Misc 10/06/2021

Pedro Castillo, the teacher with a pencil who will preside over Peru

Trade unionist and teacher, Peru's new leader wants to regain control of natural resources

3 min
Pedro Castillo, candidate of the left and virtual president of Peru.

Santiago, ChileThe official tally of Peru's elections is not yet finished, but Pedro Castillo, the leftist candidate, has already celebrated his victory. He has done so from Lima, at his party headquarters, with confetti and fireworks. "The people have spoken. According to our auditors, we already have an official count, and the people have won this victory".

Just two months ago, no one imagined that the 51-year-old teacher and trade unionist would be the next president of Peru. Castillo is a rural man of humble origins, born in Puña, a village of about 400 inhabitants located in an impoverished and isolated area of the Cajamarca region, in the Andean mountain range, north of the country.

In rural Peru in the late 1960s, learning to read and write was not a possibility for most children. Castillo walked two hours on mountain roads to get to school each morning, not leaving the animals and the land behind when he returned home. Then he worked selling ice cream in the city and planting rice in the Amazon to pay his way through school. Perhaps that is why, during the campaign, he has turned the pencil into a symbol of his party, Peru Libre, which defines itself as left-wing Marxist. He wears it printed on the white shirts he usually wears, along with a straw hat. He has made education one of the major themes of his candidacy and of his life. He studied teaching and became a primary school teacher in a rural school in 1995, and also holds a master's degree in educational psychology.

"Never again a poor man in a rich country!"

The teacher got his first taste of institutional politics in 2002, when he tried to become mayor of a small town for Peru Posible, the party of former President Alejandro Toledo. But it was not until four years ago that he first gained notoriety by leading a long teachers' strike to demand better pay. After this episode, his name was forgotten until he announced his presidential candidacy in 2020, once the disqualification of the leader of his party for corruption was confirmed. Since then, he has not stopped repeating his campaign slogan: "Never again a poor man in a rich country!".

In the first round, to the surprise of many, his popularity skyrocketed and has even become the subject of songs. "Castillo's campaign closings in the southern areas have been apotheosic, I don't remember mobilizations of this kind. The images are moving in a country where one of the main problems of the political system is the lack of representation", says political scientist and researcher at the Institute of Peruvian Studies, Paolo Sosa. Many connected with his speech, says Sosa, after the first round: "Half the country didn't know who Castillo was, but a few weeks ago he received the press at his home, on his farm, surrounded by animals, and many identified with him".

A New Constitution

The promise of a new Constitution has been Castillo's great banner. A proposal that he has pledged to implement during the first 100 days of his mandate. "The current Constitution only allows for partial or total reform through Congress, not through a constituent assembly, as he proposes," explains Sosa. According to him, fulfilling the promise in the short term, "for now, is not possible". "The two forces of the Peruvian left do not have a majority in Congress, so Castillo will have to negotiate with more conservative parties to favor governability", adds Natali Durand, an analyst and professor at the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos in Lima.

The teacher intends to regain control of natural resources and renegotiate the conditions of companies in sectors such as oil and gas. He also proposes a tax reform and a change in the current private pension model. In social policies, women's rights and the rights of LGTBIQ+ groups are the pending issue criticized by part of his sector: "He is conservative, but that doesn't mean that there can't be a dialogue. He has shown a certain openness and there has already been a rapprochement on the part of some feminist groups", says Durand. Although he has a radical commitment to change the model, it remains to be seen how effective it will be: "There won't be a drastic change, it will be gradual with specific policies of inclusion", says Sosa. Be that as it may, Castillo is about to move from his school to the government palace.