Leftist rural teacher Pedro Castillo elected as Peru's next president

Castillo aims to use the revenues from the mining sector to improve education and health

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Rural teacher-turned-politician Pedro Castillo on Monday won Peru’s presidential election after the country’s longest electoral count in 40 years.

Mr Castillo, whose supporters include Peru’s poor and rural citizens, defeated right-wing politician Keiko Fujimori by just 44,000 votes. Electoral authorities released the final official results more than a month after the runoff election took place in the South American nation.

Wielding a pencil the size of a cane, the symbol of his Peru Libre party, Mr Castillo popularized the phrase “No more poor in a rich country”. The economy of Peru, the world’s second-largest copper producer, has been crushed by the pandemic, increasing the poverty level to almost one-third of the population.

The shortfalls of Peru’s public health services have contributed to the country’s poor pandemic outcomes, leaving it with the highest global per capita death rate.

Mr Castillo, 51, has promised to use the revenues from the mining sector to improve public services, including education and health.

“Those who do not have a car should have at least one bicycle,” he said.

Since surprising Peruvians and observers by advancing to the presidential runoff election, Mr Castillo has softened his first proposals on nationalising multinational mining and natural gas companies. Instead, his campaign has said he is considering raising taxes on profits due to high copper prices, which exceed $10,000 a ton.

Historians say he is the first peasant to become president of Peru, where, until now, Indigenous people have almost always received the worst of the deficient public services, even though the nation boasted of being the economic star of Latin America in the first two decades of the century.

“There are no cases of a person unrelated to the professional, military or economic elites who reaches the presidency,” Cecilia Méndez, a Peruvian historian and professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara, told a radio station.

Ms Fujimori, a former congresswoman, ran for president for a third time with the support of the business elites. She is the daughter of imprisoned former president Alberto Fujimori.

Hundreds of Peruvians from various regions camped out for more than a month in front of the Electoral Tribunal in Lima, Peru’s capital, to await Mr Castillo’s proclamation. Many do not belong to his party, but they trust the professor because “he will not be like the other politicians who have not kept their promises and do not defend the poor,” said Maruja Inquilla, an environmental activist who arrived from a town near Titicaca, the mythical lake of the Incas.

Mr Castillo’s meteoric rise from unknown to president-elect has divided the Andean nation deeply.

Author Mario Vargas Llosa, a holder of a Nobel Prize for literature, said Mr Castillo “represents the disappearance of democracy and freedom in Peru.” Meanwhile, retired soldiers sent a letter to the commander of the armed forces asking him not to respect Mr Castillo’s victory.

Ms Fujimori said Monday that she will accept Castillo’s victory, after accusing him for a month of electoral fraud without offering any evidence. The accusation delayed his appointment as president-elect as she asked electoral authorities to annul thousands of votes, many in Indigenous and poor communities in the Andes.

“Let’s not put the obstacles to move this country forward,” Mr Castillo asked Ms Fujimori in his first remarks in front of hundreds of followers in Lima.

The US, the European Union and 14 electoral missions determined that the voting was fair. The US called the election a “model of democracy” for the region.

The president-elect has never held office. He has worked as an elementary school teacher for the past 25 years in his native San Luis de Puna, a remote village in Cajamarca, a northern region. He campaigned wearing rubber sandals and a wide-brimmed hat, like the peasants in his community, where 40 per cent of children are chronically malnourished.

In 2017, he led the largest teacher strike in 30 years in search of better pay and, although he did not achieve substantial improvements, he sat down to talk with Cabinet ministers, legislators and bureaucrats.

Over the past two decades, Peruvians have seen the previous political experience and university degrees of their five former presidents did not help fight corruption. All former Peruvian presidents who governed since 1985 have been ensnared in corruption allegations, some imprisoned or arrested in their mansions. One died by suicide before police could take him into custody. The South American country cycled through three presidents last November.

Mr Castillo recalled that the first turn in his life occurred one night as a child when his teacher persuaded his father to allow him to finish his primary education at a school two hours from home. It happened while both adults chewed coca leaves, an Andean custom to reduce fatigue.

“He suffered a lot in his childhood,” said his wife, teacher Lilia Paredes. The couple has two children.

He got used to long walks. He would arrive at the classroom with his peasant sandals, with a woolen saddlebag on his shoulder, a notebook and his lunch that comprised sweet potatoes or tamales.

Mr Castillo said his life was marked by the work he did as a child with his eight siblings, but also by the memory of the treatment that his illiterate parents received from the owner of the land where they lived. He cried when he remembered that if the rent was not paid, the landowner kept the best crops.

“You kept looking at what you had sown, you clutched your stomach, and I will not forget that, I will not forgive it either,” he said.

Updated: July 20, 2021, 8:13 AM