Understanding Pedro Castillo: A Guide for the Global North

Understanding Pedro Castillo: A Guide for the Global North

While results have not yet been officially announced, it is now a fact that Pedro Castillo, a rural farmer and schoolteacher from the town of Chota, in the northern Peruvian Andes, won Peru’s Presidential Election. Let me say this from the get-go: this is a historical moment. Peru is an immensely centralised, deeply racist country. Castillo’s meteoric rise to the top of electoral preferences in the first round of elections blindsided every single political scientist, electoral analyst, and political pundit both in Peru and abroad, leaving many trying to understand what this means for Peru and the region. Trying to account for the scarcity of information, analyses from the Global North are often overly simplified, superimposing some other paradigm (usually US politics) to an otherwise completely different political scenario, thereby inadvertedly reducing the Peruvian people’s agency and history to a footnote. In this post, I hope to offer a broader context, so that foreign observers can avoid the pitfalls of reductionism, where Castillo becomes a democratic socialist progressive, akin to Bernie Sanders and AOC, and his rival, Keiko Fujimori, becomes a family-values conservative or a Donald Trump. 

Of course, I do not claim to have all the answers – especially as a Criollo from Lima. As a Peruvian, though, I do know that Castillo’s election responds to a complex mesh of uniquely placed political, social, economic and ideological circumstances that are difficult to properly contextualise without a detailed knowledge of Peruvian society. What I am trying to do with this post is to start a conversation about how to respectfully approach a nation as complex and as deserving of nuanced analysis as any Western, Global North, democracy.

First, let’s start with the most important aspect of Castillo’s victory: he is a campesino – a rural farmer. In a country like Peru, this is revolutionary. As with all the Spanish American Empire, the colonial entity known as Peru was born out of white supremacy. The Spanish colonial structure was built on a racial caste system following the rule of “the whiter, the better”. White Spaniard (“Peninsulares”) and American-born, European-descendant “Criollos” ruled the Peruvian social pyramid, subjugating mixed-race “Mestizos” and outright enslaving indigenous and black people.

The history of how Peru, the colony, became Peru, the Republic, is the romanticised story of how one group of white people (the Criollos) overthrew another (the Peninsulares) in the name of (at least supposedly) freedom. In this narrative, the already independent Argentineans and Venezuelans sent their armies to “liberate” the oppressed peoples of the last bastion of Spanish imperialism in South America, joining forces with the liberal, freedom loving Peruvian Próceres, the Lima Criollos that fought for independence. This is, of course, a myth – but it is a myth that is told in every single Peruvian school. 

There is, instead, an alternative version of Peruvian history. One carefully excluded from the school curriculum, that tells a different story, this time, from the point of view of the indigenous peoples. In this recollection, the role of the Criollos is a lot less romantic. As Walker says, fearing an indigenous revolt and as major beneficiaries of Spanish colonialism, much of the Peruvian elite remained committed to the Royalist camp throughout much of the war (p. 106). In fact, they actively participated in supressing indigenous and Mestizo-led reformist and emancipatory movements throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries, including the massive, but often forgotten, Cuzco Rebellion of 1814. This is why independence had to come from abroad – it was a concession that Criollo Peruvians were willing to accept only because it came at the hands of fellow Criollo, Simón Bolivar, in 1824, not the Indio, Mateo Pumacahua, in 1814. 

While Criollo independence brought some social gains for some Mestizo Peruvians, it meant very little to Andean and Amazonian indigenous peoples, who continued to be oppressed and excluded from the legal system. Large agrarian haciendas existed in a state of Feudalism until the late 1960s, with wealthy gamonales owning not just the land, but the indigenous peoples that worked in them. Illiterate persons (a euphemism for rural and indigenous people) were disenfranchised until 1979. Indigenous communities did not secure an effective right to consultation on the exploitation of their land until 2011. In fact, Peruvian indigenous peoples have been fighting for their rights throughout the Republic, sometimes even through violent guerrilla insurrections. To this day, many Peruvian indigenous communities maintain that blocking the highways that connect Lima to the food-producing and mineral-rich areas of the Andes is the only way to get attention from Criollo institutions, that not only harass and abuse them, but that have also constructed a narrative where they are branded radical agitators manipulated by ideological and “Communist” foreign forces, often with deadly consequences. In fact, blocking highways became a felony in 2007.

It is in this context that Castillo’s rise to power is historical and immensely symbolic. He is not, I should point out, the first indigenous person to be elected President of Peru, but he is the first one who does so while living in the rural Andes as a campesino and schoolteacher. It is also what explains the vitriolic and racist reaction coming from a large part of Peru’s modern-day Criollos, led by Ms. Fujimori, who are currently attempting to overturn the results of the election by trying to annul some 200,000 rural votes from the Southern Andes with spurious arguments. The 19th-century fear of campesino revolution has simply been repackaged into a narrative of anti-Communism. The primordial panic – that these “others” are not fit to rule and should be kept in their place – remains the same two centuries later.

The symbolism of Castillo’s win, however, has made many in the Global North not even bother to take a more detailed look into his proposals and party. I have complained in the past of what I call a “US gaze” that removes Latin American agency by shovelling complicated political discussions into a US-centred paradigm that does not reflect the region’s reality. Pitting the Keiko-Castillo runoff as a battle between US-like progressivism and conservatism is as facile as arguing that US politics are about those who stand for “democracy” and those who stand for “republicanism”. Beyond the broader context of Peruvian history and social dynamics, both Keiko and Castillo ran on socially conservative and anti-human-rights platforms. Progressive groups like “People for Bernie”, the Progressive International, Democratic Socialists of America, or Code Pink, to name a few, have been running a clearly pro-Castillo campaign on social media and in Peru itself, despite some pretty hardcore disagreements with what he believes. Some, like Jacobin Magazine, have swept these views under the rug through a condescending view of the Andean world, calling his opposition to abortion, sex-same marriage and gender equality “unremarkable” given that (oxymoronically) those positions are “common to many of the region’s progressive leaders”.

