected him. The Congress did not let him work. All Peruvians are aware of this. The Congress of the Republic never allowed President Pedro Castillo to work.

AMY GOODMAN: The leaders of Mexico, Colombia, Argentina and Bolivia have issued a joint statement to voice support for Castillo, calling him a “victim of anti-democratic harassment.” Meanwhile, the president-elect of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has taken a different stance, saying Castillo’s removal from power was, quote, “carried out within the constitutional framework.”

For more, we go to Lima, Peru, where we’re joined by Eduardo González Cueva. He’s a Peruvian sociologist and human rights expert.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Can you just explain what’s happening right now, and give us a description of the lead-up to why the president, Castillo, is now in jail, with thousands surrounding the jail?

EDUARDO GONZÁLEZ CUEVA: Good morning, Amy. Thank you for having me.

A massacre. What’s going on is a massacre. This is what is happening right now in Peru. On the one side, you have a massacre caused by the indolence of social elites in this country, who believe that the life of a campesino is worth less than any other. It’s caused by the incompetence of our political class, and I include in that Pedro Castillo and his enablers, who were always incapable of finding political solutions to political problems. And it’s caused by the despair of the people, who see that this constitutional order does not represent their interests or their voices. That is what is happening.

What is happening is a coup within a coup. Castillo did not have the law in his hand when he tried to dissolve parliament. But it is important to remember that he did not try to dissolve parliament only; he also announced that he will rule by decree and that he will also intervene in the judiciary power. So, the idea was a coup not just against Congress, which is an institution that is widely repudiated in the country, but also against the judiciary, which was investigating his entourage for accusations of corruption that seemed to be quite serious at the moment. So, that was Castillo’s attempt. Why did he do that? We will know at some point, because the reality is that, apparently, the opposition did not have the votes to actually impeach him that day.

But, of course, that attempt of a coup, the tentative, was responded by a real coup. That is, Congress, with the law in its hand, actually proceeded to impeach Castillo immediately. It got the votes that it didn’t have, because even people from parliamentary groups that supported Castillo voted to impeach him, and then sworn in the vice president of Castillo’s presidential formula, Dina Boluarte.

And what has happened after that is that, of course, we have had a situation in which the people reacted very quickly because of the agitation that, obviously, such a situation is going to cause. Castillo was not terribly popular. His popularity, according to polls, was around 30%. But Congress is even more unpopular. Congress’s approval, according to polls, is about 9%. So it was a fight between very illegitimate political sectors. Now, what happened is that the repression with which the first protests is faced, that is what causes an avalanche of protests, and the complete incapability of the regime led by Mrs. Boluarte to actually find forms of solution with what the people are asking.

What the people are asking are several different things, sometimes even contradictory among themselves. Some are calling for Castillo to be restituted in power. That’s true. Some others are calling for new elections. I think that is the majority position right now. New elections means that Castillo would not be in power, that there would be a process to find a different political leadership. Other people are asking for Boluarte to resign. The problem is that if Boluarte resigns, since there are no longer more vice presidents, the presidency will fall on the head of Congress, which is massively hegemonized by the right wing. The head of Congress right now is a military man, a former military man, who is accused of a number of atrocities during the armed conflict in Peru 30 years ago.

So, the situation is quite complicated. I don’t think that anyone knows exactly where things are going. My hope, as a Peruvian citizen, more than just an observer or a social scientist — my hope is that, first of all, the massacre has to be stopped, that the state of emergency is lifted, that people are free to demonstrate, and that a process of dialogue starts so that we find what are the best routes ahead. But what is clear to me is that with the massacre that has been committed, the current government led by Mrs. Boluarte has lost all legitimacy. And I think also that the countries in our region, the governments in our region, should try to avoid fanning the flames. Honestly, the point right now is to ensure and invoke the authorities in this country to stop the repression and to let us Peruvians find the right way to actually solve the political crisis that started this repression.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to President Pedro Castillo speaking earlier this month, before his impeachment. He accused lawmakers of trying to blow up democracy in Peru.

