Following on the heels of 2020’s massive anti-neoliberal street protests, Peruvians went to the polls on April 11 with no clear outcome expected. Seven presidential candidates, according to opinion surveys, were locked in a virtual tie.
The outcome, however, managed to shock observers throughout the region. The winner, by a four-point margin, was Pedro Castillo, a trade unionist and left-wing candidate for the Perú Libre (Free Peru) party. As recently as March, Castillo was polling at just 2 percent and, perhaps more importantly, he was still a complete unknown to most of the Peruvian left.
So unlikely was Castillo’s first round triumph that CNN failed to locate a photo of the candidate in time to announce his victory.
The television network did however have photos of the two candidates competing for a second place runoff spot: Keiko Fujimori and Hernando de Soto. Fujimori and de Soto are very familiar to Peruvians. De Soto, an economist, was the architect of Peru’s 1990 neoliberal shock program under President Alberto Fujimori.
Congresswoman Keiko Fujimori, the daughter and political heiress of Alberto, is now the leading purveyor of the nation’s unique brand of harsh neoliberal bootstrap populism — and a staunch defender of her father’s criminal human rights abuses.
The combined candidacies of de Soto and Fujimori represents all that is wrong with Peru today — the simple fact that June’s runoff election will not be a contest between two Fujimori-inspired politicians (extreme right-winger Rafael López Aliaga was also in the mix) is itself reason for celebration.
But as election results are finally confirming that Keiko Fujimori will make it to the next round one thing is clear: “Fujimorismo” is still alive as a dangerous political force in the country. That’s why almost everyone on the divided Peruvian is turning to the enigmatic Pedro Castillo.
A Tale of Two Lefts
Until just a week ago the Left had been placing its hopes on a very different kind of candidate. Verónika Mendoza, a telegenic and articulate progressive politician, was thought to be the best chance to channel rising anti-neoliberal sentiment into a viable presidential contender.
Having narrowly missed out on a second round spot in 2016, the thinking was that Mendoza’s time had finally come: Amid mounting outrage with mismanagement of the COVID pandemic (Peru currently has one of the world’s highest death rates) and widespread defection from traditional party politics, it was thought that the historically unprecedented 50 percent of undecided voters would ultimately break in her favor.
Mendoza’s performance in televised debates seemed to reinforce the idea that her star was on the rise: More than 60 percent of viewers agreed that Mendoza was the victor, apparently warming to her message of agrarian reform, progressive tax reform, and scrapping the free-market constitution inherited from the Fujimori era.
But, as the Peruvian socialist Alberto Flores Galindo liked to say, “Peru is a nation without citizens.” While Mendoza performed well among middle-class sectors and the relatively enfranchised in Lima, the nation’s capital, she failed to make important inroads in the nations marginalized south and center. It was there — in the selva y sierra, the historically neglected and stigmatized hinterland — that Castillo not only outperformed Mendoza, but all other center-left options.
Indeed, though the southern Andean region has historically been of vital importance for the Peruvian left — the last time it mounted a credible electoral challenge was there in 1985, when the United Left, a coalition of Marxist and socialist parties, swept the area and threatened to compete in a runoff with eventual winner Alan Garcia.
In hindsight, Mendoza’s candidacy was burdened by the need to appeal across a sharp sociocultural and geographic divide. While running a slick digital campaign with impactful social media spots, her messaging was often torn between an emphasis on progressive social issues — closer to the concerns of urbane Limeños — and the core interests of the nation’s rural peasant and Quechua-speaking communities.
Castillo, who did not even have a Twitter account, ran a more classic political campaign driven by in-person rallies that started from the countryside and worked slowly toward the capital — reflecting his emphasis on rural Peru.
Perhaps most remarkably, the centerpieces of both candidates’ platforms were quite similar: Mendoza and Castillo alike called for a “second agrarian reform,” in reference to General Juan Velasco Alvarado’s unfulfilled 1969 revolution against semi-feudal land concentration; each put a constitutional assembly at the center of their campaign, emphasizing the need to scrap Fujimori’s 1992 constitution (responsible, among other things, for privatizing basic social provisions); and the nationalization of the key industries responsible for Peru’s commodity-led boom and bust cycle (Mendoza would later walk back some of those demands).
