Nearly two months after Pedro Castillo’s narrow victory in Peru’s second-round runoff, the new president has only just managed to get his first cabinet appointed. The 73 to 50 vote through which the Peruvian Congress approved the ministers on 27 August came at the end of several weeks of obstruction and outcry from the opposition. This included a prolonged refusal by Keiko Fujimori, the defeated candidate, to acknowledge the result, as well as yet more of the hysterical redbaiting that had marked the presidential campaign. The turbulent weeks since the 6 June election provide a depressingly clear indication of what Castillo can expect in the months (and indeed years) ahead; yet at the same time, they also amply demonstrate the profound dysfunction that brought him to power in the first place.
The Peruvian political establishment has in many ways still not recovered from the initial shock of the first round of voting on 11 April. Though the field was crowded, few expected Castillo, the former leader of the teachers’ union and a native of the northern province of Cajamarca, to emerge as the front-runner with 18% of the vote. Still more surprising was that he did so as the candidate of Perú Libre, an avowedly Marxist-Leninist party, in a country still sharply polarized by the legacies of the Shining Path insurgency and state repression of the 1980s and 1990s.
The campaign for the second-round runoff duly brought a crescendo of anti-communist outrage. In Peru the specific form this takes is terruqueo – ‘calling someone a terrorist’; that is, tainting anyone on the left by (imaginary) association with the Shining Path – though the media also conjured the reliable spectres of Cuba and Venezuela. Such was the need for elite unity in the face of the supposed Communist threat that Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, who in both the 2011 and 2016 elections had branded Keiko Fujimori a threat to democracy, now hailed her as the representative of ‘freedom and progress’.
The scare tactics almost worked: in the run up to 6 June, Castillo’s poll lead narrowed day by day. But when the votes were finally counted, he had edged home by a mere 44,250 votes – a nationwide margin of 0.2%. The miniscule gap between the candidates’ totals concealed a yawning geographical divide, however. Across much of the country’s interior, especially the poorer highland departments, Castillo won by crushing margins. Five Andean departments – Apurímac, Ayacucho, Cusco, Huancavelica, Puno – reported scores of over 80% for Castillo; in Puno, which borders Bolivia, his total was a staggering 89%. Altogether, Castillo carried 16 of Peru’s 25 departments, in areas that account not only for the lion’s share of the national territory, but also for some of its deepest deprivation. At the same time, it is from these areas that Peru’s mineral wealth is extracted, while the benefits of the boom of the late 2000s and early 2010s were mostly felt elsewhere. Hence the resonance of Castillo’s campaign slogan: ‘No more poor people in a rich country.’
Yet Fujimori carried the more populous coast – most notably the capital, Lima, which contains 30% of the national population, and which she won by 31 percentage points. (Her margin of victory in Lima department, which surrounds the capital region and stretches as far as the Andes, was only 7%.) While there are many complexities to consider – there is much poverty on the coast, too – the disparities of Peru’s geography largely account for the fact that Castillo’s victory provided both a resounding, historic rebuke to coastal dominance and at the same time the slimmest possible mandate.
Fujimori immediately contested the result, alleging ‘systematic fraud’ and demanding that as many as 200,000 votes be annulled. Some of her allegations involved scarcely concealed racism: the votes Fujimori contested were from the predominantly indigenous highlands, and in one case her campaign complained that too many of the election officials had the same surname, and therefore must be related. (In indigenous areas, surnames often recur regardless of kinship.) Though Fujimori’s legal challenges lacked any basis, it took weeks for the courts to exhaust them, delaying Castillo from formally taking office until 28 July. The day of the inauguration was also the two-hundredth anniversary of Peru’s independence from Spain, but the historic occasion was clouded by the ongoing uncertainties of the presidential transition.
