In Peru, the Knives Are Already Out for Pedro Castillo

Pedro Castillo passed his first hurdle as president of Peru recently when he won congressional approval for his left-wing cabinet. To keep his momentum and defeat the right-wing opposition, he now needs to build his popular support in the streets.

Peruvian president Pedro Castillo delivers a speech during a ceremony on July 29 at Pampa de la Quinua, Ayacucho, where the last battle against the Spanish royalists was won in 1824. (ERNESTO BENAVIDES/AFP via Getty Images)

The man with the longest name in the room, Felipe Juan Pablo Alfonso de Todos los Santos de Borbón y Grecia, could be forgiven if he did not care too much for Pedro Castillo’s maiden presidential speech. The inauguration of Peru’s new president took place on July 28, 2021, marking the two hundredth anniversary of the country’s proclamation of independence from Spain. King Philip VI of Spain — the man with the long name — looked on glumly as a peasant, rural schoolteacher, community patrol member, and union leader from one of Peru’s poorest provinces assumed the highest office in the country that had once been the crown jewel of the Spanish Empire.

Wearing his trademark straw hat and a liqui liqui — the traditional northern Andes outfit that has become a staple among Pink Tide heads of state — Castillo took an unconventional approach to the swearing-in speech. Rather than focusing on the drama surrounding his electoral triumph over far-right candidate and notoriously sore loser Keiko Fujimori, Castillo offered a history lesson.

After greeting his fellow heads of state and “His Majesty the King of Spain,” Castillo spoke on behalf his “brothers of Indigenous ancestry in pre-Hispanic Peru, my Quechua, Aymara, and Amazonian brothers, the Afro-Peruvians and the many communities of immigrant ancestry, as well as the dispossessed minorities in the countryside and in the cities. Today, we all say: kashkaniracmi. We still exist.” He spoke of lands inhabited by “cultures and civilizations” that “for four and a half millennia solved their problems and lived in harmony with what nature offered them,” only to be interrupted by “the men from Castile,” who “established the castes and differences that persist to this day.”

The speech then traced three centuries of colonial exploitation, resource extraction, and a repressive “racial regime” that “subordinated the majority of the Indigenous inhabitants of this rich country.” Independence and the subsequent 200 years of republican rule hardly improved the lives of the Indigenous majority. That history, Castillo continued, is changing: “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 that belongs, like many Peruvians, to the sectors that have been oppressed for so many centuries.”

It would be easy, as some have, to dismiss Castillo’s speech as the demagoguery of a populist — capable of delivering potent symbols but short on demonstrable intent to affect large-scale social change. With so much uncertainty in Peru these days, no one is ready to completely discount the latter possibility. But few among even the most skeptical observers would deny the importance of Castillo’s election, which is indeed a historic, and perhaps even history-changing.

Peru is a country where class and race are inextricably linked and pervade all aspects of life, and it is no coincidence that it took two centuries for a peasant with Indigenous roots — the majority population for much of Peru’s history — to reach the nation’s highest office. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc in Peru and the glaring lack of public services has given lie to the commonly held wisdom that the country is a South American economic success story. Facing one of its worst economic and humanitarian crises, Peru is ripe for change.

The real question is whether Castillo has the political will, support, and savvy to pursue an agenda capable of seizing the historical opportunity and affecting social change in Peru. To do so, Castillo faces three main challenges: keeping his government coalition together, outmaneuvering a ruthless right-wing opposition, and galvanizing his base while broadening government support. More often than not, these challenges will come down to the minutiae of everyday politics rather than ideological grandstanding. The success — and survival — of any democratic government in Peru often has more to do with navigating a minefield of petty corruption scandals, glad-handing key allies, and projecting an image of strength while under constant siege.

A Regional Coalition in the Capital

The first challenge for the left-wing administration is to form and hold together a strong government coalition. Castillo is an eminently pragmatic politician though: his rise to national prominence as a leader of the teachers’ union was built around alliances with sectors ranging across the political spectrum.

Although Castillo ran as the presidential candidate for Perú Libre, a Marxist party based in Junín and led by Vladimir Cerrón, he only joined the party in late 2020. Castillo’s walk-on candidacy reflects a flimsy party system in Peru, but it actually helped when the time came to be flexible in assembling a winning electoral coalition: an array of leftist and progressive forces publicly supported him during the second round in his narrow defeat of Keiko Fujimori.

The political establishment in Lima alleges that Perú Libre president Cerrón, currently accused of corruption, has too strong a hand in the still-forming Castillo government. But the composition of the cabinet so far tells a different story. Three ministers, including Guido Bellido, the leader of the cabinet, are indeed longtime members of the Marxist-Leninist Perú Libre party. Another three, however, are schoolteachers and closer to Castillo. A larger group of ministers come from other left-wing parties that supported Castillo during elections, while several ministries are held by independents and organizers from regions outside Peru’s capital of Lima.

