Peru’s accidental president fails to quell violent protests

LIMA, Peru (AP) — It might be the world’s shortest political honeymoon.

Almost since the moment last week when Dina Boluarte took over from the ousted leader Pedro Castillo to become Peru’s first female president, she has appealed for calm and a chance to govern, insisting that the caretaker job came to her out of circumstance, not personal ambition.

In impoverished rural areas, though, fierce protests are showing no signs of abating amid anger over the removal of Castillo, who was Peru’s first president with Indigenous heritage. Long overlooked peasant farmers and others remain unwilling to give up on their demand that he be released from prison, where he is being held while under investigation for rebellion.

Despite Boluarte’s own humble roots in the Andes, in her home region many are calling her a traitor.

“She is an opportunist. She has easily entered the government palace, but whose job was it,” Rolando Yupanqui said after the funeral of one of the at least 14 people who have died from injuries suffered in clashes with security forces. “People are upset here. Do you think that people go out on the streets for fun?”

Yupanqui said Castillo, who lived in a two-story, adobe home before moving to the neo-baroque presidential palace in the capital, Lima, had visited his community of Andahuaylas and “was just like us.” As for Boluarte, he said, “We’ve never met the lady.”

Boluarte took over for Castillo after the president sought to dissolve Congress ahead of lawmakers’ third attempt to impeach him. His vehicle was intercepted as he traveled through Lima’s streets on what prosecutors have said was an effort to reach the Mexican Embassy to request asylum.

Protesters are demanding Castillo’s freedom, Boluarte’s resignation, and the immediate scheduling of elections to pick a new president and Congress before the scheduled 2026 vote. They have burned police stations, obstructed Peru’s main highway and stranded hundreds of foreign tourists by blocking access to airports.

In Huamanga, a provincial capital, protesters set fire to a courthouse and a building belonging to a Spanish-owned telephone operator Friday night, a day after Boluarte declared a state of emergency trying to calm the unrest. The crowd of a few hundred was dispersed by dozens of security officers firing tear gas.

The death count climbed to double digits Thursday after a judge approved a request from prosecutors to keep Castillo in custody for 18 months while they build their case against the former rural schoolteacher who surprised everyone by winning last year’s presidential runoff despite having zero political experience.

Boluarte held an emergency meeting Friday night at the presidential palace with leaders of congress and the nation’s judiciary — all of whom condemned the violence and called for dialogue. She also spoke to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who she said offered U.S. support for her fledgling government.

“There’s obviously a black hand operating here,” Jose Williams, a retired army general who as head of congress would be next in the line of succession should Boluarte resign, told journalists following the meeting. “The same behavior is appearing in one place, then another. Something is behind the scenes leading us to chaos.”

While Boluarte, under pressure, has endorsed the call for early elections, replacing her would require action by Peru’s political establishment, many of whom are in no rush to give up their own slice of power.

On Friday, Congress failed to muster enough votes to amend the constitution to pave the way for early elections, with leftist parties saying they would consent to such a plan only if a broader constitutional convention was also in the mix.

Meanwhile, at least two of Boluarte’s allies — the culture and education ministers — have resigned in protest over what they called an overly repressive police response to the protests.

The new president is having to negotiate the crisis with no base of support.

Like Castillo, Boluarte is not part of Peru’s political elite. She worked in the state agency that hands out identity documents before becoming vice president. She grew up in an impoverished town in the Andes, speaks one of the country’s Indigenous languages, Quechua, and as a leftist promised to “fight for the nobodies.”

But unlike Castillo, who wore ponchos, a traditional hat and rubber sandals that embody Peru’s countryside, Boluarte has for years lived in Lima — a symbol of rich and conservative politicians in the eyes of rural communities.

For analysts, it’s a Peruvian version of the sort of identity politics that has swept across so many other parts of the world in recent years.

“They see this as repudiation of who they are,” said Cynthia McClintock, a political science professor at George Washington University who has studied Peru extensively. “But if you asked them three months ago: ‘Is Castillo doing a good job?’, a lot of those folks would have said: ’No, he isn’t doing a good job.’”

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Briceño reported from Andahuaylas. Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman in Miami contributed to this report.

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