Far from winding down with Castillo’s assumption of power, the Peruvian opposition’s campaign to cripple his presidency simply entered a new phase. By August this had come to centre on the designation of the cabinet – usually a formality for a newly elected administration, but this time the focal point of another round of terruqueo and obstruction. The first casualty was Héctor Béjar, a leftist guerrilla in the 1960s who then worked for the progressive military dictatorship of Juan Velasco Alvarado in the 1970s, and has since remained one of Peru’s most prominent radical public intellectuals. His appointment as foreign secretary augured well for the country’s hemispheric policy, not least his vow to remove Peru from the Lima Group, the anti-Maduro coalition formed in 2017. But in mid-August videos surfaced of him making critical comments about the Peruvian Navy and accusing the CIA of funding the Shining Path, and within days he had been forced to resign. (His replacement, Oscar Maúrtua, a career diplomat who also served as foreign secretary from 2005–2006, was a calculatedly unprovocative choice.)
This was an abrupt retreat, and the opposition smelled blood. The day after Béjar’s exit, Lady Camones of the centre-right Alliance for Progress Party told the media that ‘the resignation of the foreign secretary is definitely not enough’. The next target was, if not the entire cabinet, then at least Castillo’s choice of premier, Guido Bellido. Born in 1979 in a rural district of Cusco in Peru’s southern highlands, Bellido is a native Quechua speaker, which in itself brings forth a visceral reaction from elites in Lima. For instance, when Bellido began his address to Congress on 26 August in Quechua, which is one of Peru’s official languages, he was interrupted by deputies complaining they did not understand. Both Castillo and Bellido very much cast themselves as representatives of ‘Perú Profundo’, the country’s long marginalized interior. In that sense, the tussle over Bellido’s appointment is a microcosm of the historic tension between coast and highlands.
But there is a more specific political backdrop to the opposition’s targeting of Bellido, in which Bellido himself is not even the central player. A loyal cadre of the Perú Libre party, Bellido is widely seen as a proxy for the party’s leader, Vladimir Cerrón – a 50-year-old Cuban-trained neurosurgeon and former governor of Junín in the central highlands. It was Cerrón who founded Perú Libre in 2008, initially as a vehicle for achieving power at the regional level. He was elected as Junín’s governor in 2011 and then again in 2018; but in August 2019, seven months into his term, he was removed from office after receiving a criminal conviction for corruption. Further cases against him are pending, including one launched in July 2021 for money-laundering, and another in August 2021 against him and Bellido for ‘terrorism’ over supposed links to Shining Path remnants.
Both Cerrón and Bellido have denied any such connections, but the right has seized on Cerrón’s unabashed embrace of Marxism to paint him as a terrorist sympathizer. Cerrón’s harsh criticism of state repression during the armed conflict of the 1980s and 1990s also puts him outside the ideological pale. (Personal factors play a role here, too: his father, Jaime Cerrón Palomino, was a respected leftist academic in Huancayo who was kidnapped and killed in 1990 by state-run paramilitaries; in the wake of testimony given to Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2002, four generals were charged with the murder, but they have yet to be tried.)
Keeping Cerrón away from effective power is the opposition’s real goal. No doubt personal animus plays a role, as does the whiff of crookedness surrounding Cerrón – though on that front, most of Peru’s Congress doesn’t have a straight leg to stand on. But the core of the contention over the incoming cabinet was the opportunity it provided for driving a wedge between Castillo and Perú Libre. The former’s ascent was already enough of a blow for Lima’s political establishment. Still more alarming for them was the success of Perú Libre in the legislative elections, held in April at the same time as the first round of the presidential vote. From having no seats in Congress at all, Perú Libre went to being the largest single party with 37 representatives. Fujimori’s Fuerza Popular garnered only 24 seats – an improvement on the 15 it gained in the 2020 snap election, but a considerable drop from the 73-seat tally with which it dominated Congress in 2016–20. The remainder of the 130 seats are distributed between a dozen other parties, most of them arranged across a spectrum from centre-right to right.
The new Congress is therefore highly fragmented, which will make governing the country extremely difficult. Perú Libre’s main ally will be Juntos por el Perú, a Syriza-style left coalition led by former presidential candidate Verónika Mendoza. Though it has only 5 seats, it has played a prominent role in the transition, supplying personnel that are undoubtedly more politically experienced than most Perú Libre cadres, but also much more presentable to coastal elites and middle classes. A key example of this is Pedro Francke, Castillo’s pick as finance minister, who had been on Mendoza’s team and was brought in to soothe the markets after Castillo won. (It briefly worked, though the currency nosedived again when Castillo nominated Bellido as premier.) But this raised hackles in Perú Libre: Cerrón has long made clear his dislike of what he terms the ‘caviar left’, and one of the many challenges Castillo faces is how to hold together the very different components of the left on which his government is built.
