Dispatch

Can Pedro Castillo Save His Presidency?

The Peruvian president’s first months in office have been characterized by chaos, extremism, and—critics say—sheer incompetence.

By , a British journalist based in Lima, Peru.
Peruvian President Pedro Castillo arrives to address the U.N. General Assembly.
Peruvian President Pedro Castillo arrives to address the annual gathering for the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 21. Mary Altaffer - Pool/Getty Images

LIMA, Peru—After two months as Peru’s president, the responsibilities of leading a country ravaged by corruption and political turmoil were starting to sink in for Pedro Castillo. The country’s currency, the sol, was plummeting, and foreign investment had slowed to a trickle. Peru’s per capita COVID-19 death toll, meanwhile, remained the worst in the world. Castillo—an avowed leftist—was suddenly keen to ditch many of his populist, and potentially costly, campaign promises.

When Castillo addressed the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States in Washington last month, the former union leader and rural school teacher tried to soothe market fears, despite the explicitly Marxist-Leninist platform of his Free Peru party. In particular, he needed to assure Peru’s vast mining sector, which he had previously vowed to nationalize, that his government was not about to initiate any drastic reforms.

“We’re not communists. We haven’t come here to expropriate from anyone,” Castillo said. “We haven’t come to scare away investments. On the contrary, we’re calling on big investors, on businesspeople, to come to Peru.”

LIMA, Peru—After two months as Peru’s president, the responsibilities of leading a country ravaged by corruption and political turmoil were starting to sink in for Pedro Castillo. The country’s currency, the sol, was plummeting, and foreign investment had slowed to a trickle. Peru’s per capita COVID-19 death toll, meanwhile, remained the worst in the world. Castillo—an avowed leftist—was suddenly keen to ditch many of his populist, and potentially costly, campaign promises.

When Castillo addressed the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States in Washington last month, the former union leader and rural school teacher tried to soothe market fears, despite the explicitly Marxist-Leninist platform of his Free Peru party. In particular, he needed to assure Peru’s vast mining sector, which he had previously vowed to nationalize, that his government was not about to initiate any drastic reforms.

“We’re not communists. We haven’t come here to expropriate from anyone,” Castillo said. “We haven’t come to scare away investments. On the contrary, we’re calling on big investors, on businesspeople, to come to Peru.”

Yet less than a week later, any fences Castillo managed to mend with Peru’s business community were dynamited by his erratic, combative prime minister, Guido Bellido, whom Castillo later ousted on Oct. 6. Known for his homophobic and misogynistic views—not to mention his social media posts supporting the Shining Path, the Maoist fanatics who slaughtered thousands of Peruvians in the 1980s and 1990s—Bellido tweeted a threat out of the blue to seize Camisea, a natural gas field in the Amazon that is Peru’s largest ever energy project.

Calling on the consortium exploiting the field—whose members include Texas’s Hunt Oil—to “renegotiate the distribution of profits,” Bellido, a Quechua-speaking longtime activist, warned that any company refusal to participate in talks over higher taxes and royalties with the Castillo administration would be met with the “recovery or nationalization of our reserve.”

Bellido’s bombshell highlighted the chaos, extremism, factional infighting, and—critics say—sheer incompetence that has characterized Castillo’s incipient presidency, to the point where his ability to cling to power, just 11 weeks into his five-year term, is now in real doubt.

Castillo’s Free Peru has just 37 seats in the 130-member legislature, which is dominated by conservative opposition parties, many viscerally hostile to the new government. That’s a risky position for any leader in a political system that established the precedent—with the ousting of the centrist Martín Vizcarra last November—that presidents can, effectively, be impeached without cause. It’s especially tricky for one struggling to control his own administration, let alone contain the antagonistic opposition.


Bellido’s threat, which had not been discussed in the cabinet, ended up dominating the news cycle for days—even though it made no political sense whatsoever. Any such attempt to take control of Camisea against the consortium’s wishes would almost certainly have led to the World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes ordering Peru to pay a huge amount of compensation, said Augusto Astorga, a lawyer who specializes in the energy sector at CMS Grau, a Lima-based law firm.

