LIMA: Rural school teacher Pedro Castillo will be the first President of Peru on Wednesday to have no ties to the elites who ruled the Andean country for decades.
The 51-year-old left-wing trade unionist was virtually unknown until four years ago he led a nationwide strike that forced the then government to agree to a wage increase.
He was born to a family of peasants in the tiny village of Pune in the historic district of Cajamarca, where he worked as a teacher for 24 years.
He grew up helping his parents work on the farm, and as a child he had to walk a few kilometers to school.
Today, he is rarely without the trademark white wide-brimmed hat of his beloved Cajamarca, where the last Inca emperor Atahualpa was killed in the main square in 1533 by the Spanish conquistadors.
Castillo loves to don ponchos and shoes made from recycled tires and has traveled on horseback for most of his presidential campaign, expressing frustration with the struggling Peruvians and posing as a man of the people.
“There are no more poor people in a rich country,” he said, speaking for the Peru Libre (Free Peru) party.
He said that he would give up the presidential salary and continue to live on the earnings of a teacher, and called himself “a man of labor, a man of faith, a man of hope.”
Castillo is, according to analyst Hugo Otero, “the first poor president of Peru.”
– Surprise victory –
In April, Castillo surprised many by leading the race to become the fifth President of Peru in three years, beating 17 other candidates.
He then challenged right-wing candidate Keiko Fujimori in a second round, promising sweeping changes that would improve the plight of Peruvians struggling with a recession exacerbated by a pandemic, rising unemployment and poverty.
One thing that is unlikely to change under Castillo’s presidency is the socially conservative nature of the Peruvian state: he is Catholic and strongly opposed to same-sex marriage, elective abortion and euthanasia.
He often quotes the Bible to prove his point, and in his two-story brick house in the village of Chugur in Cajamarca, there is a picture of Jesus surrounded by sheep with the inscription in English: “Jehovah is my shepherd.”
– Respect for private property –
Castillo set a goal to create a million jobs a year and initially pledged that Peru’s mining and hydrocarbon wealth “should be nationalized,” although he has since softened his statement.
Peru is a major producer of copper, gold, silver, lead and zinc, and mining accounts for 10% of national GDP and a fifth of corporate taxes.
He pledged government investment to revive the economy through infrastructure projects, government procurement from small businesses and “curbing imports that affect the national industry and peasantry.”
Among his most controversial campaign promises, Castillo promised to expel illegal foreigners committing crimes in Peru, giving them “72 hours … to leave the country.”
The comment was taken as a warning to undocumented Venezuelan migrants who have arrived in the hundreds of thousands since 2017.
Free Peru is one of the few left-wing Peruvian parties defending the regime of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whose re-election in 2018 has not been recognized by dozens of countries.
In order to fight crime, Castillo proposed removing Peru from the American Convention on Human Rights or the San Jose Covenant to allow him to reintroduce the death penalty.
He also discussed replacing Peru’s free-market-friendly constitution, a holdover from the father of his rival, ex-President Alberto Fujimori, who is serving a prison sentence for corruption and crimes against humanity.
– “The humble man” –
Castillo burst onto the national scene four years ago when he led thousands of teachers in a nearly 80-day strike demanding higher wages.
As a result, 3.5 million students in public schools were left without lessons and forced then-President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who at first refused to negotiate, to give up his seat.
In an attempt to delegitimize the protest, then Interior Minister Carlos Basombrio said its leaders had ties to Movadef, the political wing of the defeated Maoist guerrilla group Shining Path, which Lima dubbed a “terrorist” organization.
Castillo, who participated in the armed “peasant patrols” or ronderos that resisted the incursions of the Shining Path during the height of the internal conflict in Peru from 1980 to 2000, vehemently denied the accusations.
Today, his home is guarded by a ronderos, swinging a cane and leather whips.
Next to his home, Castillo has a one-hectare farm where he grows corn and sweet potatoes, and also raises chickens and cows.
At a meeting with interim President Francisco Sagasti at the government palace last week, he jokingly asked where he would place all of his farm animals. – AFP