- Interview by
- Ben Burgis
Left-wing trade unionist Pedro Castillo is the president of Peru. In the weeks after the election, Keiko Fujimori and the Peruvian right alleged fraud and went on the assault, attempting to override the results of 6 June’s presidential contest. But this week, their campaign failed and Castillo became the most radical leader in the country’s living memory.
Nicolas Allen of Jacobin América Latina spoke to Ben Burgis on the Give Them an Argument podcast about the Peruvian right’s last-ditch attempt to overturn election results, the threat posed by Castillo to the ruling elite, and why, even with a divided electorate, Castillo’s victory might mark the beginning of a sea change in Peruvian politics.
Now that Pedro Castillo is the president of Peru, some people are wondering if the Pink Tide might be making a comeback. What do you think?
There may be something like a new Pink Tide underway. With left-wing or centre-left governments in Bolivia, Argentina, and Mexico, and encouraging signs of political change in Colombia, Chile, and, perhaps most unexpectedly in Peru, the Left in Latin America is definitely threatening a comeback of some sort.
I think we might need to reach for a different metaphor at this point though — something less predictable than what a ‘tide’ might imply. The first Pink Tide came on the heels of a neoliberal crisis that was ultimately settled in an uneasy stalemate, a ‘hegemonic draw’ between insurgent left-wing governments and a capitalist restoration. One of the outcomes of that stalemate was a certain stability and predictability, albeit a tense one.
However, the political fallout of the current neoliberal crisis in the region—which really came to a head during the pandemic—seems to me to be more volatile. It has proven politically devastating for the ruling elite in the most market-friendly countries of Latin America—Chile, Peru, and Colombia—but that still doesn’t necessarily spell a left-wing victory.
Peru in a way is the case in point: we’ve seen the victory of an avowed leftist like Pedro Castillo, but the recent attempt to overturn elections is just a taste of what’s to come. And opposing Castillo is Keiko Fujimori and a whole cast of right-wing forces that are themselves symptomatic of a larger crisis: whereas institutional coups in countries like Bolivia have invoked the authority of the OAS to pretend to defend democracy, Fujimori, the Right, and the media basically tried to annul election results on the grounds that ‘communists’ and ‘Indians’ are not supposed to win elections. There’s hardly even any lip service paid to defending democracy or the status quo, except maybe in the way that Latin American dictatorships claimed to be suspending democracy to save it from communism.
There are positive political trends in countries like Colombia and Chile that, for now, seem more unambiguous. Left-wing candidate Gustavo Petro looks to be a heavy favourite in Colombia’s 2022 presidential elections, and the Constitutional Convention in Chile was a big victory for the Left. But even there I think it is good to exercise caution: the May 16 Convention election in Chile dealt a major blow to the neoliberal right, but there are signs that the Chilean far-right will be picking up the pieces from the institutional collapse of the more established right; and, furthermore, the levels of voter abstention in that election—something like sixty percent—are cause for major concern. In Colombia, the far-right government has been dealt a major blow after months of protests, but Uribismo is a political creature with nine lives and it would be a mistake to count it out.
That was a long-winded way of saying that maybe, if we’re going to speak of a return of the Pink Tide, we have to also leave open the possibility of counter-tides — basically, the kind of far-right reaction that was largely absent or latent in the previous cycle.
Speaking of far-right reaction, you alluded to the red-baiting and fearmongering that has taken place during and after the campaign in Peru. We even saw right-wing Venezuelan coup leader Leopoldo López campaigning for Fujimori.
Leopoldo López went to Lima in the middle of the campaign to support Fujimori, which is pretty ironic because Fujimori made a huge stink about Evo Morales’ ‘meddling in foreign elections’ by tweeting favourable things about Castillo.
Just an aside: people have been drawing lots of comparisons between Castillo and Evo Morales. And it’s very apropos in this case because the Peruvian right is now saying of Castillo things that sound a lot like what was said when Evo Morales won his first election in 2005.
At the time, the Nobel-Prize-winning Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa said that Morales’ government represented a form of ethnic separatism and that it stoked racial resentment. You can hear similar things being said about Castillo in the media now. Again, it’s the idea that there is something inherently illegitimate about someone of Morales’s or Castillo’s background being in the presidential office.