PRESIDENT PEDRO CASTILLO: [translated] They intend to blow up democracy and disregard our people’s right to choose, attacking the figure of the presidency of the republic in order to take advantage and seize the power that the people, tired of being left behind, and seeing that a few people wanted to continue dividing up Peru, took from them at the polls.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s the president, who’s currently jailed. Can you give us a thumbnail sketch of his history? Go back to — I mean, this is the first political office he’s held. He is a teacher and a union leader. Tell us about his rise to power and why he speaks particularly to the marginalized in Peru.

EDUARDO GONZÁLEZ CUEVA: Castillo is the son of campesinos from the northern region of Peru called Cajamarca. This is a region that has a very interesting and important story in our country. This is the region where the Spaniards first found — first met the Incas. This is the region where the Spaniards started their massacres of their conquest, capturing the first Inca that came in contact with them, Inca Atahualpa. And so, it’s a region charged with meaning in Peru. This is also a region where the Shining Path was unable to enter because of the activity of, basically, community police from those campesinos. Castillo is a very symbolic representative from this region because of his social extraction.

Now, politically, he did come from some sort of a wildcat union, a union of teachers that rose against the majority union in that sector. He responded then to a very messy confrontation between leftist fractions trying to dominate the union, the teachers’ union. And he came to some kind of visibility because of a strike he led, that was not just against the government but against his own union. So, that visibility allowed him to be basically selected by a small left-wing political party to be the presidential candidate.

They did not expect actually to win. The members of the party have been clear about the history of the elections. But they did. They did win, reflecting what was clearly the fury of the population about the situation in which we lived in, the fact that we were coming after two years of pandemics, the fact that this was a country where, per capita, more people died in the pandemic than anywhere else in the world. And so he won.

He entered into the second round. We have a two-round system here. Because the field was incredibly dispersed, he won the first round with only 16% of the vote. The second person in that election, Keiko Fujimori, got second with 13% of the vote. So, the two first presidential formulas got, in total, less than half of the vote. And with those credentials, they got into the second round.

So, it was a weak presidency to start with. It did not have a majority in Congress. It did have a respectable parliamentary group in terms of size. It controlled about one-third of Congress. But the reality is that, in this time, disputes within his party between the different fractions of the left led very soon to the dispersion of the bloc that protected and defended him. And Castillo, during his tenure, did not demonstrate a lot of political reflex, either. He named ministers that had serious questions around them, ministers and advisers who actually, after being accused of corruption, turned on him immediately. Some of the impeachment attempts have emerged because people who were named by Castillo as secretaries or advisers or people in his entourage came to the prosecutors to accuse Castillo in order to clean themselves up.

So, Castillo never demonstrated either a lot of political leadership or capacity. The reality is that he was a bad president. Simple as that. Of course, he never had a chance, because the right wing and the press, that the right wing completely dominates here, took all the possible accusations against him, even some that were incredibly frivolous.

So, we had a situation of an impasse that lasted what it has lasted. And at some point, there was going to be an attempt to break that impasse. It is unfortunate that Castillo started it — that is, that Castillo made the first move. If Congress had actually impeached him, I think that we would have seen this, but Castillo would have been in the right. And the problem is that Castillo basically squandered the little legitimacy he had by trying to dissolve not just Congress but, as I have said, also the judiciary.

So, Castillo is a complicated character. He is probably — there is a distance between what he is as a person and the symbol that he has become for many people. The people of Peru does see in him a number of things that are important, significant, as a son of campesinos that gets to the first position in the country. But at the same time, he personally has demonstrated to be, regrettably, deeply flawed.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, on Thursday, relatives of the ousted president visited him in jail. He’s in a jail in the foothills of the Andes. His niece, Vilma Castillo, said he’s not doing well.