The regional character of Castillo’s cabinet, drawn heavily from outside Lima, is perhaps the real sticking point for the Peruvian political establishment. While there has been some deserved criticism that the government includes only two women, critics — in Lima especially — tellingly overlook the fact that Castillo’s cabinet represents a sea change in political representation: while 60 percent of the ministers from the seven previous government’s cabinets were born in Lima, Castillo has inverted that tendency, with nearly 70 percent of his ministers born outside the capital.

It is, however, a fragile governing coalition, and Castillo’s first days in office have been a decidedly mixed bag. The swearing-in ceremony for the cabinet of ministers was gridlocked: normally the whole cabinet is sworn in together, but, without explanation, the process was divided into two rounds — and then three. On July 29, Perú Libre’s Bellido was sworn in as prime minister in Pampa de la Quinua, Ayacucho, where the last battle against the Spanish royalists was won by the independence army in 1824 — an important symbolic gesture that the king of Spain, unsurprisingly, did not attend.

The swearing-in ceremony for the rest of the cabinet was planned for the evening of the 29. But even then, two key posts were still unannounced: finance and justice ministers. The finance portfolio, in particular, was deemed critical for the government’s ability to “send positive signs” to “anxious market forces.” Pedro Francke, a widely respected progressive economist from former presidential candidate Verónika Mendoza’s team had been mooted for the position during the election, and his campaign support for Castillo was considered a decisive factor influencing a tight election. Ultimately, Francke assumed the finance post and Aníbal Torres, a noted legal scholar, became the justice minister. But that delay was perceived by many as a sign of internal chaos and improvisation, an inexplicable hesitancy to make what for many was the obvious choice.

Demonstrators in support of Pedro Castillo’s government gather outside Congress in Lima, Peru, on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. (Angela Ponce / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

There remains room for changes and reconciliations, as well as new tensions, in a sometimes motley coalition. For example, sectors of the Left have criticized Bellido for past derogatory comments about gay people and women — he has also issued sympathetic statements about the Shining Path. By contrast, Pedro Francke appeared at his swearing-in with a rainbow-flag pin and swore in the name of “equality of opportunities, without distinctions for gender, ethnic identity or sexual orientation.” The next day, Bellido’s office released a statement promising to overcome “machismo and homophobia,” among other forms of discrimination. In later interviews, Bellido confessed that he comes from a community where gender roles are traditional, but that he is open to “learning.”

Meanwhile, the Peruvian press has been at pains — and ultimately failing — to brand the newly appointed cabinet as stocked with frenzied radicals bent on stoking social conflict. In the first days of his tenure, Prime Minister Bellido personally led a delegation to Chumbivilcas, Cusco, to act as mediator in a long-standing conflict between local Indigenous communities and the massive Las Bambas copper-mining project, located in neighboring Apurímac. A native of Cusco himself, Bellido was photographed riding a horse and establishing direct communication with the local peoples, with whom he spoke fluent Quechua — an unusual gesture coming from a Peruvian prime minister. Bellido managed to broker an impressive truce between the communities, showing that a cabinet perceived as prone to conflict and radicalism might be the opposite: more capable than any other government of intervening and resolving social tensions outside Peru’s capital.

The Smell of Blood

The second challenge facing Castillo’s government comes from an overtly hostile opposition. The government coalition only holds 42 out of 130 congressional seats (37 of them for Perú Libre). Even if it could reach an agreement with some centrist group, that would only deliver nine seats — the Right would still be the majority vote.

The last five years of Peruvian politics have been the most unstable in decades, since the end of the Fujimori dictatorship in 2001. At the heart of that instability is the ongoing conflict between the executive and legislative branches: congressional opposition majorities have resorted to impeaching ministers or whole cabinets, while past presidents have shut down Congress and called for new elections in response. Former president Martín Vizcarra did so most recently in 2020, only to become the victim of a parliamentary coup months later.

Despite the mixed nature of Castillo’s cabinet, critics have claimed that it was assembled for the express purpose of “clashing” with the opposition (called a gabinete de choque), the idea being that a calculated deadlock could lead the conflict to a terminal phase where a call for congressional elections was inevitable. The opposition has responded in kind by calling for Castillo’s impeachment even before he assumed office. Having failed in that enterprise, their new goal was to either give a vote of no confidence to the cabinet or, that failing, subject every minister to individual congressional inquiry and effectively stall government appointments, as was done by the majority Fujimorista Congress in 2016–19.

Unfortunately, there has already been one political casualty: Héctor Béjar, an eighty-five-year-old veteran of the 1960s guerrilla movement who had been appointed as minister of foreign affairs. A committed democratic socialist lacking in diplomatic experience — and with a long history of controversial statements — Béjar was always an obvious weak flank for the government, and the right-wing-dominated Congress was quick to cite him for questioning. Even before then, the media had been digging through old statements of Béjar, including ones where he claimed that the left-wing armed group the Shining Path was a product of the CIA and that the long history of “terrorism” in Peru began with the country’s own naval forces.

A reactionary, antidemocratic institution, the Peruvian Navy immediately condemned Béjar’s declarations. The following day, Béjar tendered his resignation, which the government quickly accepted. Within hours, the right-wing opposition was publicly speaking about impeaching other ministers.

