By Adrián Lerner Matteo Stiglich
The newly elected left wing President of Peru Pedro Castillo is facing tough challenges from the right as also the corporate media in implementing his pro-people agenda.The Marxist leader gave an unconventional speech in his swearing in ceremony on July 28 this year reminding the nation that he belonged to the deprived and he would look after the interests of the indigenous people with all earnestness during his tenure in presidency. But as the President has started taking action on his promises, the vested interests from the urban areas, are up against him and his just formed cabinet of ministers.
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.
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.
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.”
A major 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.
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. (IPA Service)
Courtesy: Jacobin Magazine