So, Peru has been pretty much locked in a Cold War political mentality ever since the conflict with the Shining Path in the 1980s. Even still, this last election—understandably—took things to a new level – some of Fujimori’s negative campaigning was really unhinged. People joked that the anti-communist banners she used during the campaign were so over the top that they actually sounded like old Soviet propaganda (things like ‘Careful! Socialism Leads to Communism!’).
Like I said, anti-left rhetoric has long been part of the Fujimori playbook, and as Keiko’s popularity has plunged—to the point where she is now the most unpopular politician in the country—the negative attack tactics have basically become the centrepiece of her politics.
It’s interesting too to look back at how red scare tactics played out over the campaign. In the first round elections the Peruvian right and the media were really concentrated on bringing down one-time frontrunner and progressive candidate Verónika Mendoza – they went after her alleged radicalism with a similar verve as they later did Castillo. But where they may have overestimated Mendoza, they underestimated Castillo, and I think there might be a lesson there.
I think the Peruvian right, broadly defined, might have actually preferred Mendoza as an opponent – someone who maybe has a more ideologically coherent leftist profile but doesn’t necessarily have the social base that Castillo has, and who, in a sense, is a known entity for the Peruvian political class, whereas Castillo represents a sector of society completely marginalised from national politics. So, we might say that the most interesting part of the elections was not the anti-communist hysteria itself, but the fact that Castillo broke through a wall of anti-left propaganda that had previously been so effective.
That explains in part why the Peruvian right has gone into overdrive now, trying to annul votes and tarnish the election results: the ‘wrong candidate’ won the elections, and not just someone with the wrong kind of politics who might challenge unfettered capitalist accumulation, etc., but literally someone of the wrong social and ethnic background, who the political class feels speaks a different language and operates according to different codes.
So, this is basically why we find Peru where it is now: somewhere between an electoral coup and the looming threat of complete political impasse if and when Castillo finally assumes office.
You mention that it is really a shock to see someone like Castillo as president of Peru, given both his personal and certainly his political background.
I think one way to chart the magnitude of that shock is to look at Castillo’s politics, which by Peruvian standards are pretty radical. But I think another, maybe more meaningful way to gauge that surprise is to recognise that the incoming president comes from a segment of Peruvian society that is still largely regarded as a natural second-class citizen by a society saddled with a lingering colonial mentality.
The simple fact is that there’s never been a president like Castillo: i.e., someone from a left-wing indigenous background. The closest Peru had was former president Alejandro Toledo, who as an indigenous person made those issues a prominent part of his government policy, albeit within a generally liberal or neoliberal framework.
So, Castillo’s biography looms large. He comes from the mining-heavy Cajamarca province in the northern Andean region of Peru. His first foray into politics was with the so-called Ronda Campesinas in the 1980s – essentially, self-organised peasant patrols that provided and still provide self-defence for communities where the Peruvian state doesn’t really have any presence. These groups originated in the 1970s, generally to prevent things like cattle rustling and theft, and morphed in the ’80s into defence units against the the Shining Path or Sendero Luminoso.
That alone is remarkable, because the Right has tried to smear Castillo with association with the Shining Path, when in fact he literally fought to defend local communities against their campaigns of terror in the countryside. Just an aside: Eric Hobsbawm, who always found something interesting to say about different left movements, once said that the Shining Path was the only leftist formation that should probably have never existed at all – basically, it was a Maoist guerrilla group that tried to launch a peasant insurrection against the state and ended up committing widespread atrocities.
Later, Castillo became a rural school teacher and eventually rose to prominence as a labour leader with the country’s largest trade union, the teachers’ union. 2017 was a kind of watershed year when his profile really began to rise – he led the more combative rank-and-file wing of a large strike action against a series of neoliberal education measures promoted by then-president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski.
That’s a very basic outline of Castillo’s background. It’s also useful to remember his personal history as a way to distinguish it from other left-wing projects in Peru. For example, in the 1970s, Peru had a left-wing nationalist military government under Juan Velasco Alvarado – a completely top-down type of dirigiste state that promoted widespread land reform but lacked the popular support for its policies to really take root and endure. Castillo differs from that experience insofar as he comes from a rank-and-file background and his power is connected to social mobilisation, rather than, say, military adventurism, of which Peru has seen several episodes from the Left in the last decades.
