The Dawn of a New Era in Peru?

A Pedro Castillo banner and other materials promoting Castillo's candidacy hanging on a building in Lima, June 2021.

07/15/2021 12:00am

Labour Outlook

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Until recently, Peru was one of Latin America’s most dependable bastions of conservatism and neoliberalism. The country’s once-vigorous Left was nearly demolished back in the 1980s and 1990s following sustained assaults by both the violent, sectarian Shining Path insurgency and Peru’s brutal, US-backed security apparatus. 

In 1992, Peru’s corrupt and authoritarian president Alberto Fujimori staged a coup against the legislature and judiciary and then implemented a series of sweeping “free market” reforms (aptly dubbed the “Fujishock”). His government also waged a merciless neo-McCarthyite campaign of persecution targeting left-wing organizations of all stripes. Though Fujimori now sits in jail for embezzlement and human rights crimes, his successors carried on his neoliberal legacy, resulting in gaping inequality and the steady deterioration of public services.

Since Fujimori’s presidency, Peru has been one of Washington’s most stalwart allies in the region, supporting US regime change efforts targeting left governments. In 2017, President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski hosted a group of right-wing Latin American counterparts who launched the “Lima Group,” a regional alliance wholly dedicated to attacking the left-wing government of Venezuela, with frequent, ringing endorsements from State Department officials. 

But, while the Right has managed to control Peru’s national institutions for decades, it has failed to garner significant popular support, particularly as nearly all its leaders have been heavily implicated in corruption scandals. Public discontent reached a head in late 2020, when massive protests erupted following the legislature’s removal of a president who had backed an anti-corruption agenda. Within six days, the new president appointed by Peru’s congress was forced to resign. The vast people’s movement quickly subsided, but it was clear that Peruvians had had enough of politics as usual — “¡Ya basta!” 

Given this background, it shouldn’t have been such a surprise to see Pedro Castillo — a rural school teacher, socialist trade unionist, and complete political outsider — win this year’s presidential election against Alberto Fujimori’s daughter Keiko. Though all of Peru’s right-wing forces unified behind Keiko’s well-resourced campaign, and nearly all of the country’s media viciously attacked Castillo, branding him a “communist” and “terrorist” intent on destroying the Peruvian economy, Castillo succeeded in beating Keiko by a little more than 40,000 votes. The fear-mongering campaign targeting Castillo ended up swaying most of Lima’s middle and upper classes, but Peruvians from historically marginalized poor, rural, and Indigenous communities overwhelmingly supported Castillo, whom they recognized as one of their own.

As of the writing of this piece, Castillo still hasn’t been officially recognized as president-elect by Peru’s electoral authorities, though the announcement now appears to be imminent. The primary reason for this delayed recognition is that Keiko Fujimori and her supporters have claimed that fraud took place, and have deployed an army of well-paid lawyers to try to nullify hundreds of thousands of pro-Castillo votes. The strategy is, of course, reminiscent of Trump’s attempt to reverse the US’s 2020 election, as well as the baseless fraud narrative that served as a pretext for the coup d’Etat against Evo Morales in Bolivia following his narrow electoral victory two years ago.

Fortunately, it now appears highly unlikely that Peru will go down the same road as Bolivia did. Whereas the Washington-based Organization of American States (OAS) promoted false fraud claims in Bolivia and helped the 2019 coup succeed, this time around the highly biased but influential hemispheric body has portrayed Peru’s election as perfectly fair and transparent. Had the OAS not been thoroughly chastised for its actions in Bolivia — by the governments of Mexico and Argentina, by US members of Congress, and even by The New York Times — it’s not clear that it would have behaved in an impartial manner in Peru.

Assuming that he is inaugurated on July 28, as planned, the road ahead for Castillo will be fraught with enormous challenges. Castillo has promised the Peruvian electorate to fight for a constituent assembly that would draft a new, progressive charter for the country, to replace the conservative, neoliberal constitution written under the Fujimori government in its dictatorial phase. He is also committed to enacting various economic reforms, including the renegotiation of mining concessions so as to ensure some measure of redistribution of this significant source of national wealth.

These are not revolutionary measures, yet Castillo will doubtless face the continuous wrath of the elites, who rightly see him as a threat to the political and economic order that has made them fabulously wealthy off the backs of the working class. Given his close relations with other left-wing leaders like Evo Morales and his support for regional integration independent of the United States, he is also likely to attract the ire of Washington, if he hasn’t already. Together, Peru’s elites  ―  through their control of most of the levers of the national economy — and the US government  ―  through the control it exercises over much of the global financial system — could wage economic destabilization campaigns to try to force Castillo from power.

In addition, Castillo can currently only count on the support of a small minority of legislators in parliament, and there is a strong risk that the Right, led by Keiko Fujimori’s party, will seek to oust him by securing a three-quarters majority against the future president. Such a strategy would be risky given the Peruvian people’s recent history of mass protests in response to such moves. But the country’s elites might be willing to take the risk, and count on Peru’s conservative armed forces — where Castillo is rumored to also have powerful enemies — to crack down on any popular resistance. 

Another scenario that some fear is that Castillo could end up surrendering to the elites and adopting their agenda, much as former president Ollanta Humala — elected in 2011 with the support of Peru’s left — did ten years ago. But this seems unlikely given Castillo’s background and his long record of dedicated work and organizing in some of Peru’s poorest communities. 

Castillo may face daunting challenges, but he has already shown impressive political savvy and may turn out to be the leader who will succeed in steering Peru out of the Fujimori era of neoliberalism and conservatism and into a new era of progressivism. As Castillo and his team pursue this formidable task, they can find inspiration in the writings of the great Peruvian socialist thinker José Carlos Mariátegui, and learn from both the achievements and the errors of recent left-wing administrations in Bolivia, Ecuador, and elsewhere in Latin America. 

In order to succeed, Castillo will require at least two things. First, he will need a broad and strong union of Peru’s left-wing forces, following the example of the left alliance that backed him during the presidential campaign. Second, Castillo will need the support and solidarity of progressive governments and movements throughout the world. Already, the left governments of Argentina, Bolivia, and Mexico, among others, have shown their support for Castillo. Now it’s time for progressives in both the Global South and Global North to connect with and support Peru’s historically isolated left as it works to lift Peru out of its dismal past.

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