Peru election: 'Humble' Pedro Castillo prepares to raid big business as nation swings Left

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Attendees wait for the arrival of Pedro Castillo, presidential candidate for the Peru Libre party, in Lima - Miguel Yovera /Bloomberg
Attendees wait for the arrival of Pedro Castillo, presidential candidate for the Peru Libre party, in Lima - Miguel Yovera /Bloomberg

Pedro Castillo, the rural schoolteacher on the brink of becoming Peru’s next president, wants to reshape the Covid-battered country in the style of one of his Leftist idols by seizing the profits of big business.

Like Evo Morales, the former president of Bolivia, Mr Castillo, 51, rose from humble beginnings in his country’s rural hinterland to become a populist, rabblerousing union leader, before then trampolining to national office.

And just like Mr Morales, Mr Castillo is bent on reshaping his country’s economy to favour the poor, in a deeply unequal society divided between a largely white, urban elite and a mestizo majority, of which the village schoolteacher is a member.

Yet Mr Castillo has rattled investors and ordinary Peruvians alike with scattergun promises to rewrite the constitution, ban imports of any goods produced in Peru, and dedicate 20 per cent of GDP to education and healthcare, a promise even left-wing economists regard as far-fetched. During the runoff campaign, he backtracked on some of those ideas but many doubt his sincerity.

Mr Castillo hails from Cajamarca, in the northern Andes, Peru’s most impoverished region and home to various large mines, and has vowed to make mining companies leave 70 per cent of their profits in Peru. The Andean nation is the world’s second copper producer and among the top four for silver, tin, zinc, lead and molybdenum. It also has large, untapped reserves of lithium.

Pedro Castillo addresses his supporters in Lima - ANGELA PONCE /REUTERS
Pedro Castillo addresses his supporters in Lima - ANGELA PONCE /REUTERS

“We’re going to recover our country’s riches to distribute them fairly to our children,” Mr Castillo said at his final campaign event last week. He added that Peru needed to increase its manufacturing capacity and stop simply exporting raw commodities, noting: “We don’t even make the buttons on our shirts.”

Another trait Mr Castillo shares with Mr Morales is his alleged authoritarian tendencies. He refuses to speak ill of the Maduro regime in Venezuela, has talked of abolishing the constitutional tribunal, and his first government plan — he has now had several — even cites Lenin insisting that the press cannot be free under the “yoke of capital”.

Polls show that most Peruvians favour tweaking their country’s free market model to make it fairer rather than adopting socialism.

Nevertheless, Mr Castillo’s unexpected rise comes at a time when Peru has been brought to its knees by the coronavirus pandemic and five years of political turmoil triggered in large part by his runoff opponent, Keiko Fujimori. The country has the worst Covid-19 mortality rate in the world and has, so far, fully vaccinated just 4 per cent of the population.

Pedro Castillo's opponent, Keiko Fujimori, has claimed the election is fraudulent - AP
Pedro Castillo's opponent, Keiko Fujimori, has claimed the election is fraudulent - AP

“People are drawn to him because he looks like them,” says José Alejandro Godoy, a political scientist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. “He has this humble lifestyle and no links to the Lima political establishment and media. That’s the appeal.”

Yet it remains unclear whether Mr Castillo will be able to fulfill his promises — or even see out his five-year term.

Although his Free Peru party will be the largest in the incoming Congress, it will not have a majority and most lawmakers will be conservative, while Mr Castillo lacks the broad popular support that Morales once enjoyed in Bolivia. Meanwhile, last November’s ouster of former president Martín Vizcarra has effectively set a hair trigger for the presidential impeachment process.

That means that large-scale nationalisations may be unlikely. However, Mr Castillo could raise taxes on the mining sector and use executive powers to more strictly regulate it, including withholding permits. But even there, he would need to tread carefully as any measure deemed “confiscatory” would be unconstitutional.