Although Peru is currently seeing some of the worst political violence in recent memory, the demonstrators’ complaints are anything but fresh; they are a reflection of a system that has been ineffective for more than 20 years.

Some of Peru’s most violent protests, which were sparked by the removal of former President Pedro Castillo last month, have been occurring in the south of the nation, where scores of people have been slain in recent weeks after violent battles with security forces.

The Andean Mountain region, which is over ten thousand feet above sea level and home to some of Peru’s most well-known archeological monuments, including the ancient city of Cusco and the ruins of Machu Picchu, is also one of the poorest regions in the nation.

In recent days, protestors from these and other rural areas of Peru have begun making long journeys to Lima, the nation’s capital, to air their discontent with the government and call for the resignation of the president, Dina Boluarte.

Their rage serves as a beacon for a greater democratic dilemma. Peru has lost interest in democracy as a result of years of political chaos; both the president and congress are largely regarded as corrupt institutions.

Only 21% of Peruvians claimed they are content with democratic leadership, the lowest percentage of any nation in Latin America and the Caribbean (apart from Haiti), according to a 2021 survey conducted by LABOP, a survey research laboratory at Vanderbilt University.

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Unsettlingly, a majority of Peruvians who took part in the survey said that a high level of corruption would justify a military takeover of the nation.

Demands for better living conditions, which have not been met in the 20 years after democratic government was reinstated in the nation, are at the heart of the crisis. One of the newest democracies in the Americas, Peru just had free and fair elections again in 2001 following the overthrow of right-wing despot Alberto Fujimori.

Due to solid raw material exports and substantial foreign investments, Peru’s economy grew both under Fujimori and in the years that followed the restoration of democracy, outperforming nearly every nation in the area. The system of free-market policies that Peruvian elites supported to spark the economic boom was known as the Lima Consensus, named after the country’s capital.

TOPSHOT – On January 4, 2023, in Lima, protesters clashed with police as part of a demonstration against President Dina Boluarte’s administration. – Peru has recently experienced political unrest. On December 7, the then-president Pedro Castillo attempted to abolish Congress and rule by decree but was overthrown and imprisoned as a result. Dina Boluarte, his vice president, took over for Castillo. But a wave of frequently violent protests demanding Castillo’s reinstatement have forced Boluarte to deal with them. (Image courtesy of ERNESTO BENAVIDES/AFP) (Image via Getty Images, courtesy of ERNESTO BENAVIDES/AFP)
Despite deadly protests, Peru maintains the state of emergency
However, a governing style that minimized state intervention damaged state institutions fundamentally as the economy was booming.

While public opinion typically reflects the state of the economy in democracies, Professor Steven Levitsky of Harvard University brought attention to a particular paradox in Peru as early as 2014. He wrote in the journal Revista that while growth soared during the 2000s, presidential approval ratings in Peru consistently fell.

Levitsky emphasized persistent shortcomings in security, justice, education, and other fundamental services from Peru’s previous governments as risks to the viability of the country’s fledgling democracy.

Security, justice, education, and other essential services are still insufficient, which contributes to the prevalent sense of corruption, unfairness, inefficiency, and neglect on the part of the government. This is one of the main causes of public unhappiness. Public faith in democratic institutions is likely to decline where such impressions endure across consecutive governments, he argued, making a remark that now seems prescient.

To scatter protesters, a policeman deploys tear gas.
To scatter protesters, a policeman deploys tear gas.
Getty Images/Lucas Aguayo Araos/Picture Alliance
This systemic vulnerability at the foundation of Peruvian society was further made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic. While many nations increased their social safety nets to combat the negative economic effects of lockdowns, Peru had none.

In the months of the Covid-19 pandemic, as the virus spread throughout the nation, more than half of the Peruvian people lacked access to enough food, according to the United Nations. According to data from Johns Hopkins University, coronavirus-related deaths per capita were greatest in Peru.

The economy of the nation has recovered since the pandemic shock; Peru’s GDP increased by an astounding 13.3% in 2021; yet, as Levitsky prophesied, popular confidence in democratic institutions has eroded.

People took a break on January 18 in preparation for protests on Thursday who had traveled from various regions of Peru to do so.
People took a break on January 18 in preparation for protests on Thursday who had traveled from various regions of Peru to do so.
Reuters/Sebastian Castaneda
According to an IEP survey released in September 2022, 84% of Peruvians disapproved of Congress’ performance. In Congress, lawmakers are thought to not only be acting in their own best interests but are also connected to unethical behavior.

The nation’s long history of rotating presidents is a reflection of its disappointments. In less than five years, the current president Boluarte is the sixth head of state.

Castillo, her predecessor, gained power in the general elections of 2021, campaigning as a man of the people who would give the nation a new beginning. Polarization and the mayhem that surrounded his presidency, including the numerous impeachment efforts by Congress and corruption claims, which Castillo denounced as politically driven, only served to heighten already existing tensions.

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The majority of protestors who talked with CNN on Wednesday argued that the nation needs a new beginning and called for nationwide new elections to provide public institutions a sense of legitimacy.

But up to this point, Boluarte and the lawmakers have resisted calls for early general elections. The president proclaimed a state of emergency on Sunday in Lima and other protest-heavy regions of the nation. Even though the measure is only supposed to be in place until mid-February, more people are still flocking to the streets.

Meanwhile, a probe into Boluarte’s handling of the unrest has been launched by Peru’s attorney general.

In less than five years, the current president Boluarte is the sixth head of state.
In less than five years, the current president Boluarte is the sixth head of state.
AFP/Getty Images/FiLE/Cris Bouroncle
But even if the current administration were to be replaced and still another person were elected president, Peru’s underlying problems would still exist.

Solving those problems necessitates fundamental change in terms of social and economic equality, addressing the cost-of-living crises, and combating corruption, just like in many other Latin American regions.

After years of economic and social advancement under democratic governments provided the idea that Latin America had finally put the era of coups, dictatorships, and uprising behind it, the pandemic has served as a sobering reality check for the whole continent.

Peru today could serve as a warning to any democracy that falls short of its citizens’ expectations and spirals in on itself.

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