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In Peru, President Boluarte's government is blamed for human rights abuses

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The president of Peru, Dina Boluarte, has defied the odds just by staying in office. After serving as vice president, Boluarte inherited the top job in December after her predecessor was impeached. That made her the country's seventh leader in the past six years. But her hold on power remains tenuous because her government is being blamed for widespread human rights abuses, as John Otis reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DINA BOLUARTE: (Speaking Spanish).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: At a recent news conference at the presidential palace in Lima, Dina Boluarte reflected on her first six months in office.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOLUARTE: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "The first task of this government was to bring peace and stability to Peru," she said, "otherwise, there was no way to move forward." Indeed, Peru has suffered years of political upheaval. The latest chapter came in December when, after just 17 months in office, Peru's left-wing president, Pedro Castillo, was impeached and arrested after he tried to dissolve Congress and rule by decree. Castillo was replaced by Boluarte, his vice president. She comes from a working-class family in southern Peru and, before teaming up with Castillo, had never held elective office.

CAROLINA TRIVELLI: So she got into power with no support from the voters, no political party. So everybody said, well, she's not going to survive, but she did.

OTIS: That's Lima political analyst Carolina Trivelli. She says it's the way Boluarte maneuvered to survive that has many Peruvians seething. Peru's constitution allows Boluarte to serve out the remaining three years of Castillo's presidential term, but it was widely believed she would be a caretaker figure who would call early elections and quickly step down. However, that would have also required early elections for Congress and its members insisted on staying put. So even though Boluarte served in Castillo's left-wing government, she cut a deal with Peru's right-wing Congress. In exchange for its support, Boluarte agreed to stay in power until 2026.

TRIVELLI: That was the first sign of alarm. And everybody was saying, hey, ma'am, you were supposed to announce a call for elections.

OTIS: The ouster of Castillo plus Boluarte's shift to the political right set off three months of violent protests. To put them down, Boluarte sent in police and army troops.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNS FIRING)

OTIS: More than 60 people were killed, many of them unarmed protesters who were gunned down by security forces, according to human rights groups. Among the dead was Victor Santisteban, a Lima construction worker who was hit in the head with a tear gas canister.

ELIZABETH SANTISTEBAN: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "His whole head was destroyed," says Elizabeth Santisteban, the victim's sister, "the police were out there to kill people." A human rights commission from the Organization of American States accused the police and army of using excessive force and said they may have committed massacres. The attorney general's office is investigating the allegations, which Boluarte denies. Either way, her hard-line strategy appears to have worked. The protests died down, the economy is expanding and Peru's currency is growing stronger. Tired of turmoil, some Peruvians want Boluarte to stay on the job - they include former President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who was himself forced out of office in 2018 over corruption allegations.

PEDRO PABLO KUCZYNSKI: This interim president we have right now should stick around.

OTIS: So you're in favor of Dina Boluarte serving until 2026?

KUCZYNSKI: That would be the best outcome under the circumstances.

OTIS: But there's a catch. Due to her backroom deals and her mishandling of the protests, Boluarte's job approval rating has plummeted, says newspaper columnist Rosa Maria Palacios.

ROSA MARIA PALACIOS: The popularity of Dina is 15%.

OTIS: It's only 15%?

PALACIOS: It's only. You cannot manage a country with that numbers for a very long time, not in Peru.

OTIS: So just as it was for several previous presidents, it's going to be a huge challenge for Boluarte to finish her term.

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Lima, Peru. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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