By Marco Aquino and Marcelo Rochabrun LIMA/CHUGUR, Peru (Reuters) – As a boy in Peru’s rural north, Pedro Castillo would help collect and crush cane on his family’s small farm. Now he is president of the nation, an abrupt rise to power that has shaken up the copper-rich Andean country’s political landscape. Castillo, who began […]
Peasant roots to president: the unlikely rise of Peru’s Pedro Castillo
By Marco Aquino and Marcelo Rochabrun
LIMA/CHUGUR, Peru (Reuters) – As a boy in Peru’s rural north, Pedro Castillo would help collect and crush cane on his family’s small farm. Now he is president of the nation, an abrupt rise to power that has shaken up the copper-rich Andean country’s political landscape.
Castillo, who began his campaign as a wild card candidate from a Marxist party, takes office on Wednesday facing divisions in the country, in Congress, in the military – and within his own party.
The 51-year-old won the June 6 election by a slender margin of just over 40,000 votes against right-wing rival Keiko Fujimori, leading to a bitter legal battle over the result. She has vowed to fight on against his plans for changes that she claims will take Peru towards communism and down the path of Venezuela under its former President Hugo Chavez.
Castillo says otherwise.
“We are not Chavistas, we are not communists, we are not extremists,” Castillo said in a speech last week, wearing his customary wide-brimmed straw hat, a reflection of his peasant farmer roots.
“I am going to give my sweat fighting for the people.”
His rise has been driven by widespread disillusion with traditional political parties and increasing poverty in the country of some 33 million people, which made significant development advances in recent years but was hammered by the world’s deadliest coronavirus outbreak.
“Never again a poor man in a rich country!” was a regular refrain at his rallies, where he sometimes danced and carried a huge inflatable pencil – the symbol of his party and echo of his background as a primary school teacher.
Castillo has pledged to redraft the constitution, though lacks support in a divided Congress. He wants to strengthen the role of the state and take a far larger portion of profits from copper mining firms who he says have “plundered” Peru’s wealth.
He had at times during the election campaign threatened nationalizations, though recently he has softened his rhetoric, bringing more moderate advisers into his inner circle and pledging to respect private property and investment.
Critics fear his plans will shake Peru’s economic foundations after more than three decades of market-friendly policy that have made Peru a relative safe-haven in volatile Latin America. Analysts contend a fragmented congress will limit his power to make abrupt changes.
‘WHERE WILL I PUT MY ANIMALS?’
Many are still trying to decipher the candidate who caught everyone off-guard when he won the April first-round election, riding on horseback to vote.
The third of nine siblings, Castillo had achieved local fame in the northern region of Cajamarca as the leader of a long teachers’ strike in 2017. His wife Lilia Paredes and three children, who live in the small town of Chugur, arrived over the weekend to Lima for his inauguration.
The family’s likely new home will be rather different to the old: the Government Palace of Lima, also called Casa de Pizarro, named after the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro Gonzalez who some 500 years ago defeated the indigenous leader Atahualpa in Cajamarca.
Peru’s outgoing president, Francisco Sagasti, recounted to reporters how last week he had joked with Castillo about how different life would be as president. Castillo, he said, had quipped: “Where will I put my animals here in the Government Palace?”.
Castillo entered politics in 2002, when he unsuccessfully ran for mayor for a centrist party.
Only in 2020 did Castillo join the Free Peru party, founded by former governor and doctor Vladimir Cerron, a Marxist-Leninist admirer of Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia, who was blocked from running himself due to past corruption charges.
There have been signs of recent tension between Castillo and Cerron, who has insisted that the true power would be built by his Marxist party driving changes to the constitution.
“Compatriots, it is the party that has to organize the resistance, and if the government deviates, comrades, it is the party that has to rectify the line,” he said.
Castillo had hosted a breakfast with family members and media in his home district after the election, with many of the men wearing the same distinct pale, broad-rimmed hat and breaking bread together.
The scene was framed by a backdrop of colorful drapes, reflecting his Andean heritage. A religious poster read, in English, “Jehovah is my shepherd,” a hint at Castillo’s conservative values that sit with his socialist credentials.
“We are made with Christian and moral values,” Raul Oblitas, a nephew of Castillo, told Reuters outside the leftist’s simple adobe house in Chugur.
Oblitas said Castillo was not driven by money, nor was he looking to set up a communist-style government.
Instead, he wanted to break down geographical and racial divides that had meant Peru’s rural communities had been left behind as major cities like Lima reaped the main benefits from decades of mining-driven growth.
“The forgotten classes are now finding shelter in the proposals of Professor Pedro Castillo. Why? Because he represents the people,” said Oblitas. “Pedro Castillo is a common teacher like anyone else, he is a peasant.”
(Reporting by Marco Aquino and Marcelo Rochabrun; Editing by Adam Jourdan, Diane Craft and Rosalba O’Brien)