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.

No global recovery so long as most countries are excluded from solutions

Back in the mid-1980s, as Dominican farmers and trade unionists were teaching me and the rest of the world about debt conditionality, structural adjustment and the International Monetary Fund, their critics said they merely mimicked the government’s excuses for inept policies. The fact that we’re having the same conversations again almost 40 years later says to me that the farmers and workers were right.

Take a moment to recall what people in many global South countries were enduring in the 1980s. A glut of oil money in U.S. and European banks in the 1970s had led to a loans frenzy: developing countries got cheap credit. But the recession in the 1980s saw interest rates skyrocket. 

Protesters in the Dominican Republic in 1984 took their protests into the street. Many civil society organizations try to carry voices of those locked out of decision-making spaces inside meetings like the UN gathering on debt relief.

The resulting “third-world debt crisis” (as it was called at the time) became a shock-doctrine opportunity to strengthen a harsher form of capitalism, one that came to be called “neo-liberal economic globalization” (or simply neoliberalism or globalization). Dominicans and countless others around the world protested, but by the turn of the millennium, this new world order was firmly entrenched.

A new crisis—the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic—has revealed the old, unhealed fractures as countries struggle to sustain already-weak health systems, provide testing and vaccines, and keep economies at least partly functioning. 

To their credit, the United Nations secretary general, Antonio Guterres, and Prime Ministers Justin Trudeau of Canada and Andrew Holness of Jamaica, convened a conversation March 29 among world leaders and heads of various international financial institutions.

Top row: Prime Minister Andrew Holness, Jamaica; Lidy Nacpil, Asian Peoples’ Movement on Debt and Development; Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, World Trade Organization. Bottom row: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Canada; President Alberto Fernández, Argentina; and President Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela.

Holness and Argentinian President Alberto Fernández called for fundamental reform of “debt architecture” and the need for a “multilateral framework for debt restructuring.” Such steps would break from current practice, which allows wealthier countries (G7, G20) or groups dominated by them (the World Bank and International Monetary Fund), along with private creditors, to make decisions binding on all the other countries. Fernández added that there can’t be a global recovery when there are countries excluded from the solutions.

Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, said nations should ensure that “measures are not a weapon to control our countries.” He urged “comprehensive restructuring” and an end to use of “unilateral, coercive and criminal” sanctions against his country and others.

The civil society organizations (CSOs) that have laboured for decades to build a system to manage and resolve debt issues said later that the leaders “continue to kick the can down the road” on meaningful reform. The groups welcome measures like the G20 agreement to further delay debt payments by the most impoverished countries (a mechanism called the Debt Service Suspension Initiative, or DSSI) to June 2021, and action to use global reserve funds (“special drawing rights,” or SDRs) to support recovery efforts in developing countries. [On April 1, the IMF approved a third tranche of grants for debt service relief for 28 countries through Oct. 15.]

But more needs to be done, said the CSOs. “Rich countries are continuing to prioritise their own power over global solidarity, leaving many people behind.” Moreover, the measures do not do enough to assist middle-income countries (like Argentina and Jamaica) with their challenges, or address the problem of the private-debt “cartel.”

“Throughout decades of exploitation, rich countries accumulated a social and ecological debt owed to the people in developing countries which is higher than our financial debt. Today these same rich nations fail to deliver the system changing solutions that we need, including immediate debt cancellation by all lenders for all countries in need”.

Lidy Nacpil, Coordinator of the Asian Peoples’ Movement on Debt and Development (APMDD)

“A multilateral framework under the UN is the only way to resolve the crippling debt crises affecting the world’s poorest. This is the only way to ensure debt cancellation in a fair and orderly fashion, where developing countries have a seat at the table. This would ensure a future of responsible lending and borrowing together with regulation based on human rights and gender justice.”

Patricia Miranda, Advocacy Coordinator at the Latin American Network for Economic and Social Justice (Latindadd)
World Social Forum, Porto Alegre, January 2005

One potential forum for further work would be a global conference next year on Financing for Development—”Monterrey+20”—with the issue of global economic architecture firmly on the table.

At the 2002 Monterrey conference, the World Council of Churches was among those who pressed for  

“Pursuit of a permanent solution to the debt problem both for poor countries and middle-income countries starting with an immediate cancellation of the external debt of poor countries and setting up, under UN auspices, an independent and fair debt arbitration mechanism for current and future loans which will promote ethical lending and borrowing policies.”

As Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the newly appointed Director-General of the World Trade Organization, stated during the meeting: “lost decades are a policy choice.”

No doubt those Dominican farmers would agree.

In Haiti, once again: something must change

My first visit to Haiti was in March 1984 when Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier was still in power. Less than two years later, in the face of widespread demonstrations, he fled. Six years of jostling for influence and power followed, and the voice of a young priest in the impoverished neighbourhoods around Port-au-Prince was heard. A movement, Lavalas, a flood propelled Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide into the presidency. These are some of my photos of the celebration.

A podcast that explores Christianity and the political left provoked me to think again about Haiti this week. On March 9, I was interviewed about events in Haiti for The Magnificast, a podcast produced by my friends Dean Detloff in Toronto and Matt Bernico in St. Louis. 