Yet the government should be aiming any ire over Peru’s failure to fully take advantage of the Camisea windfall closer to home. The consortium currently exports most of the natural gas it extracts but has also been forced to reinject around 20 percent, which was supposed to supply the domestic market, back underground. There just isn’t enough demand for the fuel within Peru—a direct result of successive governments, over a period of two decades, failing to create the infrastructure, including the trans-Andean pipeline, needed to use the gas for mass consumption in Lima and other cities’ residential sectors.

Many different actors are responsible for that failure, but almost all of them are found, from the municipal to the national level, within the Peruvian state. “They clearly don’t know the first thing about the gas sector,” Astorga said of Bellido and his Free Peru comrades.

The Camisea controversy came on top of a festering scandal over Castillo’s labor minister, Iber Maraví, who is allegedly not just a Shining Path sympathizer but had once been a bombmaker for the insurgents. Maraví denies the accusation, but few outside Free Peru were convinced by his explanations when he was interrogated by Peru’s Congress on Sept. 30. Maraví did offer his resignation, but Castillo, without giving any public explanation, refused to accept it.

Meanwhile, the president’s authority took a further hit with local media’s release of a series of messages from a WhatsApp group of Free Peru hard-liners criticizing the government’s supposed abandoning of its revolutionary principles. In one message, Bellido called for the resignation of Óscar Maúrtua, the experienced, pragmatic foreign minister, apparently because he views Venezuela as a dictatorship. It appears the prime minister actually sent the message as he presided over a cabinet meeting, sitting just feet from Maúrtua.

The scandals have highlighted the inability of Castillo, who first rose to fame during a teachers’ strike in 2017 against reforms in Peru’s drastically underperforming education sector, to establish authority over his warring administration. The neophyte head of state, who had never previously held public office, has appeared to be a bystander in his own government, one who largely avoids making public statements, has given no press conferences or media interviews since his inauguration on July 28, and barely talks during cabinet meetings.

According to one recent poll, 6 out of 10 Peruvians think he lacks “leadership.” His shock victory has been widely attributed, in large part, to Peruvians’ contempt for the political establishment and aversion, in particular, to his opponent, corruption-tainted Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the disgraced 1990s strongman president Alberto Fujimori, who is now serving a 25-year sentence for directing death squads.


More than anything else, Castillo has been overshadowed by Vladimir Cerrón, the Cuban-trained neuroscientist who founded Free Peru and plucked Castillo from relative obscurity to be the party’s presidential candidate after a corruption conviction barred him from running. Even though Cerrón now faces another dozen separate graft investigations, he has refused to take a backseat since his protégé’s unexpected triumph in last June’s presidential runoff.

The deeply unpopular former regional governor now routinely tweets inflammatory attacks on Castillo and his more moderate ministers for supposedly betraying both “the people” and Free Peru’s Marxist principles. “Castillo’s learning the hard way how different it is actually being president rather than the union leader, on the outside, who can get away with criticizing everything,” said Arturo Maldonado, a political scientist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. “He’s finding it difficult to make decisions. He’s introspective and calculating. He listens and listens but doesn’t take a position.”

Yet after weeks of being sidelined within his own government, Castillo finally retook some initiative on Oct. 6, forcing Bellido, Maraví, and several other hard-line ministers, who were conspicuously more loyal to Cerrón than to the president, to resign. He may have had little choice, with Congress on a war footing.

Peruvians have generally viewed the new cabinet as an improvement, although it still has some problematic members. The most controversial ministers are gone: Bellido has been replaced by Mirtha Vásquez, an environmentalist lawyer and former speaker of Congress with impeccable credentials both as a leftist and as a democrat. She’s more in line with Chile and Uruguay’s former presidents—Michelle Bachelet and José Mujica, respectively—than the “Bolivarian socialists” that have led Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia in recent years. Incoming Culture Minister Gisela Ortiz is a longtime human rights campaigner, whose life’s work could not contrast more starkly with Free Peru’s Shining Path apologists.