In sum, each candidate put forward a platform that would not be out place in one of the of many Pink Tide governments — Castillo simply did so in a more strident matter, occasionally dabbling in the Marxist language of “land expropriation,” whereas Mendoza remained more moderate in her messaging.
Where the candidates do differ significantly is also where the Peruvian left is now most divided. On almost all counts where Mendoza cut a unique figure in Peruvian politics for her embrace of socially progressive causes — same-sex marriage, decriminalization of abortion, support for cultural diversity, and environmentalism — Castillo took deeply, if not atypically, illiberal stances.
Who Is Pedro Castillo?
Before becoming a schoolteacher and trade union leader, Castillo was a rondero — a Peruvian colloquialism for peasant-led self-defense patrols formed in the 1970s. Amid the bloody internal war waged between the Maoist Shining Path and the Peruvian state in the 1980s and ’90s, those groups often assumed state-sponsored militia duties (particularly under Alberto Fujimori).
Despite the incongruities, many on the Peruvian left cite that background and the fact that Castillo has issued equivocal messages about MOVADEF, the Shining Path–associated political organization, as an indictment of the politician’s ultra-leftism and his proclivity for military solutions to political matters. (Perú Libre’s political manual, drafted by party leader Vladimir Cerrón, does in fact stipulate that the autonomy of the peasant ronda militias would be respected.)
The fact that Castillo has issued incendiary statements about the need to dissolve Congress and eliminate the Peruvian Constitutional Court — two unpopular public institutions — further inflames concerns that the current front-runner is a frenzied authoritarian.
But it is important to situate Pedro Castillo’s rhetoric and positions in the context of his background. He first came to prominence in 2017 as the leader of a nationwide rank-and-file teacher strike demanding funds for education and improved wages. The dramatic action, against the neoliberal education reform measures of President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, proved to be one of the most significant in recent times — particularly noteworthy considering the lingering effects of Fujimori’s efforts to bring all trade union activity to heel. In retrospect, the 2017 strike can be read as part of a wave of building social momentum that eventually erupted in anti-neoliberal protests last December.
From 2005 to 2017 Castillo was affiliated with Perú Posible, a centrist catchall party led by the former president Alejandro Toledo. In 2017 he joined his current party, Perú Libre. Perú Libre proudly claims to be a Marxist-Leninist formation and essentially proposes a conventional left-wing program centered around increased spending on education and health services, the nationalization of key extractive sectors, and a host of anti-corruption measures like salary limits for congressional members. The party belongs to the São Paulo Forum along with organizations like Brazil’s Workers’ Party and Argentina’s Peronist coalition Frente de Todos.
The real sticking point for large parts of the Peruvian left has to do with Castillo’s pronounced social conservatism. Their distrust, however, needs to be placed in its right context.
Fondly referred to by supporters as the candidate for “deep Peru,” the country’s provincial interior has been the source of some strange political ventures in recent history. These include Antauro Humala’s Ethnocacerist movement, a purportedly Marxist-Leninist organization that advocates for military conflict with neighboring Chile and promotes an ethnically based vision of Peruvian nationalism based on Quechua supremacy.
The fact that Castillo has openly claimed that, if elected, he will release Humala from prison — currently serving a sentence for leading the 2000 military revolt against Fujimori — has raised eyebrows. As has Castillo’s embrace of anti-immigrant — specifically anti-Venezuelan — rhetoric.
Castillo opposes the legalization of abortion, same-sex marriage, and policies promoting gender equality — a stance unremarkable on its face given those same positions, in one form or another, are common to many of the region’s progressive leaders.
