Peruvian Stasis

In early February 2022, Peruvian president Pedro Castillo met Jair Bolsonaro in the Brazilian state of Acre. A photo opportunity for both, the meeting was intended to advance talks over a cross-border road linking the two countries. Footage from the meeting was shared widely on social media. The leaders, maskless, embraced and joked. Bolsonaro took Castillo’s distinctive broad-brimmed straw hat and placed it on his head. The act seemed to mark an inflection point. Since his 2021 electoral campaign, Castillo, a former rural schoolteacher from an impoverished part of Peru who rose to prominence during a strike in 2017, has always appeared in public wearing the hat. A source of mockery for his opponents, the item, typical of the peasantry of the Cajamarca departamento, represents the president’s humble origins. Together with his trademark pencil – a campaign symbol indicating his background as a teacher – it has proved a potent image. Like Castillo’s slogan, no más pobres en un país rico (‘no more poor people in a rich country’), the hat signalled a transformative project that would uplift the poor and excluded. When Bolsonaro placed it on his head, that project seemed to have been jettisoned.

After the meeting with Bolsonaro, Castillo ditched the hat as if to mark a new direction in his presidency. A cabinet reshuffle – his fourth since taking office – appeared to confirm this rightward shift. The initial government reorganization in October 2021 replaced a cabinet led by Guido Bellido of Perú Libre, the Marxist-Leninist and Mariáteguista party that supported Castillo’s presidential bid. Controversial ministers like Iber Maraví, believed to have links to Shining Path, were replaced by ‘moderate’ figures, associated with the centre-left and attached to parties like Frente Amplio and Juntos por el Perú, in an attempt to calm the markets and appease a hostile Congress. The most recent shakeup of Castillo’s team, which led to the ousting of these centre-left ministers, saw the appointment of Héctor Valer, a conservative Catholic, as prime minister, and Óscar Graham, a technocrat, as finance minister. Valer was forced to resign after a few days amid allegations of domestic violence and was replaced by Aníbal Torres: a jurist who had previously supported the candidacy of Yohny Lescano of the centre-right party Acción Popular, before serving as justice minister.

Although Castillo ran an effective election campaign, his victory owed more to the rejection of his opponent in the second round, Keiko Fujimori. Daughter of disgraced former president Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), who was imprisoned for corruption and human rights abuses, Keiko Fujimori unsuccessfully ran for office on three occasions: in 2011, 2016 and 2021. Over the years, she has inadvertently helped to build the strongest electoral movement in Peru: antifujimorismo. This movement is sustained by the memory of her father’s authoritarian regime and fuelled by the disruptive role of the fujimorista faction in Congress. Its adherents, though politically and geographically diverse, are united by their reluctance to return to the Fujimori years. Yet antifujimorismo presents both benefits and pitfalls for presidential contenders. On the one hand, it commands just enough support to propel a candidate to office, as Castillo’s razor-thin margin of 45,000 votes demonstrated. On the other, antifujimorista voters tend to project different and incompatible visions onto their anointed leader, which he or she cannot hope to reconcile. In this sense, although antifujimorismo constitutes a powerful electoral bloc, it does not a political project or government programme make. Nor has it ever been an active force outside election cycles.

It is useful to distinguish the economic and political variants of antifujimorismo. Economic antifujimoristas view Peru’s neoliberal model, and the 1993 constitution that engendered it, as the main problem facing the country. Their goal is to change the constitution so that Peru can develop more equitable and sustainable forms of growth while loosening the grip of the market. Political antifujimoristas are less concerned with the country’s economic-constitutional model than with its institutional structures, blighted by the prevalence of corruption. Broadly speaking, the current centre-left and left (Frente Amplio, Juntos por el Perú, Perú Libre) are economic antifujimoristas, while the centre-right (the Partido Morado, sectors of Acción Popular) are political ones. In the population at large, the highlands and south tend to fall into the former camp, while parts of Lima and the coast align with the latter. Yet these urban regions have typically been dominated by fujimoristas, which means that, in the country as a whole, economic antifujimorismo is the dominant force.