Still, Cerrón has not lost all his influence. By far the most controversial of the new ministers is Interior Minister Luis Barranzuela. A former police officer with an appalling disciplinary record, Barranzuela was, until joining the cabinet, Cerrón’s defense lawyer as he fights to stay out of jail.

The cabinet shake-up may still leave Castillo vulnerable, especially in Congress.

Antonio Maldonado, a former prosecutor who led Alberto Fujimori’s extradition from Chile in 2007, warned that the new interior minister might now be able to protect his former client, who potentially faces a lengthy jail sentence. “It casts a shadow over the interior ministry and the police,” he added. “Was this appointment just negligent, or is there an attempt to neuter these investigations?”

The cabinet shake-up, however, may still leave Castillo vulnerable, especially in Congress, should Free Peru choose to abandon him for his supposed betrayal. But it is in line with the president’s own convictions, which appear more rooted in vindicating his identity as a mestizo outsider and tackling poverty in Peru’s marginalized rural hinterland than dogmatic loyalty to any specific political ideology.

Indeed, it is that very identity that, along with widespread distaste for the political class, helped sweep Castillo, previously affiliated with the centrist Possible Peru party, to power. Despite Cerrón’s constant talk of supposed demand for revolutionary change from “the people,” recent polling shows most Peruvians are actually centrists, keen for incremental change to make the Peruvian state more efficient, clean, and responsive. Just 1 in 4 voters identifies as “left,” and that includes the center left. Nevertheless, with voting compulsory in a society worn out by the pandemic and never-ending political scandals, Castillo, with his humble, provincial authenticity, managed to strike Peruvians as the least bad candidate.

“The polarization is being driven more by political elites who feed off extremist discourses to gain visibility, likes, and airtime than at the social level,” said Jo-Marie Burt, a political scientist at George Mason University, who has studied Peru for decades. “Among ordinary Peruvians, we see less this intense polarization and more a general sense of frustration over the failure of the political system and the elites to address the country’s multiple crises.” Maldonado, the political scientist at Peru’s Pontifical Catholic University, calls it a “polarization of political supply, not demand.”

With Bellido and Maraví sacked and large-scale nationalizations apparently ruled out, any immediate risk of impeachment may have receded. One of the lessons of Vizcarra’s controversial ousting last year—and the mere five days that his replacement, Manuel Merino, the conservative speaker of Congress, lasted as president—is that it is easier to remove a head of state than it is to replace one, and such moves most definitely need popular legitimacy.

For now, Castillo appears safe. But unless he further moderates his administration’s agenda—and, above all, learns how to wield the power of his office—the specter of impeachment will almost certainly come back to haunt him.

Simeon Tegel is a British journalist based in Lima, Peru. He regularly roams across Latin America, where he has lived for more than a decade, and specializes in the environment, human rights, and democracy. His work has been widely published in outlets, including the Independent, Vice, and USA Today.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

The Pentagon is seen from the air over Washington, D.C., on Aug. 25, 2013.

The Pentagon’s Office Culture Is Stuck in 1968

The U.S. national security bureaucracy needs a severe upgrade.

The Azerbaijani army patrols the streets of Shusha on Sept. 25 under a sign that reads: "Dear Shusha, you are free. Dear Shusha, we are back. Dear Shusha, we will resurrect you. Shusha is ours."

From the Ruins of War, a Tourist Resort Emerges

Shusha was the key to the recent war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Now Baku wants to turn the fabled fortress town into a resort.

Frances Pugh in 2019's Midsommar.

Scandinavia’s Horror Renaissance and the Global Appeal of ‘Fakelore’

“Midsommar” and “The Ritual” are steeped in Scandinavian folklore. Or are they?