In a country like Peru, where civilian-military relations have defined much of the country’s modern political history, this is not a good sign. It is an especially bad precedent for the conflict between the government and a congressional opposition that will likely interpret Béjar’s dismissal as a sign of weakness, and double down on its attempt to topple several ministers — and ultimately Castillo himself, making use of the constitutional article that allows Congress to depose the president on grounds of “moral incapacity.” This would be completely in keeping with the congressional coup tactics that have become all too common in Latin American politics.

There is little the government can do — within the confines of institutional politics — to overcome an obstructionist parliament. Some had advocated for appointing a more moderate cabinet. But even if Castillo did so, that would not solve the problem of being a minority in Congress. Moreover, a move to the center could signal to supporters that Castillo is repeating the sin of previous president Ollanta Humala, who ran on a progressive platform offering change in 2011 and ultimately ended up reproducing the status quo as president.

That debate, for the time being, seems to have been sidelined as Castillo’s government passed its first major hurdle on August 27: after a highly anticipated two-day session, Congress gave a vote of confidence to Bellido’s left-wing cabinet. Consistent with the country’s entrenched regional divide, Lima-based congressional representatives voted 21 to 11 against the vote of confidence, while in the rest of the country support stood at 63 in favor and 27 against.

With echoes of Castillo’s powerful inaugural address, Bellido delivered his first speech as prime minister in Quechua, the language of Indigenous Peruvians — much to the dismay of opposition members who booed and demanded he speak in Spanish. He ended his speech, still in Quechua, on a strong note, dedicating his swearing-in ceremony “to all those Peruvians who died without ever understanding a word said in this Congress.” Many felt that behind the solemnity of Bellido’s words was a veiled threat: if the majority-conservative Congress based in Lima digs in, the Castillo government is willing to rally the peasant and Indigenous majority of the hinterland to its aid.

A Government on the March

The specter of Humala’s failure still hangs over the third challenge to the Castillo government: to maintain its progressive vision by keeping its base active, while also widening popular support. Worth recalling, the last presidential election was highly polarized along regional lines: rural areas, especially in the Andean highlands, voted overwhelmingly for Castillo, whereas about two-thirds of voters in Lima supported right-wing candidate Fujimori.

The election was also drawn along class lines: in Lima and along the northern coast, together representing almost half of the population, the poorest sectors voted for Castillo, while all other groups — including large parts of the working class — went for Fujimori. In the south and the highlands, where about a third of the population live, only the upper and upper-middle classes voted for Fujimori. If it is to widen its base of support, the government needs to convince working-class and lower-middle-class inhabitants of Lima and the northern coastal region that the government is on their side.

Although striking a conciliatory tone could be useful, overt signs of moderation will put Castillo at risk of losing his base while by no means guaranteeing the capture of new sectors — especially in the face of a radicalized opposition. The key for Castillo will be to implement effective strategies to control the pandemic, which has especially ravaged Peruvian cities; develop a strong post-pandemic economic recovery plan; and issue a bold package of social provisions to a population that has seen its quality of life plummet in the last three to four years. Castillo must also keep alive the promise of a constitutional assembly to overturn the 1993 Constitution imposed by the authoritarian Fujimori regime, even if it is not yet clear how — or if — that goal can be achieved.

Another uncertainty is to what extent Castillo can call on the social constituencies that supported his election to now rally behind him in the streets. Perú Libre lacks the organizational depth to galvanize supporters on a national level, and, despite a wealth of localized protests and social conflicts, modern Peru has a weak tradition when it comes to the type of nationwide mobilization that has sustained Pink Tide governments.

Rather than a nationwide movement, a more plausible scenario is one where supporters could convene on Lima (which has seen its share of intense protest movements since 2020). In the tense aftermath of the election, for example, Castillo’s supporters came streaming in from outside Lima — often from the country’s poorest regions — to make their presence felt in the nation’s capital. As Fujimori and the Peruvian elite mounted a baseless campaign to allege election fraud and void the results, Castillo supporters took to streets to defend the democratic process.

A once-stigmatized, now politically confident and proud left-wing base marching into Lima from Peru’s highlands is essentially the Peruvian ruling class’s worst nightmare. For the government, it might be a matter of survival.

The Peruvian political establishment has fixated on Castillo’s supposedly inevitable drift toward left-wing authoritarianism in the so-called Chavista mold. However, as several observers have pointed out, the government’s polling numbers pale in comparison to their Pink Tide counterparts’ at the height of their popularity. Some left-wing sectors worry that, if frustrated in its pursuit of progressive initiatives like a constitutional assembly, the government might default to some of its more illiberal tendencies (law-and-order measures like forced military service, for example).

The most immediate danger, however, is that the right-wing manages to bring Castillo down. If there is one single scenario with the potential to unleash the full wrath of all of Peruvian society and plunge the country into a full-blown crisis, it would be the establishment deciding to cut down a progressive administration that, for all its potential limitations, had the gall to stand up to centuries of domination and humiliation.