There are far larger difficulties ahead, however. Well short of a majority, the incoming government will have to cobble together votes for every piece of legislation it puts forward, in a series of confidence-and-supply-type arrangements. Castillo did in the end manage to get his cabinet through Congress – minus Béjar – but the struggle he had in doing so provides a bitter foretaste of things to come. At the same time, both his success and that of Perú Libre are unmistakable symptoms of the profound crisis of the Peruvian political system, which has now experienced several years of rolling dysfunction. A series of corruption scandals, many of them involving the tentacular Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht, led to the ouster of two presidents in succession, as well as graft charges against leading members of the Peruvian congress, including Keiko Fujimori. (She was released from a second spell in jail in May 2020, but more charges were filed in March 2021, in the midst of the presidential campaign.)
Elsewhere in Latin America – Brazil first and foremost – anti-corruption politics have been successfully weaponized by the right, against a coherent rival for power on the left. In Peru, in the absence of such a left, anti-corruption largely became a means of score-settling within the political class, all too obviously cynical and devoid of actual concern for the fate of the country. It was in part the disillusionment sown by years of this that prompted calls for a new constitution, including protests that led to the removal of a third (albeit interim) president in November 2020.
The sense of crisis was hugely accelerated, of course, by the impact of Covid-19. Peru has been among the countries most drastically affected, suffering catastrophic spikes in deaths and infections from early in the pandemic. Though its total figure of 198,000 deaths to date is dwarfed by the casualties elsewhere in Latin America, proportionally it has been hit much harder: at 609 per 100,000, its incidence of death is more than double that of Brazil, and three times higher than Mexico’s. In a country where 70% of workers are in the informal sector, the pandemic reversed whatever gains had been made over the past decade: between 2019 and 2020, per capita incomes dropped by 20%, and the poverty rate rose from 20% to 30% of the population.
It was these overlapping crises – public health disaster plus deepening political disarray plus the ongoing inequalities wrought by a neoliberal extractive economy – that made possible the dual shock of Perú Libre’s advance and Castillo’s victory. If nothing else, they made it abundantly clear that there can be no return to business as usual. But less clear is how much of a transformation Castillo’s government will be able to bring about, given the political constraints and polarized ideological climate in which it will have to operate. Perú Libre’s platform – originally drafted by Cerrón in February 2020, when the party had no seats in Congress – isn’t necessarily much of a guide to what Castillo’s programme will be. Its proposals range from doubling the health and education budgets to nationalizations of mining concerns, and from a ‘second agrarian reform’ (after the one enacted in the late 1960s by the Velasco regime) to a transition away from neoliberalism to a ‘popular economy with markets’.
The effects of the pandemic mean at least some increases in social spending are likely to get through, but it remains to be seen if Castillo can, for instance, revise mining contracts to give the Peruvian state a higher share of resource rents. Perhaps the proposal that is likeliest to be implemented is the call for a referendum on a new constitution. This was already in the air in Peru in late 2020, inspired by the example of neighbouring Chile, and it seems the only way to secure both a mandate and a framework for overhauling Peru’s neoliberal model.
In this context, it is significant that, besides Lenin and Fidel Castro, the main models mentioned in Perú Libre’s programme are Rafael Correa and Evo Morales. Both these Pink Tide leaders, however, were in much stronger positions than Castillo at the outset of their terms, and even if the referendum were to succeed, the balance of forces in Peru is unlikely to produce as progressive a charter as either Ecuador or Bolivia. But in the absence of such a thoroughgoing democratic renewal, a neoliberal restoration on the old terms doesn’t seem likely either. Far more probable is a prolonged and turbulent interregnum.
Read on: Susan Watkins, ‘Politics and Pandemics’, NLR 125.