Castillo assumes presidency in Peru

A sea change on the Pacific

Lima, Peru

This article is from the Argentine magazine Crisis,; translation by John Catalinotto

July 27 – “Enjoy your risotto, it will be the last one you eat for a long time,” says one man to another in a restaurant in Miraflores, facing the Pacific Ocean. They’re surrounded by pedigree dogs, runners, surfers, modern buildings, manicured gardens, brand name businesses and expensive cars. It’s a modern, chic, and at times pretentious style. It has just been confirmed that Pedro Castillo won the elections – but in this area of Lima, 85 percent voted against him.

Former peasant and teacher elected president of Peru.

Castillo is an outsider here. His white hat, his manner of speaking, how he dresses, his dreams, his realities, the message he carries, the country he describes, make him an alien here. He is disdained, feared and despised. Men like Castillo neither walk around Miraflores and San Isidro, sit at their tables, jog or play tennis on Sundays in clubs — nor take planes to get vaccinated in the United States.

Now Castillo, a man from the north of the Andes, a peasant, will become president of Peru, contrary to all the polls at the beginning of the campaign and despite the hyping of fear during the voting. Rarely has it come to this point. Television channels openly called for a coup d’état, instilled terror about communism and Marxism-Leninism, predicted economic catastrophes with his victory, invented fraud or links with terrorism. 

They even pardoned Keiko Fujimori [daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori], with all her personal and family history. It was a violent discharge that brought into play the unresolved memories, silences and traumas of Peru.

Nor did Castillo imagine, when he registered for the presidency, that he would make it to the runoff and win. His sudden rise was the product of a series of contingencies: the Peru Libre party did not have a presidential candidate because its leader, Vladimir Cerrón, was legally barred from running. 

Peru Libre offered Castillo an alliance for taking on the presidential candidacy. He accepted, with a pencil as a symbol and few resources. Behind these contingencies was the situation of the country, the crisis, and the need for a proposal and a language like his.

A fractured country

Lima is a city in the desert facing the sea. Humid, without rain, with a sky like a donkey’s belly and a few days of blue haze during the long winter months. La Molina, Barranco, the nostalgia of Chabuca Granda, are a part of the city, illusory and real. 

There is also the Cercado, a reminder of the viceregal pretension with which the capital was founded, now an area of demonstrations, a political center in San Martin Square, containing the institutions, wooden balconies, decadence and majesty of the colonial center.

And there are the neighborhoods, the hills to the south and north – Villa Maria del Triunfo or San Juan de Lurigancho —  where the houses are stacked up one after another, first brick, then wood, whatever you can get to create a wall and a roof. A dark ochre-colored landscape, earth with a layer of dust on plants and roofs, three-wheeled moto-taxis that climb to the rhythm of chicha/cumbia through the streets of mud, humidity and poverty.

In these cones of desert and exclusion is the untold Peruvian history: the soup kitchens, state abandonment, four uninterrupted decades of internal migration from the provinces, the jungle, the Andes, the Indigenous, the cholo, the discriminated. Peru is doubly fractured: both inside Lima and between areas such as Miraflores and the immense countryside. Pedro Castillo is from that immense countryside, where he won 85 percent of the vote in some regions.

The pandemic, with more than 187,000 deaths in a population of 32 million people, along with the recession, aggravated inequality in a country that had been maintaining a sustained growth of its Gross Domestic Product. The GDP grew by an average of 6.1 percent per year between 2002 and 2013, and 3 percent between 2014 and 2019. In 2020, however, it contracted by 12.9 percent, with three million more people in poverty and 70 percent of employment informal. A stable neoliberalism in macroeconomics accompanied marked social, geographic and racial exclusion, along with environmental conflicts — such as in Cajamarca, Castillo’s region.

Castillo speaks

Castillo explained in a meeting with presidents and leaders of the continent: “All the rights of the Peruvian people have been uprooted. … (M)ore than eight million students have been deprived of access to education in the last two years; six out of ten children are living on the brink of poverty, anemia, abandonment; almost three million Peruvians are illiterate. We find that for every ten schools, seven are on the verge of collapse; we find that in Peru’s populated centers, in the internal part of our country, there is no government presence.

“The farmer is totally abandoned; you go to a medical center and find a piece of band-aid and a pill, there is nothing else to be found. Those of us who have gone to see and report on what is happening in the country have found that the people have answers. They know what needs to be done, and what needs to be done is a structural change, a change in the Constitution.”

In that picture we can find some of the reasons the candidate of Peru Libre won the election, coupled with the great political crisis that began in 2016 with the victory of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski over Keiko Fujimori, and the systematic process of siege of the executive by the parliament, led by Fujimorism. The result: four presidents in five years, and a dissolved Congress. 

Francisco Sagasti, current president with eight months in office, had as his main political objective to lead the country to an orderly transition on July 28. He was on the verge of failing to achieve it.  

Crisis, mafia and coup attempt

The social explosion occurred when Martin Vizcarra was impeached by Congress on November 10, 2020. The motion of vacancy was for “permanent moral incapacity.” Vizcarra was accused of corruption in his former administration as governor. He thus became the fifth consecutive president accused of corruption. The head of Congress, Manuel Merino, took his place.