President Ollanta Humala won the 2011 election on an economic antifujimorista platform, prompting fears that he would govern as a Peruvian Chávez. Yet, when elected, he tacked toward a narrow political antifujimorista programme that ultimately failed to strengthen Peru’s democratic institutions. His successor, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski – an architect of the country’s neoliberal settlement – won in 2016 by posing as a political antifujimorista, gaining the tactical votes of economic antifujimoristas in the south. But while in office he too showed minimal commitment to strengthening Peru’s institucionalidad. Castillo, of course, promised a new constitution, economic justice and agrarian reform, combined with social conservatism and a promise to repeal regulatory oversight of transport and education (in a bid to gain votes from those affected by such measures, including informal transport workers). This served him well in the first round, when he swept the southern vote, edging out Verónika Mendoza of Juntos por el Perú (whose progressive pitch on issues like environmental protections and LGBT rights found few takers), and Yohny Lescano (who ran as the leader of Acción Popular but instrumentalized economic grievances in his campaign).

Castillo’s inaugural speech, likely written by his first foreign minister, Héctor Béjar, set out a compelling vision of Peruvian history. Colonialism had created a divided and unequal country, he said. This division persisted despite the birth of the Republic, exactly 200 years ago, which had oppressed and excluded the indigenous peasantry. But his presidency would bring change in the form of a new constitution. ‘This time a government of the people has arrived to govern with the people and for the people, to build from the bottom up. It is the first time that our country will be governed by a peasant, a person who, like many Peruvians, belongs to the sectors that have been oppressed for centuries.’ While the speech contained some surprising proposals – such as a new military service and the expansion of peasant patrols as a parallel security force – the reforms it set out were uncontentious across much of the political spectrum.

Yet, since then, little progress has been made. Castillo’s tenure is all hat and no cattle, as they say in Texas. This is partly due to the pandemic, which hit Peru particularly hard given the failure of successive governments to formulate an adequate public health strategy. In his first months on the job, Castillo put his legislative reforms on hold and continued to implement the vaccination programme developed by the previous administration (although now it seems even this may be in jeopardy, following the appointment of the new health minister Hernán Condori: a man who appears to believe in ‘alternative cures’ for Covid-19). The economy has recently started to recover, boosted by strong commodity prices, and the Peruvian currency has increased its value relative to the dollar – which may give Castillo space to pursue his domestic agenda. But whether the recovery can be sustained depends on several factors, including the resolution of social conflicts linked to mining concessions – used by previous governments to stimulate Peru’s highly significant mineral export sector. Rural communities affected by these concessions have adopted direct action tactics against mining companies, such as blocking roads, in an attempt to gain compensation.

Castillo’s stasis is partly due to the strength of the right-wing opposition, which in 2021 ran one of the dirtiest campaigns in living memory, combining overt racism and red-scare tactics in an attempt to delegitimize the electoral process. Since Castillo took office, his rivals in Congress – particularly its president Maricarmen Alva – have tried on several occasions to ‘vacate’ or impeach him. Their obstructionist tactics have already forced the resignation and censure of several ministers, starting with Héctor Béjar. Congress will vote on the latest attempt to impeach Castillo on 28 March. Meanwhile, neofascist groups like La Resistencia, with close ties to the fujimorista movement, have sought to intimidate government ministers, independent journalists and feminist activists. Their efforts have been partly counterproductive, giving Castillo’s government a lifeline by further discrediting the right. Yet they have also proved that the administration is too weak to push through substantive reforms. Castillo’s hat and pencil may have gotten him over the line last year, but they are of little use now that he must deal with a Congress in which his party, though the largest bloc, is still a minority.

Castillo would be better placed to combat this reactionary onslaught were it not for problems within the government. A series of apparently ill-advised ministerial appointments – the result of both pressure from Perú Libre and the president’s poor judgment – have undermined confidence and provided the opposition with easy targets. This trend has recently been compounded by graft accusations against Castillo himself, which, though unproven, have harmed the image of the rural schoolteacher supposedly removed from the venal political class. Castillo, who admitted in an interview that he was unprepared to become president, clearly lacks the competence and dexterity needed to weather the political storms that lie ahead. Legislation to address the shortfalls in education, public health, infrastructure and security has been placed on the back-burner, along with the promised package of constitutional reforms. Instead, the government’s social conservatism has come to the fore, with measures targeting Venezuelan migrants and trans sex workers. It is unlikely that the upcoming impeachment vote will succeed. The right currently does not have enough support in Congress, and Castillo may muddle through for a while yet. But without a dramatic political realignment, neither his economic and constitutional reforms, nor Peru’s desperately needed fight against corruption, will make much headway.

Read on: Efrain Kristal, ‘Screening Peru’, NLR 42.