LIMA, Peru – A teacher from one of the poorest communities in the Andes who never held office is now Peru’s president-elect after officials from the South American country declared him the winner of a second round of elections last month.
The leftist Pedro Castillo catapulted from unknown to president-elect with the support of the country’s poor and rural citizens, many of whom identify with the struggles the teacher has faced. Castillo was officially declared the winner on Monday after the country’s electoral count became the longest in 40 years as his opponents fought for the results.
Castillo received 44,000 more votes than right-wing politician Keiko Fujimori in the June 6 runoff. This is the third defeat in the presidential elections of the daughter of the imprisoned former president Alberto Fujimori.
“Let’s not put the obstacles in place for this country to advance,” Castillo asked his opponent in his first remarks in front of hundreds of followers in Lima.
With a pencil the size of a cane, symbol of his Peru Libre party, Castillo popularized the phrase “No more poor in a rich country.” The economy of Peru, the world’s second-largest copper producer, has been crushed by the coronavirus pandemic, raising the poverty level to nearly a third of the population and wiping out the gains of a decade.
Peru’s deficiencies in public health services have contributed to the country’s poor pandemic outcomes, leaving it with the highest per capita death rate in the world. Castillo has vowed to use revenues from the mining sector to improve public services, including education and health, whose shortcomings were highlighted by the pandemic.
“Those without a car must have at least one bicycle,” Castillo, 51, told The Associated Press in mid-April at his adobe house in Anguía, Peru’s third poorest district.
Since he surprised Peruvians and observers by advancing to the second round of the presidential elections, Castillo has softened his first proposals on the nationalization of multinational and natural gas companies. Instead, his campaign has said that he is considering raising taxes on profits due to high copper prices, which exceed $ 10,000 per ton.
Historians say he is the first peasant to reach the presidency of Peru, where until now, indigenous peoples have almost always received the worst of poor public services despite the nation’s boasting of being the economic star of Latin America. in the first two decades of the century.
“There are no cases of a person outside the professional, military or economic elites who reaches the presidency,” Cecilia Méndez, a Peruvian historian and professor at the University of California-Santa Bárbara, told a radio station.
Hundreds of Peruvians from various regions camped for more than a month in front of the Electoral Tribunal in Lima, the capital of Peru, awaiting Castillo’s proclamation. Many do not belong to Castillo’s party, but they trust the professor because “he will not be like the other politicians who have not kept their promises and do not defend the poor,” said Maruja Inquilla, an environmental activist who came from a nearby town. Titicaca, the mythical lake of the Incas.
Castillo’s meteoric rise from unknown to president-elect has deeply divided the Andean nation.
The author Mario Vargas Llosa, Nobel Prize in Literature, has said that Castillo “represents the disappearance of democracy and freedom in Peru.” Meanwhile, retired soldiers sent a letter to the commander of the armed forces asking him not to respect Castillo’s victory.
Fujimori, who ran with the support of business elites, said on Monday that he will accept Castillo’s victory, after accusing him for a month of electoral fraud without offering any proof. The prosecution delayed his appointment as president-elect as he asked electoral authorities to annul thousands of votes, many in poor and indigenous communities in the Andes.
The United States, the European Union and 14 electoral missions determined that the vote was fair. The United States called the elections a “model of democracy” for the region.
Steven Levitsky, a political scientist at Harvard University, told a radio station that Castillo is coming to the presidency “very weak” and, in a sense, in a position “very similar” to Salvador Allende when he came to power. in Chile in 1970 and to Joao Goulart, who became president of Brazil in 1962.
“He has almost the entire establishment of Lima against him,” said Levitsky, an expert on Latin American politics.
He added that if Castillo tried to change Peru’s constitution – promulgated in 1993 during Alberto Fujimori’s term – “without building a consensus, (without) alliances with center games, it would be very dangerous because it would be a justification for a coup.”
The president-elect worked as a primary school teacher for the past 25 years in his native San Luis de Puna, a remote village in Cajamarca, a northern region. He campaigned with rubber sandals and a wide-brimmed hat, like the peasants in his community, where 40% of the children suffer from chronic malnutrition.
In 2017, he led the largest teacher strike in 30 years in search of better pay and, although he did not achieve substantial improvements, he sat down to dialogue with cabinet ministers, legislators and bureaucrats.
For the past two decades, Peruvians have found that the prior political experience and college degrees of their five former presidents did not help fight corruption. All former Peruvian presidents who ruled since 1985 have been caught up in allegations of corruption, some imprisoned or arrested in their mansions. One died by suicide before the police could arrest him. The South American country went through three presidents last November.
Castillo recalled that the first turning point in his life occurred one night as a child when his teacher persuaded his father to allow him to finish his primary education at a school two hours from home. It happened while both adults chewed coca leaves, an Andean custom to reduce fatigue.
“He suffered a lot in his childhood,” his wife, teacher Lilia Paredes, told AP while washing dishes at home. The couple has two children.
He got used to long walks. He would come to the classroom with his peasant sandals, a woolen saddlebag on his shoulder, a notebook, and his lunch, which consisted of sweet potatoes or tamales that cooled with the hours.
Castillo said his life was marked by the work he did as a child with his eight siblings, but also by the memory of the treatment his illiterate parents received from the owner of the land where they lived. He wept when he remembered that if the rent was not paid, the landlord kept the best crops.
“You kept looking at what you had sown, you clutched your stomach, and I will not forget that, I will not forgive it either,” he said.
García Cano reported from Mexico City.