August 3, 2021
From Popular Resistance

Above Photo:

Pedro Castillo, president of Peru, describes his journey from elementary school teacher to trade union militant to the cusp of state power.

Peru’s presidential campaign between leftist Pedro Castillo and right-wing Keiko Fujimori has been an epic struggle. When it was clear that Castillo would win with a razor-thin margin, Fujimori — like Donald Trump — cried fraud and is now trying to carry out an electoral coup. While international observers, and even the US State Department, agree that the elections were free and fair, Fujimori’s legal maneuvers have managed to delay the official declaration of the winner, sow even more division among the public, and embolden the far right.

As an elementary school teacher from an isolated rural village, Pedro Castillo, is unlike anyone who has ever governed Peru. The fifty-one-year-old Castillo gained prominence when he led a nationwide teachers’ strike in 2017. In January 2020, the leftist Peru Libre (Free Peru) party asked him to be their presidential candidate. He was one of the least known among eighteen contenders in the first round, which is why it was so shocking that he came out on top, making it into the run-off election.

I was part of an election observer delegation organized by Progressive International, and we joined with a group from Democratic Socialists of America. We had an opportunity to meet with Castillo on June 4, just two days before the election. Below are excerpts from our discussion with him.

—Medea Benjamin

I was born and raised in a small town called Puña, in the northern region of Cajamarca. I became a teacher in the same rural grade school where my father first registered me; I spent twenty-four years working in the same school.

It has been a great honor for me to be a teacher, a leader in the teachers’ union, a farmer, and a rondero [member of a volunteer neighborhood patrol], where we’ve fought crime, delinquency, and many problems facing our rural communities.

Since I was young, I have always fought to get an education. My parents are illiterate. My father barely writes a line that he uses as a signature, my mother doesn’t know the letters of the alphabet. I am one of nine siblings. It was a great accomplishment for me to finish high school, which I did thanks to the help of my parents and my brothers and sisters.

I continued my education, doing what I could to earn a living. I worked in the coffee fields. I came to Lima to sell newspapers. I sold ice cream. I cleaned toilets in hotels. I saw the harsh reality for workers in the countryside and the city.

After returning home to teach, I became the principal of the school. We struggled together to help our families because in Puña, we had no help from the state. We built that little school by ourselves. We built our own road, which you can only get through during the summer, and even then, it’s not easy.

This year we are celebrating the bicentennial of Peru as a republic, yet after two hundred years, we still have a high level of illiteracy, and the homes of my parents and neighbors don’t have electricity, lights, or running water. There’s a totally abandoned health center where once in a while a nurse comes by and maybe you can find a bandage or a few pills for all the families.

As I traveled in rural areas across the country, I found conditions similar to my hometown. Further into the Amazon, conditions are even worse. People there have nothing; they are totally abandoned by the state.

That’s why there have been so many protests. There are fewer people out in the streets recently because of the pandemic, but people have been out for years demanding justice and shouting that all politicians should resign. We have a congress with almost no approval or legitimacy. Our institutions do not care about the great needs of the country. There are many open wounds in our society that go unaddressed. There are the female victims who were forcibly sterilized under the regime of Alberto Fujimori, people massacred by government militias such as the young students from the university in La Cantuta or people in Barrios Altos. There are mothers and girls who are victims of violence. Now with the pandemic, there are thousands of people who lost their jobs and are demanding work.

Peru currently has hundreds of social conflicts and when people have taken their complaints to the government, the best the government does is hold a dialogue to appease people but they don’t solve any problems. The government does not have the will or the capacity to solve the great problems the country faces.

With the pandemic, it has become clearer to people that we need structural change in the country. The problem of the pandemic in Peru isn’t just a health problem. It is a structural problem. It’s a crisis that has been building for a long time.

Peru is such a wealthy country but so much of the wealth, such as copper, gold, and silver, goes to foreigners. At the ports, you see an endless stream of trucks taking away the resources of the country and just two hundred meters away, you see a barefoot child, a child with tuberculosis, a child full of parasites. That is why we must renegotiate the contracts with big companies so that more of the profits remain in Peru and benefit the people. We must reexamine the free trade agreements we have signed with other countries so that we can promote local businesses.

That’s why we have to change the Constitution. Our present constitution was written in 1993 under the Fujimori dictatorship. It treats health care as a service, not a right. It treats education as a service, not a right. And it is designed for the benefit of businesses, not people.

When I went from town to town, I would ask: “Raise your hand if any person from this town was summoned to help draft the 1993 Constitution?” So far I have not found any. Our current constitution was not written for or by the people and it doesn’t protect us.

If you go to court to demand that the state provide poor communities with water, education, or health care, the court says that it’s unconstitutional because these are services, not rights. You go to court to demand good roads so that farmers’ products don’t rot and can get to market, the courts will say it’s unconstitutional to demand this kind of help from the state.

So we have gone to the communities and we have said that we, the Peru Libre party, propose the following: Let’s hold a referendum and ask Peruvians if they want to rewrite the Constitution. We talk to people about our alternatives. We encourage them to make a leap and participate with us in the democratic process so that we can finally change our constitution.

We encourage them to join us fighting the tremendous problem of corruption, which has become institutionalized in Peru. We can’t support a state controlled by drug cartels and organized crime.

The elites and corrupt forces have thrown everything at us, trying to create fear in the minds of people so that they would hold their noses and vote for my corrupt opponent. They called us terrorists. They said that we are going to take people’s homes away, that we are going to take away their land, their savings. Due to these accusations, the price of the dollar has risen, so has bread and even chicken. Everything has gone up in price.

And the press has either lied about us or ignored us. There have not been any reports, written or televised, that have talked honestly about our proposals.

So we have great obstacles, including in Congress. But if Congress tries to stop us from making the changes we need, we will continue to mobilize people in the streets. I come from these grassroots struggles. I still carry the marks of the pellets and bullets on my back and legs. This fight has touched me personally in many ways and that is why I am here. I’m not motivated by any other kind of interest. I’m here for the people of this country and our fight will not end until we achieve dignity for all.

As I have said throughout the campaign, “No more poor people in a rich country. I give you my word as a teacher.”