Peru makes historic shift to the left amid pandemic devastation

Peruvian flag at Peru protests 2020

Historian Antonio Zapata previously called Peru a ‘right-wing country’. But after a tense period of vote counting, left-winger Pedro Castillo has won the 2021 presidential election with 50.125% of valid votes. As political analyst Andrea Moncada writes, this “marks the end of an era”.

The poor, the rich, and the pandemic

There has always been a lot of poverty, inequality, and racist discrimination in Peru. And though poverty fell in the early 21st century, Castillo’s victory comes amid pandemic devastation which revealed the holes in this decrease. As Moncada pointed out:

the COVID-19 pandemic increased poverty in Peru by 10 percentage points in one year, between 2020 and 2021. It took us ten years to reduce poverty by that amount.

The pandemic has also killed almost 190,000 Peruvians so far.

In this context, poorer people tended to vote for Castillo, while wealthier people opted for his opponent.

For now, Peruvian elites are on the back foot; and so is US imperialism.

A historic shift to the left

Castillo is a teacher. He entered the public spotlight in 2017 as leader of Peru’s biggest ever teachers’ protest. And he has promised to take only the salary of a teacher while president; also pledging to halve the wages of his ministers. As Democracy Now! writes:

Castillo has promised to raise taxes on Peru’s lucrative copper mining industry to fund healthcare and education initiatives and to reduce Peru’s vast income inequality.

He also represents the poor and marginalised rural areas of Peru, speaking Quechua as his first language. Around eight million Peruvians self-identify as members of the Quechua Indigenous group in the country of 33 million.

Castillo’s party, Perú Libre (Free Peru), says it’s Marxist-Leninist; but he has stressed “we’re not communists”. One of the party’s congressional candidates, meanwhile, has insisted the party is more ‘democratic socialist’ and similar to the centrist PSOE in Spain and Morena in Mexico. On its website, the party defends internationalism, decentralisation, ‘sustainable’ mining, and nationalisation of key industries.

A shock for Washington and Peru’s pro-US elites

Washington and the CIA have long had a hand in Peruvian politics, including via US military presence in the country. And speaking about Castillo’s victory, campaigners from peace group CODEPINK have explained that it marks:

a huge blow to U.S. interests in the region and an important step towards reactivating Latin American integration. He has promised to withdraw Peru from the Lima Group, an ad hoc committee of countries dedicated to regime change in Venezuela.

In addition, Castillo’s Perú Libre party has called for expelling USAID and for the closure of U.S. military bases in the country.

Some commentators have suggested that Castillo’s win will now inspire left-wingers elsewhere in Latin America.

The left’s balancing act, and the right’s resistance

Peru’s left has long had to position itself carefully. One reason for this is the consistent demonisation and repression that it has faced. A brutal war between the state and Maoist guerrillas in the 1980s and 1990s (in which the latter differed from guerrillas elsewhere by reportedly perpetuating the majority of the violence) gave elites an excuse to smear people with left-wing ideals as terrorists. In fact, Castillo faced exactly this kind of dishonest tactic during his presidential campaign.

Religion is also powerful in Peru. And like Morena in Mexico, Castillo’s Perú Libre has faced accusations of embracing social conservatism. Castillo, for example, has opposed legalising both abortion and gay marriage. Feminists have also criticised Perú Libre in the past, specifically the party’s incorrect assertion that feminism is somehow the opposite of male chauvinism. But Castillo himself has promised to fight against all forms of discrimination.

It’s Castillo’s economic pledges, however, that scare the rich and powerful. So he’ll face significant resistance. Perú Libre doesn’t have a majority in the country’s congress, for example, and most other parties there are firmly on the right. Castillo’s presidential opponent, meanwhile, is currently trying to challenge the election results despite earlier saying she’d respect them. There’s also the precedent of past presidents running on left-wing platforms and then shifting to the right once in power.

In other words, the left’s struggle for change going forwards will not be easy. But Peru may have just taken an important first step.

Main article image via Samantha Hare/Flickr