Peru Libre (the party Pedro Castillo ran with) has a 77-page manifesto, written by its founder Vladimir Cerrón – a shady character who was barred from being the party’s candidate for the Presidency because of his pending corruption accusations. Chapter XIV of this manifesto is a two-page diatribe against the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and human rights treaties. “The greatest power in the planet, the United States of America”, it says, “promotes the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, through which it imparts justice based on its views and interests”. Confusing the Inter-American Court (based in Costa Rica) with the Inter-American Commission (based in Washington, DC), the manifesto argues that US support for the Commission, both with funds and a “majority of North American employees”, can only be explained because of its desire for “geopolitical domination”. For Castillo’s party, Inter-American institutions “are responsible for determining which parties comply with the standards of [the US’] ‘democracy’” and are the result of the US “fabricating its own theory, ideology and superstructure with regards to other countries in order to maintain neo-colonialism”. Because of this, Castillo wants to withdraw Peru from the American Convention on Human Rights (ironically, a plan he shares with his rival, Keiko Fujimori). Instead of the Inter-American System, Peru Libre believes Peru should only respect “the thirty human rights” contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a similar position to that of Raul Castro, who famously stated that Cuba complies with “forty seven human rights”. I cannot stress this enough: This is not a “common” view among Peruvian or even Latin American progressivism – let alone an “unremarkable” one. 

This is not an isolated issue, either. Peru Libre’s manifesto rallies against civil society organisations, calling NGO’s “organisations of other governments within our countries” and a mechanism for “thousands of mercenaries” to “control, manipulate the masses and orchestrate thousands of counterrevolutionary apparatuses”. Peru Libre also argues that “Socialism does not advocate for the freedom of the press, but for a press that is committed with the education and cohesion of its people”. Castillo himself has also shared troubling positions with regards to human rights in his rallies and debates. One of his key promises is to give a 72-hour ultimatum to “citizens that have come from other countries to disrespect [Peru]”, in a veiled reference to Venezuelan refugees, who are often scapegoated for Peru’s high crime rates. He proposed to de-activate the country’s Constitutional Tribunal and Public Ombudsman’s Office, and rallied against LGBT and women’s rights. In his rallies, he has asked his followers to “repudiate” trans-rights and promoted traditional gender roles for men and women.

Last but not least, Castillo’s single most important proposal – calling for a Constituent Assembly to reform the country’s constitution – also raises democratic concerns. Not, of course, because of the proposal itself, but because of the way the party is planning to implement it. Peru Libre militants have repeatedly stated that the Constituent Assembly would not be elected freely from within the citizenry (as has been the case in Chile, for example) but rather that 60% would be reserved to “social sectors” like unions, guilds, etc. and 40% to political parties (following the model used by Nicolás Maduro, in Venezuela). Worrisomely, and once again following the Venezuelan model, Peru Libre would then proceed to close the recently elected Congress and replace it with this Assembly (an impeachable offence under Peru’s current Constitution). Even more concerning, in a leaked 2019 audio, Peru Libre’s elected Congressman and high-ranking party member, Guillermo Bermejo described the plan as a “first step to stay in power” beyond their five year term, referring to term limitations and Peru’s constitutional ban on re-election as “democratic b******t”.

It is because of all of this that Human Rights Watch called Peru’s runoff election a choice between “two candidates that do not believe in human rights and the rule of law” and why Amnesty International felt the need to remind both candidates to “commit to comply human rights” in general, as well as LGBT and women’s rights in particular.

It is therefore understandable that many Peruvians – including among those who voted for him – have serious concerns about a Castillo administration. After all, he only won 19% of the votes in the first round of elections for a reason. This is also why Peru’s progressive left (representing 8% of the first-round electorate) decided to join his government coalition in an attempt to influence his policies and move him away from Mr. Cerrón’s sphere of influence. The plan, it seems, has slowly begun to work. Castillo rolled back his promises to de-activate the Constitutional Tribunal and Ombudsman’s Office and signed a written commitment to, among others, leave office within five years and respect human rights. The sheer fact that these basic commitments had to be put in writing though shows the precariousness of Peru’s democratic stability. In fact, Cerrón himself appears to be in a bid of his own to de-legitimize the newly-arrived progressives and reaffirm his ties with Castillo. For a Castillo Presidency to be successful, pressure needs to continue, from within and abroad. There is no reason why foreign actors cannot carry out the same kind of constructive engagement being deployed by the Peruvian progressives. Recognising the momentousness of Castillo’s election should not make us complacent with regards to human rights and democracy. Both aspects of his election should be acknowledged. Otherwise, the peoples’ choice, a choice made in full awareness of Castillo’s limitations, would be reduced to an offshoot of US domestic politics, where North actors uncritically choose those who they presume are the Peruvian equivalent to their preferred brand of US progressivism, without making the slightest effort to study Peruvian politics respectfully and in context. Peruvian voters deserve to have their agency respected beyond such facile comparisons.

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International Human Rights Law, Latin & South America
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