Obviously, his background is also totally different from the Shining Path. The Shining Path began as a group of urban intellectuals who went to the countryside with a kind of manual about how to plan a popular insurrection. But they ignored all of the social and cultural realities of rural Peru, and basically treated any other local form of political resistance as competition. Castillo, in a word, is part of that local tradition of resistance, and his political ascent should actually be read as the reluctant recognition of social and political organisations who have for too long been ignored in national politics, be their politics left- or right-wing.
You’ve hinted at how Peru is highly divided along regional lines and that the country has traditionally been ruled from Lima, the capital. That seems to be another element informing the ruling elite’s anxiety about Castillo’s victory.
Castillo’s victory has triggered a combined racial and class anxiety, and this is clearly connected with how political and social marginalisation is mirrored geographically in Peru.
The short version of why the country is divided so starkly into two social realities is pretty straightforward: Peru’s insertion into the global capitalist system in the nineteenth century was heavily concentrated along the coastal region—in Lima, Callao, Trujillo, etc.—where the country developed thanks to guano and agricultural exports. Meanwhile, the Andean and Amazonian regions were largely underdeveloped, exacerbating an already existing tendency to look on the largely indigenous parts of the country as synonymous with the colonial past, backwardness, everything premodern, etc.
But while the national mentality continues to map onto that geographic divide, the last thirty years in Peru have seen the centre of economic activity shift toward large-scale extractivism in the Andean and Amazonian region. This is crucial to understand both the political economy of Fujimorismo and the challenge that Castillo represents to that model.
Basically, the reigning social consensus of the last thirty years—i.e., Fujimorismo—has been based around granting transnational mining companies unfettered access to mineral exploitation while deregulating and liberalising markets, removing all capital controls, and so on, so that, through a kind of trickle-down model, the urban centres of Peru have developed a hyper-precarious middle class based in services and goods.
That process really took off in a major way after 2000 with the so-called commodity boom, cementing an arrangement where urban-centred growth was dependent on rents from mining and, to a lesser extent, from gas. This is one way of explaining how the vote could be so starkly divided between urban centres and rural sectors: you have environmental devastation, displacement, and neglect in the countryside, and growth in the cities.
What all this means is that, while the authoritarian side of Fujimori has been widely repudiated, his economic model is still the underlying social pact. The media talks about the mining sector as if it were synonymous with the national economy, and in fact that rentier model is the centrepiece of Alberto Fujimori’s constitution: private property is literally enshrined there as being the highest social good, above and beyond things like, say, the integrity of territorial sovereignty.
You wrote elsewhere that Castillo’s support tracks closest in those parts of Peru where the extractive industries have been booming at the same time as poverty has also skyrocketed. That would seem to explain the general spirit of Castillo’s slogan: ‘No more poor people in a rich country.’
Yeah, exactly. When Castillo speaks of bankrolling public expenditure by raising taxes on mining activity—even when it doesn’t mean wholesale nationalisation—he is basically talking about addressing the other half of the Fujimori consensus – the one that many of the more neoliberal anti-Fujimori politicians would be happy to leave intact.
So if the major flashpoint in Castillo’s campaign and plan for government was to renegotiate mining concessions, the other is to rewrite the national constitution – and the two are completely interconnected. Basically, immediately after Fujimori’s 1992 ‘self-coup’, he called on a kind of mock constituent assembly to rubber-stamp a constitution that was drawn up along with neoliberal economist Hernando de Soto. And, as I said before, that constitution altered the entire property regime so that the model citizen was this kind of ‘homo neoliberalus’ – the highest social right was private property, meaning that no kind of regulation could trump your right to, say, start a fleet of unregistered taxi cabs in Lima or, if you’re a mining multinational, to enjoy all your windfall profits without paying royalties.
So, those policies massively expanded the extractive frontiers in the areas where Peru’s peasant and indigenous communities live, with major conflict ensuing, and established a hyper-precarious urban proletariat. You might say that these regional, previously local struggles have finally been nationalised in the figure of Castillo, and, as economic growth has plateaued in the last five years and the pandemic has revealed the disastrous consequences of a society without basic public services, he is channelling a broader willingness among different sectors to question the general economic model.