No political party anticipated what would happen in the streets. It started on November 10 at night and forced Merino’s resignation on November 15, with two young people murdered in Lima: Inti Sotelo and Bryan Pintado. The departure of Merino, Sagasti’s assumption of the presidency, and a more progressive Congress, put an end to the mobilizations, the largest since the four marches against Alberto Fujimori in July 2000.

Protests in Peru until last November had been centered either on environmental conflicts, against mining exploitations, or union ones, such as the teachers’ strike led by Castillo in 2017. This time it happened in the center of power, against political decomposition, institutions permeated by mafias, such as the so-called white collars, with presence in the Judiciary, branches in the Legislature, and ending in Fujimorism.  

The surname Fujimori has left its mark on the country. Alberto Fujimori won [the presidency] in 1990 with an outsider’s discourse and applied a neoliberal adjustment. He created paramilitary groups under the leadership of Vladimiro Montesinos, with the pretext of fighting the Shining Path and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement. Fujimori closed down Congress and the Judiciary, established the 1993 Constitution and a policy of forced sterilizations, got involved in drug trafficking and arms smuggling, fled to Japan from where he resigned, and was finally sentenced to 25 years for crimes against humanity. 

Kuczynski pardoned Fujimori in December 2017, a decision later reversed by the Supreme Court.

His daughter, Keiko Fujimori, defends her father, who still has popularity in several parts of the country, using two arguments: the end of hyperinflation and terrorism, which, in the case of downtown Lima, had involved car bombs and power outages. She ran three times for president – in 2011, 2016 and 2021 – and, in each case, she reached the runoff. 

In that journey, there have been investigations for corruption, including the current one for money laundering. The Prosecutor’s Office, which has asked for 30 years in prison, brought charges that this was “a criminal organization embedded in the legal entity Partido Político Fuerza Popular” (Popular Force Political Party).

It seemed clear that Keiko Fujimori would never accept being defeated by Castillo, because of her criminal case, those of many of her political allies, and the defense of the neoliberal and corrupt order founded by her father. She invoked the fight against communism and brought together a large part of the right wing, including the Vargas Llosa family, who went from claiming that Keiko Fujimori was a threat to democracy to claiming that she was its salvation.  

[Fujimori’s] assault on the National Jury of Elections in an attempt to steal the election from Castillo meant a simultaneous pressure on all the powers of the State, media, international, the reappearance of [paramilitary leader] Montesinos, groups carrying out street violence, letters from ex-military and harassment of public officials. 

This led to a month and a half of procrastination that put the country on the brink of constant explosion, but it never had enough force to achieve the coup. What was missing? International support, among other things. Castillo was finally proclaimed president on July 19.

The new government

“Today is the moment to unite efforts, and I call on the Peruvian people, all the political class without distinction, the unions, the professional councils, the economists, the university students, the working class, the teachers, all the people, to make an effort within the framework of unity to end these gaps that the Peruvian people have,” said Castillo, the new president, from San Martin Square after receiving his credentials.

The proclamation marked the end of a critical juncture and the beginning of another, also under fire. Castillo’s agenda was focused on forming his cabinet, with a central role for Perú Libre, while including allied forces such as Nuevo Perú, led by Verónika Mendoza, in a scenario where the left and the anti-Fujimori groups supported him, and different traditional sectors approached him in search of positions and alliances, offering political and economic stability.

The new government must solve national emergencies, such as the pandemic and social needs. It must advance, as Castillo repeated, in the fundamental proposal of the Constituent Assembly. The big media and the right wing had two objectives: to separate Castillo from Cerrón, the general secretary of Perú Libre, and to prevent the constitutional change from taking place, which seems to be complex, due to the situation of the Legislative power under the leadership of the right wing and Fujimorism. 

The Congress will be a place of core dispute, from which the opposition will be able to reject the approval of cabinets, try to impede the constituent process, or push for vacating the presidency.

The right wing has already planned an offensive against the government. The new president has several strengths, one of them being the social support expressed in his victory, the vigils and mobilizations. Another is the support of organizations such as the teachers’ union and the peasant patrols, where Castillo was educated, with development mainly in the provinces. 

The most difficult area will be Lima, without popular movements, and with a part of the society convinced that the president is illegitimate. The opposition has already carried out mobilizations for several weeks, even trying to march to the Government House.

This is an unprecedented situation, loaded with symbolism and power. Castillo is the first president who does not come from the economic or political elites, in a country marked by corruption, looting, memory and the silence of political violence, with the reality of semi-slavery in the countryside before Velazco Alvarado’s agrarian reform in 1969. Castillo’s victory is the product of a deep-rooted crisis, which already had the opportunity in 2011 to produce a progressive turn with the Ollanta Humala government, but was betrayed.

Peru begins in its bicentennial year a political stage marked by numerous confrontations and possibilities. Several factors will be defined in the coming weeks: what strategy the United States will adopt, if the right wing will act with intelligence or with its usual brutality; the scope of the constituent path, of the mobilizations; Castillo’s capacity to summon social majorities that would allow him to advance in his various objectives. 

Lima, between vigils and defense of democracy, lived historic days under the music of “Flor de retama” [a popular political song connected to the struggle for education rights in 1969 in Peru]. Now the day may come, as César Vallejo wrote, to put on the soul, the sun and the body.

Teruggi is an Argentine journalist and political analyst writing from hot spots in South America. His latest book is “Peces vuelen en la selva” (Fish fly in the jungle).

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