Socialist school teacher to be sworn in as Peru’s president on 200th independence anniversary

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(NEW YORK) — A rural schoolteacher and son of illiterate campesinos from the Andean highlands is poised to be sworn in as Peru’s president Wednesday, the same day the country will commemorate its 200th anniversary of independence from Spain. His inauguration comes after a fiercely contested presidential runoff last month.

The moonshot candidacy and ultimate victory of leftist Pedro Castillo, whose ascension from political oblivion as a fiery union leader, was announced last week after one of the most protracted political battles in Peru’s history. His far-right challenger, Keiko Fujimori, daughter of jailed former President Alberto Fujimori, refused to concede for over a month, alleging widespread voter fraud with sparse evidence.

Castillo’s win has rattled Peru’s coastal elites and electrified its marginalized peasant and Indigenous classes hailing from the Andes and Amazon regions, hundreds of whom have descended on the capital, Lima, to serve as ronderos, or peasant patrollers in support of the president-elect.

“Those with power in this country treat us like second-class citizens. We’re here to reclaim what is ours,” said Maruja Inquilla Sucasaca, a Quechua environmentalist from Puno in southeastern Peru.

The final tally hinged on just 44,000 votes. Castillo’s Marxist Leninist party, Peru Libre, clinched 50.1% of votes to Fujimori’s conservative Fuerza Popular party, which took 49.9%.

Backed by a battalion of lawyers, Fujimori delayed certification of Castillo’s victory for over 40 days, seeking to disqualify 200,000 votes in Indigenous and rural enclaves in which he drew overwhelming support.

In a speech last week, Fujimori maintained that thousands of votes were stolen from her. She decried the electoral commission’s results as “illegitimate” and encouraged supporters to continue to mobilize, while also signaling she would honor the results.

International observers, including the Organization of American States, have called the elections free and fair. In a statement last week, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the Biden Administration is “eager to work with President-Elect Castillo’s administration.”

“She undertook a Trump-like effort to delegitimize the election,” said Brian Winter, vice president of policy at Americas Society/Council of the Americas. “But under extreme pressure, the electoral authority managed to appear sober, even-handed and calm.”

Keiko Fujimori is heiress to a political dynasty forged by her father, Alberto Fujimori, a towering and deeply polarizing figure who ruled the Andean nation with an authoritarian grip from 1990-2000.

Despite suspending the constitution and sanctioning death-squads to suppress Maoist guerrilla insurgencies in the 1990s, many credit him for laying the foundation of Peru’s modern economy. Fujimori, 82, is currently serving a 25-year sentence for human rights violations.

“It’s almost impossible to separate her identity from the nostalgia a part of Peruvian society feels toward her father,” said Winter. “She has now twice come within a very close distance of the presidency. It’s premature to declare her career over.”

For weeks, Fujimori’s supporters have camped in front of Peru’s supreme court demanding an international audit of votes.

“In this election fraud and the scourge of communism won. We’re here to fight for our democracy,” said one supporter, Fredy Gonzales, 60.

Four blocks away, in front of the national electoral commision headquarters, rural supporters of Castillo said they were camped out to “defend” the electoral authority and safeguard their votes. Some carried traditional Andean whips known as chicotes in case of unrest.

“We’ll stay until his inauguration, but if the president of the people calls on us, we’ll return as many times as he needs us,” said Jaime Diaz, 49, another Quechua supporter.

The cornerstone of 51-year-old Pedro Castillo’s campaign, a slogan as well-worn as his straw hat: “No more poor people in a rich country.” The president-elect, who hails from Cajamarca in Peru’s rugged north, has promised to rewrite the country’s constitution and redistribute mineral wealth. Peru is the world’s second-largest copper producer.

Castillo’s victory comes amid ever-deepening political turmoil. Peru has endured four presidents and two congresses in the past five years.

Castillo’s rise from a cow and chicken-raising provincial school teacher came in 2017 when he gained national recognition as leader of a prolonged teachers strike. His victory has served as a blunt rebuke of Peru’s political and business class in Lima, many of whom fear the proposed economic policies of his Marxist party will plunge the country into a crisis the likes of neighboring Venezuela.

On Wednesday Castillo will take the helm of a nation reeling from economic and public health crises. Over 195,000 Peruvians have died from COVID-19, the highest per capita death rate in the world.

Addressing hundreds of supporters from a balcony in central Lima Friday, Castillo vowed to vaccinate all Peruvians and recharge a stagnant economy. He also sought to allay concern he will transform Peru into a socialist Venezuela or Cuba.

“I categorically reject the notion that we’re going to bring in models from other countries. We are not Chavistas, we are not communists or extremists, much less terrorists.”

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