Even still, Castillo won by a razor-thin margin and it seems like we’re not talking about a popular mandate to issue sweeping reforms.
That’s absolutely true. But it’s important to remember that the last three times Keiko Fujimori ran for president—2011, 2016, and 2021—elections were just as tight. Basically the Fujimori vs. anti-Fujimori division has been the meaningful fault line in national politics for the last decades. However, it’s just as important to recognise that for the first time the anti-Fujimori candidate won the elections at least in part by their own merit, not just as the lesser-evil candidate.
In a way, the proof is that many anti-Fujimori liberals decided that Castillo was actually the greater evil and supported Fujimori. So while the election was tight and the numbers seem to reflect that central division in national politics, I actually think it can be interpreted as the beginning of the end of the Fujimori-centred political universe.
I also think Castillo would have lost the election had he not taken some important steps on the campaign trail. Castillo definitely tacked toward a more moderate position in the runoff elections – putting some distance between himself and the party platform of Perú Libre, which calls for outright nationalisation of key industries, nationalisation of the independent central bank, and other more ‘maximalist’ programme points. He did that while drawing closer to Verónika Mendoza and Nuevo Perú – progressives who are purportedly more ‘moderate’ but have the kind of policy know-how that Castillo’s team lacks.
He did all that both to win elections and to start to build that popular mandate you’re alluding to – to show that he has people around him, like economist Pedro Francke, with experience in government and who are capable of steadying the ship. You have to remember that Peru is still in the grips of a rolling legitimacy crisis, with four presidents in as many years, plus an 11 percent increase in poverty in the last year and major economic stagnation.
Some leftists in Peru and elsewhere viewed that moderation and alliance forming as a sign of capitulation, but everything that’s happened since the 6 June election suggests the opposite to me: Castillo needs to form alliances and forge unity among different political groups, social movements, and civil society organisations, because the right-wing opposition to his government will be—already is—ferocious.
I think so much will depend on the type of administration Castillo forms: one that can distance itself a bit from the ideological, sectarian trappings of his party and form alliances with other democratically minded forces is actually what will win him popular support and help him to consolidate a base – not because it conveys moderation necessarily, but it would communicate that the public good can be placed above the narrow self-interests embedded in the country’s corrupt and fractious party politics.
Meanwhile, Keiko Fujimori—and Fujimorismo in general—is basically fighting for her life. With corruption charges hanging over her head, the Peruvian ruling class seems to be perfectly happy to use her desperation to destabilise a government they fear can’t be co-opted. But if Castillo can actually pull together a strong government coalition and find some way to form alliances in Congress—which is a real sticking point—he can draw a line in the sand where the Peruvian right is seen for what it is: a completely antidemocratic, destabilising force in national politics.
Tell me more about the Peruvian far right. We have Keiko Fujimori invoking her father’s ‘heroic’ battle with the Shining Path and the need to prevent Peru from ‘turning into Venezuela’. Clearly that type of politics still works on some level.
I think the Peruvian right—basically, Fujimorismo—really needs to be given a closer look, because in many ways its combination of far-right populism and neoliberal economics was the precursor for what came later with figures like [Jair] Bolsonaro. And for a time Fujimori was actually very popular, not just among the upper classes but also with the poor in the urban periphery.
After actually running as the anti-neoliberal candidate against Vargas Llosa in 1990, Fujimori adopted Vargas Llosa’s neoliberal economic advisor Hernando de Soto and implemented the standard IMF package: deregulation, privatisation, liberalisation, etc. Like in the rest of Latin America, those austerity measures—known in Peru as the ‘Fuji-shock’—eventually stabilised inflation and brought a degree of macroeconomic prosperity. Peru was actually for a time the fastest growing economy in the world.
With a huge influx of foreign investment, Fujimori’s economic advisor de Soto gave the neoliberal policies a ‘populist’ spin by eliminating market regulations and basically allowing the new urban poor—many arriving from the countryside as refugees from the Shining Path conflict—to become a precarious ‘propertied class’. De Soto’s theory was basically that Third World poverty was the result of strong ‘benefactor states’ not allowing the poor to capitalise their assets, to take out credit on a fruit stand, a delivery service, informal real estate, whatever. This became a kind ‘neoliberalism from below’ and it paid major political and ideological dividends.