But Peru is also, along with Brazil, one of the Latin American countries where religious fundamentalism has made the biggest inroads into national politics. Rafael López Aliaga of the Popular Renewal party almost made it into the second round by branding himself the “Peruvian Bolsonaro,” and Peru is home base for the “Con mi hijo no te metas” campaign, a continent-wide propaganda movement that incites hatred against women and the LGBT community.
The Agricultural People’s Front of Peru (FREPAP) failed to cross the 5 percent threshold required to win congressional seats, but the bizarre millenarian cult promoting Christian theocracy and indigenous supremacy remains an important political player.
Unlike other segments of the Left in the country, Castillo hasn’t shown a willingness to critique these formations.
Fujimori Nunca Más
But despite these misgivings, the Left has a historic opportunity in the second round to deal a decisive blow to Fujimorismo and its current standard bearer, Keiko Fujimori. A Castillo victory in June would not only prevent Fujimori from coming to power, it would also tear at the seams of a loose-knit right-wing alliance in Congress that is held together by Fujimori’s Popular Force.
Fujimorismo is the glue holding together a motley group of right-wing political currents, tilting the entire political balance toward its particular strain of corrupt authoritarian neoliberalism.
Just as importantly, Fujimori, the candidate, is at a historical nadir. Whereas she made the runoff elections in 2016 with 35 percent of the vote, in 2021 she squeaked by with just 13 percent (largely aided by an unprecedented level of voter fragmentation).
In opinion polls, Fujimori is the most unpopular politician in Peru; the fact that the Fujimori phenomenon has splintered and ramified into multiple different far-right electoral options only serves to underscore that now is the time to strike down its major figurehead and prevent the rightward drift of the Peruvian electorate.
If Keiko Fujimori is uniquely weak, she has also become unprecedentedly candid in her support of her father’s dictatorial legacy. Faced with diminishing returns and growing rejection of an illegitimate economic model — which her father imposed by presidential fiat — her campaign strategy has been to publicly defend his record of state-sponsored extra-judicial killings and to call for Bolsonaro-esque solutions to public safety.
There’s currently a good deal of speculation as to whether Verónika Mendoza — and the progressive Left — will lend their support to Castillo. But those concerns are either disingenuous or naïve, especially considering Mendoza supported the candidacy of center-right Pedro Pablo Kuczynski against Keiko Fujimori in 2016.
Yet there is a rational kernel to Mendoza’s seeming reluctance to support Castillo. It’s informed by her own experience as a former supporter of Ollanta Humala (brother of the ethnocacerist Antauro Humala). Mendoza points out that Castillo is not as unique as some commentators make him out to be: Humala won the presidency with a number of similar campaign slogans, filled with gestures toward Hugo Chávez and invocations of Peru’s left-wing land-reforming general Juan Velasco Alvarado.
Reminding that Humala’s putative left-wing project immediately capsized under pressure from Peru’s business class, Mendoza’s point is that Castillo not only has to lead the anti-Fujimori line, he also needs to make a compelling case that he is something more than the “lesser-evil” candidate. Only by presenting a convincing and viable progressive reform program can he conjure the other ghost of modern Peruvian politics: perpetual lesser-evilism.
Following two decades of voting for the anti-Fujimori candidate, regardless of political stripe, the only thing Peru has to show for it is the reality that every single former president has been tried and convicted of corruption charges. If anything, 2020’s ferocious street protests against corruption was the clearest signal that the decades-long rule of lesser-evilism will no longer cut it.
Pedro Castillo is sometimes compared to former Bolivian president Evo Morales — a strained comparison that probably speaks more to Morales’s widespread popularity in Peru’s Andean region than Castillo’s credentials as a popular movement leader.
But though his politics couldn’t be more different, as an outsider candidate, Castillo is actually more like Alberto Fujimori. Like Castillo, Fujimori was the ultimate dark horse candidate when, in 1990, he emerged from complete anonymity to defeat one of Peru’s most iconic public figures, writer Mario Vargas Llosa.
A victory for Castillo would not only recall that remarkable upset, it would deal a crucial blow to Fujimori’s beleaguered legacy and potentially awaken Peru from the endless nightmare of Fujimorismo.