Rural school teacher Pedro Castillo was largely unknown in Peru until he led a nationwide strike four years ago.
Now the 51-year-old far-left trade unionist, rarely without the wide-brimmed white hat characteristic of his native Cajamarca region, has a chance to become Peru’s next president.
Facing neoliberal Keiko Fujimori in Sunday’s elections, Castillo pledged to nationalize Peru’s vast mineral resources, expel foreigners who commit crimes in the country and move towards reinstating the death penalty.
One thing unlikely to change under a Castillo presidency is the socially conservative nature of the Peruvian state: it is Catholic and fiercely opposed to same-sex marriage, elective abortion, and euthanasia.
He frequently quotes the Bible to make his arguments understood.
In April, Castillo surprised more than one by taking the lead in the race to become Peru’s fifth president in three years.
He did not rank among the top five picks in opinion polls until a first round of voting contested by a record number of 18 candidates.
Yet Castillo garnered nearly 20% of the votes cast amid a raging Covid-19 epidemic he also suffered when he contracted the virus last year.
A poll released a week before Sunday’s vote showed Castillo to lead with 42% of voters’ intentions, compared to Fujimori’s 40%.
– ‘Clean hands’ –
Castillo burst onto the national scene four years ago when he led thousands of teachers in an almost 80-day strike to demand a pay rise and the repeal of an unpopular student assessment system. teacher performance.
The strike left 3.5 million public school students without classes and forced then-president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who initially refused to negotiate, give in and accept the strikers’ demands.
In an attempt to delegitimize the protest, then Interior Minister Carlos Basombrio claimed that its leaders were linked to Movadef, the political wing of the Shining Path Maoist guerrilla group, described as an organization. “terrorist” by Lima.
Castillo, who had participated in armed “peasant patrols” that resisted Shining Path incursions at the height of Peru’s internal conflict from 1980 to 2000, vehemently dismissed the allegations.
He was born in Puna, a town in Cajamarca, where he worked as a rural schoolteacher from the age of 24.
He almost always wears the traditional Cajamarca hat, likes to don a poncho and shoes made from recycled tires, and has arrived on horseback – the region’s traditional form of transport – to vote in the first round.
“I come with clean hands, I am a man of work, a man of faith, a man of hope,” he described himself recently.
– Minerals “must be nationalized” –
Campaigning for the Peru Free party, Castillo pledged radical change to improve the plight of Peruvians struggling with a recession made worse by the pandemic, rising unemployment and poverty.
He aimed to create a million jobs in one year, denying any intention to confiscate workers’ pensions, as his critics claim.
“We are not going to take the savings of working people, we will respect private property … workers own their savings,” he said.
But Castillo said Peru’s mineral and hydrocarbon wealth “must be nationalized.”
Peru is a major producer of copper, gold, silver, lead and zinc, and mining brings in 10% of national GDP and a fifth of corporate taxes.
Castillo pledged public investments to revive the economy through infrastructure projects, public procurement with small businesses and to “curb imports that affect national industry and the peasantry”.
But he sought to dispel claims that “we’re going to take your wine farm, we’re going to take your house, your property.”
– Deport foreign criminals –
Among his most controversial campaign promises, Castillo pledged to deport illegal aliens who commit crimes in Peru, giving them “72 hours … to leave the country”.
The comment was seen 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 to defend the regime of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whose re-election in 2018 is not recognized by more than 50 countries.
To fight crime, Castillo proposed removing Peru from the American Convention on Human Rights, or Pact of San José, to allow it to reintroduce the death penalty.
On social issues, he made his position clear.
“I would not legalize abortion at all and, worse yet, same-sex marriage,” he told RPP radio in April.
If elected, Castillo said he would forgo his presidential salary and continue to live off his teaching income.
His wife joined him for the first time in a campaign event at a closing rally Thursday, where Castillo urged his supporters to be “vigilant” throughout the vote counting process on Sunday.
© 2021 AFP