The Guardian • Issue #1966

“The people have awakened”

Peru elects a left-wing president

Peruvian presidential candidate for the radical leftist party Peru Libre (Free Peru), Pedro Castillo, gives the thumb up as he holds up a giant pencil during the closing rally of his campaign in Lima on April 8, 2021. - Castillo 51-year-old school teacher native of Cajamarca, aspires to surprise the elections in Peru, after leaving anonymity in 2017 by leading a long strike by the teachers. He gained prominence with options to move on to the decisive second round, during the electoral debates, according to the polls. (Photo by Gian MASKO / AFP) (Photo by GIAN MASKO/AFP via Getty Images)

Pedro Castillo has been confirmed as the next President of Peru after a neck and neck election, defeating Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of previous right-wing president Alberto Fujimori. Castillo, a former public-school teacher and socialist, is a strong union leader who came to prominence during a 2017 teachers’ strike. He ran as a candidate for the Partido Político Nacional Perú Libre (Free Peru National Political Party) or Free Peru for short, a self-described “left-wing socialist organisation” that embraces Marxism-Leninism and Mariáteguism, the latter being named after the legendary revolutionary José Carlos Mariátegui, one of the founders and pioneers of socialism in Latin America. Free Peru pursues a platform that values democracy, decentralisation, internationalism, self-determination, and anti-imperialism. This represents a significant left-wing victory in Latin America.

This election has occurred in one of the most tumultuous periods of Peru’s recent history. The country has been one of the worst affected by the COVID-19 pandemic which has highlighted, as in many other countries around the world, the increasing wealth disparity and class antagonisms there. This is the fifth time in as many years Peruvians have gone to the ballot box to vote for a president. Castillo’s campaign pledged to rewrite the Constitution and redistribute the wealth from Peru’s predominantly copper-rich mining sector. As Americas Quarterly put it:

“Castillo’s economic proposals have caused alarm and uncertainty among Peru’s economic elites, who fear his presidency will be the end of the free market economic model that has been in place in Peru since the 1990s.”

This free-market model saw Peru struggle under the classic policies of neoliberalism. Foreign companies have profited from mining, oil, and gas extraction, while domestically healthcare and education have been privatised.

Peru shares a land border with several other Latin American countries that have been increasingly resistant to the neoliberal policies that have dominated the region over the past several decades. It is situated next to Bolivia headed by Luis Acre (Acre is the head of Evo Morales’ Movement for Socialism party), Colombia under extreme right, narco terrorist Iván Duque (the country has seen a recent round of mass protests against him), right-wing billionaire Sebastián Piñera in Chile, right-wing leader Guillermo Lasso in Ecuador, and finally, is separated from Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela by Colombia. All these countries (barring Ecuador) share a border with Jair Bolsanaro’s right-wing government in Brazil (for more detailed analyses of these countries see Guardian “Colombia resists the shackles of neoliberalism” #1961; “The US’ unilateral coercive policies and the truth about Venezuela” #1963; “Lula cleared to run against Bolsonaro after Supreme Court ruling” #1958).

Successive Peruvian governments have clashed violently with unions and various left-wing groups, including the Maoist Shining Path. In the 1980s, the military trained and organised peasants into anti-Shining Path militias called “rondas.” Despite being armed by the state, the militias were usually poorly equipped. Nevertheless, they were used to attack Shining Path areas, whose members used guerrilla-style tactics in the countryside. Extreme right Alberto Fujimori, during his ten-year presidency (1990-2000), launched a vicious assault on the Shining Path. He legalised the rondas in 1991 and renamed them Comités de auto defensa (“Committees of Self-Defense”). With this newfound legal status, they received further military training and equipment from the Peruvian army, often being supplied with 12-gauge shotguns. Then, Fujimori began using the actual military against Shining Path. The brutality of this repression, which included excessive use of force, torture, arbitrary executions (often of completely innocent civilians), and the destruction of entire villages, would eventually turn public support away from Fujimori.

Fujimori’s Presidency finally came to an end after he was sentenced to seven and half years’ imprisonment for embezzlement – he had taken $15mil out of the Peruvian treasury to give to his intelligence service chief, Vladimiro Montesinos. After also pleading guilty to bribery, he received an additional six-year term. Once this scandal had broken, Fujimori was forced to resign by the Peruvian Congress after fleeing the country and trying to resign from Japan via fax. Eventually, he returned to Peru where in 2009, he ended up with a 25-year prison sentence after being convicted of human rights violations for his role in killings and kidnappings perpetrated by the Grupo Colina death squad (another paramilitary group) in the 1990s against various leftist groups. He received a presidential pardon in 2017 from Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, however, following Kuczynski’s resignation, he was put back in custody to serve the rest of his 25-year sentence which is due to end in 2031.

This vicious history of violence against left-wing groups is what makes Castillo’s victory all the more significant. The Peruvian Electoral Authority announced the final results as follows: Castillo came out on top with 50.12 per cent of the vote, while Keiko Fujimori, a hair’s breadth behind, had 49.87 per cent. This works out to be a difference of only 44,058 votes in a country where voting is mandatory. Fujimori claims Castillo had committed electoral fraud, though national and international observers have concluded that there is no substance behind this claim.

The geographic division in Peru between the rural population and the urban centres (particularly the capital, Lima) has a longstanding political history. It wasn’t until a constitutional change in 1979 that illiterate people were allowed to vote, removing a bar to rural participation in elections. While the country’s overall wealth has increased, the Buenos Aires Times reported that rural provinces remain impoverished. This has come into particularly sharp focus as Peru has been one of the countries hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic. It has the highest death rates per capita in the world from the virus, which is largely due to the inadequate services of its privatised healthcare system. Unsurprisingly, mass inequality led many rural voters, representing a much larger demographic than the urban centres, towards Castillo, whose platform included the nationalisation of essential services. Equally unsurprisingly, opinion polls showed wealthy Peruvians in the urban areas favoured Keiko Fujimori.

Castillo will be facing a series of immediate problems in the wake of the election, both domestically and internationally. Given the extremely slim margin, Fujimori retains the right to call for a recount and refuses to concede at time of writing. Noam Chomsky, Roger Waters, and Vijay Prashad have signed an open letter calling for Castillo’s victory to be recognised, and for Fujimori to stop slowing down the process through “malicious lawsuits”. They stated, “We stand with the people of Peru and against the lawfare coup in process before our very eyes.”

This claim of “lawfare” is no idle phrase, People’s Dispatch reported than within hours of the election results becoming available, Fujimori’s legal team, which is comprised of a significant number of top lawyers in the country, “filed 134 challenges within the window of opportunity; they have another 811 challenges in hand.” These are purposefully being used to bog down the declaration of victory and furthermore, to discredit one of the core parts of Castillo’s voting base, Peru’s indigenous communities.

Should Castillo remain in office Peru will undoubtedly become the target of US imperialism, as is their habit in the region, to protect international corporate interests in the resource-rich country. Even a cursory glance at the history of South America demonstrates the vicious lengths the US will go to in order to ensure their interests are protected. The strength and success of a left-wing party does not simply stop at an electoral victory, it lies in its ability to remain steadfast in the face of the inevitable reactionary forces. The real battle is to come. However, as Castillo told a crowd in Lima in the days leading up to the election, “the people have awakened.”

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