The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Chaotic start to Castillo’s presidency leaves Peruvians wondering who’s in charge

Peruvian President Pedro Castillo delivers a speech during a symbolic presidential investure ceremony at Pampa de la Quinua in Ayacucho on July 29. (Ernesto Benavides/AFP/Getty Images)

LIMA, Peru — At his swearing-in ceremony on the 200th anniversary of Peruvian independence last month, Peru’s first campesino president condemned the “racial regime” imposed by the conquistadors that continues to divide Latin American societies today.

To hammer the point home, Pedro Castillo promised not to use the presidential residence, known as the House of Pizarro after its founder, Francisco Pizarro, who led the subjugation of the Incas in the 16th century. The leftist president, a 51-year-old former schoolteacher from rural Peru — who has described himself as a campesino, a member of the largely Indigenous and mixed-race farming class — insisted it was time to “break with colonial symbols.”

But now, just two weeks into his historic presidency, Castillo’s inexperience, and his appointment to senior government positions of Marxist hard-liners, some implicated in criminality, have left this country that went through three presidents in one month last year once again on the brink of a political meltdown.

Pedro Castillo was announced the winner of Peru's June 6 runoff election on July 19. (Video: Reuters)

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The chaos has sounded the starting gun on an existential battle between the executive and an antagonistic, conservative-dominated legislature, with increasing talk of either the impeachment of the president or the dissolution of Congress.

The trigger came the day after Castillo’s inauguration, when he appointed 42-year-old Guido Bellido, a confrontational congressman from his Free Peru party, as prime minister, a position for which even many on the left say he is unfit.

Bellido is the target of a criminal investigation for allegedly “defending terrorism” with social media posts sympathetic to the Shining Path, the Maoist extremists who killed at least 28,000 Peruvians, mainly from remote, impoverished communities, in the 1980s and 1990s. He has also been heavily criticized for a 2019 Facebook post in which he praised Fidel Castro for preventing gay people — he used a slur — from participating in the Cuban revolution.

Yet Bellido, who was appointed only after it emerged that another front-runner for the job, fellow Free Peru lawmaker Roger Nájar, had impregnated a 14-year-old girl, is just the tip of the iceberg.

Héctor Béjar, the 85-year-old foreign minister, who is reestablishing diplomatic relations with the Maduro regime in Venezuela, claims the Shining Path were “the work of the CIA.” The defense minister, Walter Ayala, was once fired from the police for allegedly helping a prisoner to escape and, separately, investigated for human trafficking.

To make matters worse, for his first four days in office, Castillo, who has yet to hold a news conference or even allow the media to attend many of his official events, worked out of a private office loaned to him in murky circumstances, with no official registry of whom he was meeting. After a firestorm of criticism — and possible legal exposure — he backtracked and is now basing himself in the presidential palace.

Some of Castillo’s other populist policies may also be coming back to haunt him. Proposals to halve ministerial salaries, and to make military service compulsory for young people who are neither working nor studying, have been widely panned, including by progressive policy specialists.

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Hugo Ñopo, a development economist at Lima’s GRADE think tank, warned that two-thirds of those likely to be eligible for military service would be women, and that a draft could lead to the abuse of Indigenous and other vulnerable conscripts. “This is a bad solution to a misdiagnosed problem,” Ñopo said. “More than anything else, it’s a gender issue.”

Meanwhile, Castillo is insisting on pushing ahead with plans to convene a constituent assembly, despite a lack of support in Congress and among the general public — and no clear constitutional path to doing so.

The move comes just as Peru, which has the world’s highest covid-19 death toll per capita, readies for a third wave, a challenge on which critics say Castillo should be focusing all his energy.

Compounding the intrigue, it’s unclear whether the president is calling the shots in his government or doing the bidding of his polarizing mentor, Vladimir Cerrón, the Cuban-trained neurosurgeon who founded Free Peru.

Cerrón chose Castillo as the party’s presidential candidate after he was himself blocked from running by a corruption conviction. He now faces 12 more criminal investigations, including for his alleged role in the funding of Free Peru’s election campaign through a sprawling bribery racket when he was governor of the region of Junín. Yet Cerrón appears to be in daily, albeit secretive contact with Castillo while also trolling political opponents — and even allies — online.

In recent days, Cerrón has called for North Korea to reopen an embassy in Lima and accused Pedro Francke, the moderate economy minister and former World Bank economist, of being a “Chicago boy.” The appointment of Francke, whose politics are similar to those of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), was considered essential to stop Peruvian markets from going into free fall.

Cerrón has also been talking up the congressional vote of confidence, due later this month, on Castillo’s cabinet, as a “collision of two worlds, the European and the Andean.” Under the Peruvian constitution, if lawmakers reject two such votes, the president can dissolve congress.

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One explanation for Cerrón’s provocative tactics could be his own “extremely complicated” legal situation, former anticorruption prosecutor César Azabache said.

“Cerrón’s conviction means that he cannot occupy public office, including as a government adviser, directly or indirectly,” Azabache said. “His presence calls into question the seriousness of the government’s commitment against terrorism and drug trafficking.”

Richard Arce, a former congressman and one of the president’s sharpest critics from the left, said the president and his party need to understand that their narrow election victory was largely due to Peruvians’ dislike of Keiko Fujimori, Castillo’s corruption-tainted runoff opponent.

“Castillo needs to start acting like a president and build broader support,” Arce said. “Some of his decisions so far have been incomprehensible. He has raised a lot of expectations, especially among the poor, and it would be a tragedy if he did not complete his term.”

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