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Peru’s new president Pedro Castillo, 51, deserves credit for vowing to focus his government on improving the lives of the country’s poverty-stricken indigenous population. But his first steps in office raise fears that he will scare away investors, generate capital flight and — after a short-lived populist fiesta — create more poverty.
Castillo, a leftist former elementary school teacher who had never before held public office, assumed the presidency on July 28 after winning the runoff elections with a razor-thin 0.3 percent of the vote. He controls only 37 seats in the 130-member Congress.
Some hoped that Castillo’s minority in Congress would force him to pursue a more-moderate path than that advocated by his Marxist “Peru Libre” party. But that hasn’t happened.
Instead of appointing a moderate prime minister who could have helped build bridges with the opposition, Castillo has picked one of Peru’s most radical leftist politicians for that job.
The new prime minister, Guido Bellido, is under investigation for paying “homage” to a Shining Path terrorist group member in a 2017 Facebook posting. Bellido also defended the Cuban dictatorship after the brutal repression of thousands of peaceful demonstrators on the island on July 11, claiming in a July 19 television interview hat Cuba is a democratic country.
Peru’s daily La Republica, which has generally been kind to Castillo, criticized Bellido’s appointment in an editorial with the headline, “No, Mr. President.”
Likewise, Castillo appointed Héctor Béjar, 85, a former guerrilla leader and senior Perú Libre party official, as his foreign minister.
But what’s most troubling about Castillo’s first moves in office is his focus on convening an assembly to draft a new constitution. That’s exactly what late Venezuelan authoritarian leader Hugo Chavez did immediately after taking office in 1999, and what Chavez’s followers did in Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua to grab absolute powers and seek to re-elect themselves indefinitely.
Castillo’s call for a Constitutional Assembly was the centerpiece of his inauguration speech. That doesn’t bode well for Peru, for several reasons.
First, it reinforces fears that Castillo — despite his earlier claims that “I am not a Chavista, nor a Communist” — is following the Chavez playbook. The possibility that Castillo will change the constitution to allow stringent state controls over the private sector will freeze investments. Peru’s economy has already shrunk by 11 percent last year.
Second, Castillo’s suggestion that he could convene a referendum to pick an assembly and change the constitution without congressional approval would be unconstitutional. Under Article 206 of Peru’s constitution, “Any constitutional reform must be approved by Congress.”
Close aides to Castillo say that his plan will massively increase social subsidies, get at least 2.5 million signatures calling for a referendum on whether to change the constitution and bypass Congress. But most Peruvian legal scholars agree that would amount to a break of constitutional rule.
“He can’t do that,” Enrique Alvarez, former president of Peru’s Constitutional Tribunal, told me. “The constitution’s Article 206 is categorical: any constitutional reform has to be approved by Congress.”
Alvarez and other constitutional lawyers speculate that Castillo may be trying to provoke a constitutional crisis, in order to dissolve Congress and do what he wants.
Under the constitution, a president can dissolve Congress if legislators twice deny him the right to appoint key cabinet members.
But then, Congress can also declare Castillo unfit for office and fire him. In a country that has had five presidents during the past five years, no one can rule out that Castillo could be ousted by Congress.
Third, and perhaps most important, the timing of Castillo’s grand plan to change the constitution couldn’t be worse.
Peru has the world’s highest COVID-19 mortality rate per capita, according to Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus tracker. About 200,000 Peruvians have died of COVID-19, in a country of only 32 million people.
Does it make sense for Peru’s new president to start a power clash that will distract the government from the urgent task of fighting the pandemic? Of course not.
If there is one country in the world that should be focusing all of its energies on fighting this virus, it’s Peru.
Castillo has started out on the wrong foot, confronting most political parties and allowing himself to be controlled by his party’s Jurassic left. Unless Congress forces him to build bridges with other parties, Peru will be heading downhill faster than many thought.
Don’t miss the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show on Sundays at 8 pm E.T. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera