In an election judged free and fair (even by the US State Department), the 51-year-old Pedro Castillo emerged as the unlikely winner of Peru’s presidential race on 6 June. The former elementary school teacher from a small village in the northern region of Cajamarca narrowly edged out Keiko Fujimori in a runoff second ballot. Fujimori is the daughter of the notorious and corrupt former Peruvian dictator Alberto Fujimori, who is currently in prison for embezzlement. Keiko, with a much higher national profile than Castillo, is a perpetual candidate of the Right, which consistently claims electoral fraud (with little or no evidence) when she fails to gain the presidency. This was her third kick at the can.
Pedro Castillo’s roots are decidedly modest. For 24 years he taught at, and then became principal of, the village elementary school that he attended as a child, taking on a range of tasks including cleaning and cooking. Disheartened by the neglect of rural communities like his native Puna, particularly when it came to education, Castillo became a union activist and helped lead a national teachers’ strike in 2017.
In 2020 the leftist Peru Libre party asked Castillo to become their presidential candidate. He accepted. With his trademark white hat and slogan of ‘no more poor people in a rich country’, he surged in popularity. Castillo finished as the leading candidate among 18 first-round presidential hopefuls, securing 18 per cent of the vote. This pitted him against Fujimori, who was heavily bankrolled by big money and supported by the extractive industries (notably mining) that dominate the Peruvian economy. The assault on Castillo during the second round was relentless – he was variously accused of being a sympathizer of the ruthless Shining Path guerrilla movement that had plagued Peru in the 1980s or a dupe of the Cubans and Venezuelans set to ruin the Peruvian economy.
Castillo has manoeuvred to moderate some of his positions. Instead of bringing foreign monopolies into the public realm he called for greater regulation and renegotiating tax breaks to ensure ‘70 per cent of profits remain for the country and that they take 30 per cent, not the other way around’. He championed the expansion of health, education and internet services, particularly for rural Peruvians.
Castillo has played up his pragmatism in favour of a mixed economy, distancing himself from the Chavista strain of Latin American radical populism. He remains socially conservative, favouring traditional gender roles and opposing LGBTQ+ rights and the legalization of abortion. During the campaign he promised to deport migrants who had ‘come to commit crimes’.
It’s not going to be an easy ride for Castillo. His party has only 37 of the 130 seats in the fractured Peruvian congress. Even if Keiko’s attempt to overturn the election results fails, she and her far-right backers are well positioned to block Castillo at every turn. They could, indeed, create enough chaos to provoke some kind of military coup. But Castillo represents the best chance in decades for the poor majority of Peruvians, from the Andean highlands to the Amazonian lowlands, to assert their interests over the predation of international capital and its wealthy (and often corrupt) backers in Lima.