Rural teacher Pedro Castillo sworn in as Peru’s new president, promises to be a champion of the poor


Pedro Castillo, a leftist political novice who has promised to be a champion of his country's poor, became Peru's new president on Wednesday.

Pedro Castillo was sworn in as Peru's president on Wednesday. He's shown in Lima ahead of the inauguration ceremony.(Ernesto Benavides/AFP/Getty Images)

Pedro Castillo, a leftist political novice who has promised to be a champion of his country's poor, on Wednesday became Peru's new president.

The rural teacher who has never held political office before was sworn in less than two weeks after he was declared the winner of the June 6 run-off election.

At a ceremony in the capital of Lima, Castillo made a commitment "for God, for my family, for my peasant sisters and brothers, teachers, patrolmen, children, youth and women, and for a new constitution." He then sang the national anthem, taking off his signature hat and placing it over his heart.

He is Peru's first president of peasant origin and succeeds President Francisco Sagasti, who was appointed by Peru's Congress in November to lead the South American nation after weeks of political turmoil.

Challenges for new leader

Castillo, who up until days ago lived with his family in an adobe home deep in the Andes, will face a deeply divided Congress — making it extremely challenging for him to fulfil his ill-defined campaign promises to aid the poor, who are now estimated to make up about one-third of the country's population of 33.5 million.

His political savviness will be immediately tested, and his ability to reach agreements could even determine if Congress allows him to finish his term.

A woman jogs and waves a Peruvian flag Wednesday, on the day of Castillo's inauguration. He has promised to be a champion of the country's poor, who are now estimated to make up about a third of Peru's population.(Gerardo Marin/Reuters)

"The government of Pedro Castillo still maintains us with considerable uncertainty; we still do not have clear his main lines of policy," said Claudia Navas, an analyst with the global consulting firm Control Risks.

"However, we foresee that possibly, due to the characteristics of the Peruvian political system and the current general political and economic situation of the country, Castillo will maintain a more pragmatic position than he announced during the campaign."

She added, "The key is to build those consensuses and add strength to the proposals on how he is going to achieve them."

Slim margin of victory

Castillo, 51, defeated his opponent, right-wing career politician Keiko Fujimori, by just 44,000 votes.

Peru's poor and rural citizens supported Castillo and his slogan "No more poor in a rich country," while the elites favoured Fujimori, the daughter of controversial former president Alberto Fujimori. He stunned voters and observers by rising from a pool of 18 candidates and advancing to the runoff, in first place no less.

Castillo and his wife, Lilia Paredes, walk toward the Peruvian Congress on Wednesday. He defeated his opponent, right-wing career politician Keiko Fujimori, by just 44,000 votes.(Sebastian Castaneda/Reuters)

Castillo's initial proposal to nationalize the country's mining industry set off alarm bells among business leaders. While that stance has softened, he remains committed to rewriting the constitution that was approved under the regime of Fujimori's father.

Peru is the second-largest copper exporter in the world, and mining accounts for almost 10 per cent of its GDP and 60 per cent of its exports. Its economy has been crushed by the coronavirus pandemic, increasing the poverty level and eliminating the gains of a decade.

I want you to know that the pride and pain of deep Peru runs through my veins. That I, too, am the son of this country founded on the sweat of my ancestors, built on the lack of opportunity of my parents and that despite that, I also saw it resist," Castillo said.

"That my life was made in the cold of the early mornings in the field, and that it was also these hands from the countryside that carried and rocked my children when they were little. That the history of this long-silenced Peru is also my history."

Political uncertainty

In November, Peru had three presidents in a single week after one was impeached by Congress over corruption allegations and protests forced his successor to resign. Lawmakers then appointed Sagasti.

Supporters of Castillo launch fireworks during a live broadcast of his swearing-in ceremony at a public square in Tacabamba, Peru, on Wednesday.(Francisco Vigo/The Associated Press)

Thousands of small businesses have closed over the past 16 months, and the political uncertainty following the election has led to the withdrawal of millions of dollars from local banks.

Enrique Castellanos, an economics professor at University of the Pacific in Peru, told a radio station that Castillo must build trust in the business community.

"Confidence takes time to maintain, and it goes away very quickly," he said.

The pandemic has pushed Peru's medical and cemetery infrastructure beyond capacity. It has also deepened people's mistrust of government, which mismanaged the COVID-19 response. A secret vaccination drive for the well connected erupted into a national scandal.

Castillo has promised COVID-19 vaccines for all Peruvians.

Until recently, Castillo was a rural school teacher in the country's third-poorest district. The son of illiterate peasants, he led a teachers' strike in 2017.

The new president has lived with his wife and two children in an adobe home that he built in rural Chugur more than 20 years ago. On Wednesday, he announced he will not govern from the neo-baroque presidential palace, which he said will become a museum.

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