Peru’s election: a battle between “rich and poor, master and slave”

The government palace in Lima. Inset: Pedro Castillo and Keiko Fujimori

On June 6, Peruvians will choose between Pedro Castillo, a rural teacher described in mainstream media as “far left,” and Keiko Fujimori, described in mainstream media as “market friendly.” Those tags obscure deeper truths about the political moment.

A day after first-round results of the presidential election gave Peruvians a choice between these political opposites for the second round, I asked my Facebook friends what they thought. Several responded, and I have been learning.

First lesson came in a message from a friend: an Indigenous woman who is a medical doctor serving communities high in the Andes and far from Lima. 

“What happened in Peru is that, in the midst of this pandemic that further deepened the injustice and the inequities in health, education, access to work and extreme poverty: as always, Lima, the capital, only saw its own context. It had no interest in the regions and their right to decide by whom they should be government. For this reason, they were surprised when the teacher, Pedro Castillo, led the voting and passed to the second round. He is someone they treat as a nobody, who in social media they insult because he is part of Perú profundo (deep Peru), where every day survival is a challenge, not just because of Covid, but also because of hunger and unemployment. 

“There were other options, but as a people, we know those who give flowery and beautiful speeches but then in real life reject us, when they use our culture that they have learned about through books without feeling respect for us and connection with our land and spirituality, our Pachamama and Apus. I think this is a good time for someone who is like the majority of Peruvians to assume the leadership of our country, just as our brother Evo Morales did in Bolivia. Perhaps we will make a mistake, but I think that after so many years of being pushed aside and made invisible in our own land, we have the right. I hope that I have been able to express the feeling of a great many of my sisters and brothers.

“My people are suffering a lot. They don’t have masks. They don’t have water to wash their hands. They get sick and die alone. But in the midst of all of this, they are in solidarity, they care for their elders. These are my people and ojalá (I hope) they have the chance to be heard and taken into account.”

Second lesson came from several friends, either writing directly to me or posting in social media. Be cautious about media coverage. Fujimori, appearing on the final ballot for the third time, is well-known. She is the daughter of a former president who is in prison for corruption; she faces her own criminal charges related to money-laundering and irregular campaign contributions arising from her time in Congress.

Castillo, as someone whom the media have ignored, is harder to get to know. The Bolivian news service Kawsachun translated one of his speeches into English so that you can read his own words as you watch the video. Here, Castillo himself excoriates the media: 

“I want to denounce publicly those media outlets with national coverage that twist reality. Those outlets that do what they want and defend the oligarchy, but they forget about the people who have no bread, no education, no healthcare. They forget about those who demand their rights and ask for justice. That’s why we’re here, if we have to give our lives for a better country then we’ll do it with dignity. We won’t back down.”

Fujimori and mainstream media decry Castillo, tagging him as a Communist and worse, a supporter of the old Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrilla movement. It’s a false claim, given that he was part of the ronderos campesinos, rural patrols that were key to defeating Sendero.

In many communities today, the ronderos protect collectively-held land and the rights of the Indigenous and peasant farmers who live there. Their role is constitutionally-protected and built into municipal structures. Moreover, the state is required to attend to people in their language and people are recognized as having rights to their ethnic and cultural identities. The ronderos are also responsible for administration of communal justice. Some of the women’s groups I know train the ronderos so that they will bring a gender justice perspective to their work, so as to protect the rights of women.

Castillo is a rural teacher in the city of Chota in the Cajamarca region, 600 km north of Lima. An organizer in the teachers’ union, he was one of the leaders of a 2017 strike by teachers that sought to defend their employment rights and increase salaries. The academic Roger Merino writes that Castillo’s “left” might be more the classic trade union left—and certainly an emphasis on issues confronting urban and rural workers would be a step forward—and not the multi-sectoral left that has won power (and lost it) in many Latin American countries in the past two decades.

Farms in Peru’s Sacred Valley, high in the Andes

Castillo campaigned on the slogan, “no more poverty in a rich country.”  He has won the support of Veronika Mendoza, who represented a more broadly inclusive left, and he will need to build bridges with social movements of environmentalists, women, LGBTI people and Indigenous peoples. He has promised to re-write Alberto Fujimori’s 1993 constitution (which favours private enterprise and restricts the role of the state), improve the quality of Peru’s media through regulation, and increase public spending on health and education. Like many Peruvian families, his is religiously diverse: he is Catholic and his wife and children are part of the Nazarene Church. 

Keiko Fujimori, on the other hand, would not hesitate to break with democratic commitments or institutions. She is favoured by the business elites who warn of capital flight. Writing for the ALAI news service, Jesús Ospina Salinas says Peru’s current polarization comes from those who have no interest in “reducing inequalities, and who would continue a model that only brings short-term economic gains, but not structural ones that are sought and needed by the poor. The campaign of fear will not cease.”

“This is a battle between the rich and the poor, the struggle between the… master and the slave,” Castillo has said. With three weeks and one more debate before the election, the rich, who control most media, are doing all they can to catch up in opinion polls.

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