VILMA CASTILLO: [translated] His hands started shaking. His face was shaking. And we brought him pills. This is my family. This is my mother. This is my aunt. And over here is my other aunt. This is the family of President Castillo. We want the press to see our reality, how we live, where we live, the life we lead, so that they don’t point a finger at us saying that we are the nephews, the corrupt nephews, the millionaire nephews.

AMY GOODMAN: The niece of the jailed president, Pedro Castillo. If you could talk about this scene at the base of the Andes, of this jail with a thousand people camped outside, Peruvians from all over Peru and outside flying in?

EDUARDO GONZÁLEZ CUEVA: So, there are a number of demonstrations. Some of them are happening in front of the police station where Castillo is arrested — together with Alberto Fujimori, by the way. Now, I have the impression that these demonstrations are no longer about Castillo. And the demonstrations in front of this police station or this police base are not as significant as the demonstrations that we are seeing elsewhere in Lima. The demonstrations yesterday, which were called by the union federations, were quite large. And the reality is, as I said before, that the protests and the demands that the people are expressing are not necessarily now linked only to Castillo and his situation. People are already calling for new elections, anticipatory elections, and also for a constitutional assembly or the way toward a constitutional assembly. What exactly would be the way towards that, that’s another thing. But I think it’s important, Amy, and at least this would be my position, my honest assessment of the situation, that this is no longer about Castillo personally, that this is about the people of Peru who do not see themselves represented in this political system and are calling for a very radical change.

AMY GOODMAN: The leaders of Mexico, Colombia, Argentina and Bolivia have issued a joint statement to voice support for Castillo, calling him a “victim of anti-democratic harassment.” At a news conference Tuesday, the Mexican President AMLO, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, said Castillo should have never been removed from office.

PRESIDENT ANDRÉS MANUEL LÓPEZ OBRADOR: [translated] Let it be known, this is not interference that originates from above, from the so-called political elite, the economic interests and the media. They are the ones that caused this instability that harms Peruvian people. The recognition of Pedro Castillo as president of Peru has nothing to do with our foreign policy. What the agreement states is that the will of the people who elected him must be respected. Recognize he won dramatically and cannot be removed.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Meanwhile, the president-elect of Brazil, Lula, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has taken a different stance, saying Castillo’s removal from power was, quote, “carried out within the constitutional framework.” And Chilean President Gabriel Boric has also recognized Peru’s new president, Dina Boluarte, the vice president under Castillo. As we begin to wrap up, what this means for Latin America and this divided response, Eduardo?

EDUARDO GONZÁLEZ CUEVA: Well, first of all, I would like to say that Peru is quite different from other countries in Latin America. This is not Honduras. This is not Bolivia. This is not Colombia. This is not Chile. This is not Brazil. And I really, as a Peruvian, highly resent when the agency of Peruvians and the particularities of our country are reduced to a certain preset narrative, be that the narrative that the right wing uses of a country supposedly in the hands of a rabid communist, or the narrative that behind everything there is some kind of imperialist or right-wing complot against an immaculate representative of the people. The reality is quite different and quite more complex than that.

I hoped that the presidents of the countries in Latin America focus first of all in the human rights crisis, in the humanitarian crisis, which are not internal affairs. Talking about the fact that there are 17, 18, 20 people killed already, that is the point where they should be focusing on, rather than the recognition of who is the actual president or what was exactly the events that led to this situation. I do think that, actually, we should go reflectively beyond the immediate political reflex of looking at what was the presumable political tendency of the people who lost power or the people who has power right now. They should be — the presidents should be looking at the situation in the terrain and the suffering of the Peruvian people, and expressing solidarity, first of all, with the Peruvian people.

AMY GOODMAN: Eduardo González Cueva, we want to thank you so much for being with us, Peruvian sociologist, human rights expert, speaking to us from Lima, Peru.

Next up, we’ll look at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit that brought together 49 African leaders in Washington, D.C., this week. Stay with us.

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