Emily Meggs | Latin American Fellow
On July 28, 2021, Pedro Castillo, a previously unknown primary school teacher and union activist was inaugurated as President of Peru. This was an election that championed two different political futures for Peru. His opposition, Keiko Fujimori, echoed the status quo; the continued entrenchment of neoliberalism and monetary gains for the already wealthy in an increasingly stratified society. Castillo proposed a vision for Perú that would equalise wealth distribution and empower rural Peruvians, who are often forgotten in Lima-centric public policy.
Castillo is habitually described as an educator and the son of illiterate peasant farmers. His party, Perú Libre, embraces Marxist theory and wants to improve the lives of Peru’s poorest citizens. This embrace of Marxist ideology prompted panic among many centre and right-wing populations about the possibilities of a Castillo victory. From an unknown and inexperienced politician to the next President of Peru, several questions remain about the rise, the policies, and the presidency of Castillo.
The fear surrounding Castillo’s candidacy is largely due to Sendero Luminoso, a Maoist insurgent group, which started a twenty-year uprising against the Peruvian government. They were eventually quashed by Alberto Fujimori in the 1990s. The media, dominated by right-wing media conglomerate El Comercio, has depicted Castillo as a Maoist, linking him to Sendero Luminoso. In truth, Castillo was a Rondero, part of Cajamarca’s peasant militia and self-defence group in his youth during the 1990s. It was created to protect towns and villages at the height of Sendero Luminoso’s power. The purpose of the fear campaign designed to discredit Castillo among moderates was made easier due to his election campaigning on dismantling the worst aspects of neoliberalism in Peru and transforming the economy by nationalising Peru’s rich mineral resources. A Fujimori victory would keep profits among the wealthy, elite and multinational businesses.
Despite the fear campaign designed to depict Castillo as an extremist, his popularity soared, especially in rural areas where he gave those disenfranchised by decades of neoliberal development a voice. He garnered support for his economic policies to nationalise mining (which was later retracted), higher tax rates on multinational companies, and holding a referendum on Peru’s 1993 constitution. These policies would directly benefit some of Peru’s poorest citizens, who have suffered greatly due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
If not for Castillo’s seemingly radical policies in an extremely unequal country, his social policies would label him a conservative. Although economically very liberal, Castillo and Perú Libre hold several conservative beliefs; advocating for buenas costumbres, or good cultural practices, a patriarchal stance on gender relations, the promulgation of Catholicism, and a policy to militarise Peruvian youth. He is opposed to abortion and gay marriage. These are not the policies of a political moderate, but rather indicate a populist and potentially authoritarian leader.
Following months of political uncertainty, election challenges, and calls for a military coup, Pedro Castillo was inaugurated on the bicentennial anniversary of Peru’s independence from Spain. His inauguration speech vowed to continue the fight against corruption whilst promising to boost funding to education and health. In a move that will be celebrated amongst his supporters and sow dismay amongst his detractors, Castillo has refused to govern from the ‘House of Pizarro.’ Instead, he will convert Lima’s presidential palace into a museum through the Ministry of Cultures to display Peru’s diverse history.
However, Castillo will struggle to pass their legislative agenda as they only hold 37 out of 130 seats in Peru’s unicameral congress. This means that Perú Libre will be dependent upon forming a coalition with other political parties to pass their legislative agenda. Moderate and centrist parties may object to some of their initiatives such as re-drafting Peru’s constitution and certain budget measures designed to support Peru’s most vulnerable citizens.
Castillo has already made several political appointments, which will both concern and relieve politicians. Guido Bellido, a Marxist from the Perú Libre was appointed Prime Minister, fostering disappointment among the centrists who supported Castillo. Bellido is under investigation for an ‘apology for terrorism,’ following an interview where he appeared to defend Sendero Luminoso. Castillo juxtaposed this by appointing political moderate Pedro Francke as Finance Minister. Francke is a World Bank technocrat, possibly appointed to allay fears of an extreme left government and protect the interests of private companies that operate in Peru. He has stated, “Our economy will be market-oriented but with pro-poor policies.”
Since the election, Peru has gone from witnessing protestors brandishing mock imperial shields and celebrating their Spanish ancestry, to a president who wants to disable the “caste system” created under three centuries of Spanish dominance. Time will tell if Castillo, a man with no discernible political experience, will be able to successfully govern the resource-rich Andean nation. Castillo will need to guide his country through a pandemic recovery whilst trying to redistribute wealth in a highly stratified country. If elected, he could be elevated to become synonymous with left-wing Latin American politicians such as Rafael Correa or Evo Morales. If he fails, Peru faces more decades of political instability, a potential coup, and increased societal stratification.
Emily Meggs is the Latin American Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.