Right now, tens of thousands of people are marching in the streets of Port-au-Prince and other cities. They want to bring down the president, bring about a new interim government that would lead a process of constitutional reform, and organize new elections.

This time, however, they’re backed by a range of people and organizations that have not stood together since 1990 (Haiti’s first free election): churches, trade unions, community groups, students and teachers, the political left and centre.

The Magnificast has been a great space for me to think with others about complex events in Venezuela,Bolivia and now Haiti. The title is adapted from Mary’s song of praise, The Magnificat::

God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;

God has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.

Luke 1:52

On March 8, a group of civil society organizations sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, calling for an end to Canada’s support for Haiti’s president, whose term of office has ended. Initiators of the letter were members of Concertation pour Haïti (CPH), a coalition of Quebec-based solidarity groups working in Haiti and individuals who support solidarity with Haiti. Members include The United Church of Canada (through its francophone ministries together with global partnership staff) and Development and Peace.

The letter calls on Canada, the United Nations and others to “consider transitional alternatives, without external interference, proposed by the various sectors of the opposition and civil society instead of blindly supporting the government of Jovenel Moïse.”

Over the past two years, Haitian organizations have proposed various ways forward. A transitional government should have taken office on Feb. 7, 2021, the date that the president’s term ended. The letter explains the next steps:

“A new government, accompanied by a transitional body, should hold office for at least two years. In addition, it would be established according to a specific institutional procedure, determined in a concerted manner within civil society and the opposition, which would ensure its limited term and its independence. The goal is to work toward the adoption of a new constitution in accordance with the wishes of the Haitian people, to prepare new elections, to adopt a plan to alleviate the population’s misery, to restore order in the public administration and to reinstate the judicial system.”

A day after the CPH letter, the Catholic religious communities that are part of the Haitian Religious Conference (CHR), used the occasion of the anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Haiti on March 9, 1983—three years before the end of the dictatorship of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier—to renew his call for change. “Il faut que quelque chose change ici,” the pope said, adding that impoverished people must recover hope. As he left, he encouraged unity: “Têt ansanm,” he said in Kreyol. All together.

“Thirty-eight long years after that visit by the pope,” states the CRH letter, “the seeds of death now seem to outgrow the seeds of life. The country is dying, insecurity is rampant, the poor cannot go on, the population is in a disarray that borders on despair, and the country is no longer ruled. We are both witnesses to and victims of too much crime, too much injustice, and too much inequality.”

So, what gives?

Some forces resist change. Haiti’s six richest families, together with a few thousand wealthy enablers, have shown through the past 40 years that they will resist any change whatsoever. And that class is well-connected to corporations and centres of power elsewhere. The United States, as elsewhere in Latin America, is arbiter of what can be done. It may have shifted from the Cold War-view that saw the Duvalier regime as a buttress against communism. The presidency of Bill Clinton in the 1990s imposed a developmentalist approach: Haiti would be a nation of cheap-labour assembly plants. 

Since 2011, in the presidencies of Michel Martelly and Jovenel Moïse, the United States and the local elites have finally had the presidents they wanted: men close to the business sector and close ties in the United States.

Photo: Le Safimag

But Haitians have other ideas. A few months after the 2010 earthquake, I was in Haiti with colleagues from The United Church of Canada. Among the people we met was Jesi Chancy-Manigat, a member of the coordinating committee of the National Feminist Platform. She was worried about the relief effort: “We are in danger of missing an opportunity.” It’s not enough, she added, just to consult with the president of Haiti. Civil society needed to be involved: citizens, organizations, women, workers, farmers, professionals.

Yes, the opportunity was missed, and Jesi, sadly, did not live long enough to attain the changes she wanted: she died from cancer in 2013 at the age of 57.

But she taught us a few things that those of us working for change now might keep in mind. First, listen to what Haitians say about themselves. Jesi introduced us to the work of the Kay Famn (House of Women) organization. In 2010, Kay Famn insisted that the country can be and must be rebuilt.

To rebuild the country is:

  • To divorce ourselves from the practices of theft, corruption, dirty politics, and irresponsibility—where an executive or a Parliament can assume the right to ignore laws and rules.
  • To have authentic dialogue with the people.
  • To end the immense disorder that surrounds us: political disorder that prevents us from building a real democracy; electoral disorder that shackles the enjoyment of the rights of citizens; disorder in public administration, management of territory, justice, economy, education and health; disorder with respect to fundamental human rights, especially the rights to food, health care and housing.
  • To re-deal the cards so that the state serves the common good, and so that people receive services and can produce and improve their well-being.
  • To construct a system of social protection that permits action for the most vulnerable sectors: families headed by single women, those living with handicaps, those with low incomes, orphaned children, the elderly who have no resources.
  • To commit ourselves to a path that moves us away from dependence on the exterior so that Haitians may take decisions according to national interest.

The demands today are not different from 38 years ago or 11 years ago. Yet, the people persist. And yes, we support their struggle.

More resources

An article in English by Marc-Arthur Fils-Aimé of the Karl Lévêque Cultural Institute (ICKL) and the Alternative Development Platform (PAPDA)

Position paper by the Jesuits of Haiti on the current crisis

“The Millionaires Of Haiti” Podcast