Peru holds the current record for revolving presidents (three came and went in a month last November), for coronavirus deaths (almost 6,000 per million), and for the youngest-looking president (seen from afar, under his trademark 20-gallon straw hat, he looks like a 13-year-old boy). But appearances are deceiving.
Pedro Castillo, inaugurated as president last week, is actually 51 years old. The coronavirus death toll is so high because the Peruvians are telling the truth about what happened: the real numbers for places like India and Brazil are probably worse. And Peruvian elections are actually quite clean. It’s the politics that’s dirty.
So dirty that every single president since 1985 has been impeached or jailed for corruption and other offences, except one still awaiting trial, one under house arrest, and one awaiting extradition from the United States. (But note that this suggests the rule of law does survive in Peru.)
Even Keiko Fujimori, the hard-right presidential candidate who came within 40,000 votes (out of 19 million) of beating Pedro Castillo in the run-off election in June, has been in and out of jail in the past two years over allegations of money laundering. (Her father, ex-president Alberto Fujimori, is doing 25 years in jail for corruption and human rights abuses.)
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Yet amidst all this, the June election was judged to be free and fair by observers from the Organization of American States, the European Union and the U.S. State Department. Everybody waited patiently for more than a month while the votes were counted and court challenges by Fujimori were dismissed. And in the end she didn’t do a Trump. She accepted the result.
A better performance than some countries could boast – but last Friday Castillo triggered a new panic. He has little political experience, and until 2017 was a high school principal in a poor town in the Andes. Then he led a teachers’ strike and became nationally known, but the first political advisers he took on were mostly devout Marxists.
Poor and indigenous Peruvians, Castillo’s natural political audience, are mostly on the left, but classic Marxism is not their dish of choice. Almost 70,000 people, most of them poor, indigenous highlanders, were killed during in the long war waged by the Maoist Shining Path rebels in the 1980s and 1990s, and nobody wants that back.
So Castillo began moderating his language during the election campaign. Once he was going to nationalize everything in sight; now he will just tax foreign mining companies more heavily. He talked about rewriting the constitution, but he has fewer than a third of the seats in Congress. Nevertheless the business elite and the whole middle class are in a flat panic.
“There’s one candidate who’s a leap into the void and could set us back 50 years, and on the other side is the dictator’s daughter,” said Peruvian novelist Carlos Dávalos. “It’s a choice between dying of hunger and dying of indignity.” And the best-known writer of the previous generation, Mario Vargas Llosa, said Fujimori was “the lesser of two evils.”
They do love their drama, the Peruvian middle classes, so they all spun out last week when Castillo chose Guido Bellido, a far-left Marxist politician, as his prime minister. But Castillo is a fast learner: on Saturday he announced that his finance minister will be a former World Bank technocrat, Pedro Francke.
It closely resembles the great flutter in the middle- and upper-class dovecote when Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva, the Brazilian left-wing icon, won his first presidential election in the 2002 election – and it all turned out fine. He went on to win a second term, and it was the best eight years Brazil ever had.
I first interviewed Lula about 15 years before that, when he was still a horny-handed son of toil leading a car-workers’ union in the ABC industrial district south of Sao Paulo, and at that point he too spouted a good deal of Marxist rhetoric. But he learned what really works to advance the interests of his own people, and by the time he became president all that had gone.
Castillo has a much steeper learning curve to climb because he has only had three years, and he faces a Congress that will try to sabotage him at every turn. But he is both clever and charismatic, and he may learn enough, fast enough, to do some good. He certainly couldn’t do worse than most of his predecessors.
He may not be the same standard as Lula, but he could probably do as much good for the Indigenous half of Peru’s population as Evo Morales did for Indigenous Bolivians. And despite all the turbulence that attended and followed Morales’s presidential term, on balance he did a lot of good for his country’s impoverished and downtrodden Indigenous majority.