While all that was happening, the conflict with the Shining Path was assuming greater centrality (ironically, the Shining Path’s activity was actually in decline by then). Fujimori capitalised on the popularity from his economic policy to dissolve Congress and establish a presidential dictatorship, essentially in the name of waging a successful war against the Shining Path, which the previous administrations had failed to contain. He effectively ‘won’ that battle, all while sponsoring widespread human rights abuses, forced sterilisations, and paramilitary death squads.
So, on balance, the Fujimorismo of the ’90s is a political project combining the most antidemocratic aspects of technocratic neoliberalism and the most antidemocratic traditions of military dictatorship, injected with a kind of market populism that, for a time, gave his government a sort of plebiscitary legitimacy.
Keiko Fujimori has basically been the caretaker of that legacy, adapting it to the current democratic rule of law from her seat in Congress. But if you ask the most humble Peruvians on the streets of Lima, many of whom supported Alberto Fujimori, they’d probably tell you that Keiko is not so much a politician as the leader of an organised crime syndicate. She’s deeply unpopular and, while the authoritarian side of Fujimorismo has already fallen into disrepute, there’s a case to be made that the economic side of that project is also falling apart. There’s a growing sense that corruption—synonymous with Keiko especially—is a problem built into the economic system.
As to the question of why the anti-communist rhetoric still holds sway in national politics, I think it would be a mistake to confuse it with support for Fujimorismo or for any positive neoliberal project. I think anti-communism in Peru—and this maybe goes for most of Latin America—has to be read through a colonial lens, where it’s not just class but also racial anxieties that are in play.
Just take the term ‘terruco’: an omnipresent pejorative used in the media to denigrate leftists as Shining Path-associated ‘terrorists’ (hence the ‘terr-‘). That same word has also been used historically as a racial epithet for indigenous people of the Andean regions, so there’s a pretty overt conflation of neocolonial racism and Cold War- style anti-communism that, weirdly, is not often acknowledged in Peru.
I think it’s worth mentioning all that because it holds in relief why Castillo—as both indigenous and left-wing—has really scandalised conservative urban sectors of Peruvian society. At the same time, that shouldn’t be taken to mean that anti-communism is somehow immutable or will always be politically effective. Thea Riofrancos has written some interesting things about how the Pink Tide might be able to rebound if some alliance can be forged between what have become competing left-wing visions of sovereignty — autonomous indigenous resistance vs. national, popular anti-neoliberalism.
I think the same applies for defeating the far right: behind its rabid anti-communism is a completely fractured notion of who the nation is or represents, and the Left in a sense has the opportunity—in Peru and elsewhere—through alliances and new egalitarian policies to rearticulate who the people are.
There are those on the international left who look at the specifics of Castillo’s platform, his social conservatism, the fact that he is showing signs of political moderation, etc., and wonder in what sense his government will be a left-wing one.
I think, apart from some of the specific strategic dilemmas we’ve discussed, just how left-wing Castillo’s government will be ultimately depends on how far the Peruvian people are willing to accompany a process of radical transformation. That answer might not satisfy some armchair leftists, but with the entire state apparatus and business class against him, that’s the potential source of power he has to draw on.
That’s a very tricky thing too, because, as the completely polarised elections revealed, there’s a lot of ambivalence right now about what Peruvian society wants. It’s a country where neoliberalism has seeped into the popular mentality and shaped so much of what passes for common sense – even if that common sense has been shaken. It’s not the kind of thing that can be undone through a set of well-crafted progressive policies imposed by presidential fiat. Sometimes good left-wing governance is just about helping the people to clarify what it is they really want, and if Castillo can do that I would say he’s on the right path.
I don’t know what will happen but I definitely think what’s occurring in Peru is significant. I think that Peru and Colombia, perhaps the two countries where people least expected to see a left-wing breakthrough, are actually the real ‘sleeping beauties’ of Latin American socialism: left-wing politics have been marginalised and oppressed for so long there that people have actually forgotten how powerful the movements were in those countries. Whatever happens, I think the next few years will be a reminder of that history.