Peru’s pencil-carrying new president: Pedro Castillo faces ‘major challenges’

The former school teacher is promising new constitution for pandemic-ravaged country

Pedro Castillo during a campaign rally in Lima
Pedro Castillo at campaign rally in Lima
(Image credit: Raul Sifuentes/Getty Images)

A former teacher born to illiterate parents in rural Peru has been sworn in as the country’s president after promising reform and an end to corruption.

Pedro Castillo “stunned voters and political observers by emerging from a group of 18 candidates” in the April election and advancing to the run-off last month, says Sky News. And despite having “never held political office before”, the broadcaster continues, he narrowly beat right-wing Popular Force leader Keiko Fujimori by 44,000 votes to win the presidency.

Representing the left-wing Peru Libre (Free Peru) party, Castillo has pledged to deliver a new constitution and to rule for “my peasant sisters and brothers”. But he faces “major challenges” in delivering “a new, fairer and more prosperous society” in a “deeply divided” country “almost brought to its kneesby the Covid-19 pandemic, political instability and endemic corruption, says Al Jazeera.

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‘No more poor in rich country’

Castillo was born to illiterate farming parents in one of Peru’s poorest regions and as a child, “had to walk for more than two hours to reach school”, says the BBC. Yet he went on to become a teacher and union leader - and now president.

His career in politics began in 2002, when he unsuccessfully ran for mayor in his local district. Castillo did not rise to prominence until 2017, when he organised and led a teachers’ strike over pay and performance evaluation.

As well as his job as a teacher in a village primary school, the “rabble-rousing, ideologically amorphous left-winger” also “still worked his family’s small plot of land until recently, even using a horse-drawn plough to help sow his crops”, Al Jazeera reports.

But despite those duties, says the BBC, he has undergone a “​​meteoric rise to power” in recent months, campaigning for the presidency with the slogan “never again a poor man in a rich country” - a phrase that tapped into “the frustration of struggling Peruvians”.

Rarely seen without the traditional broad-brimmed hat of his Cajamarca region and an oversize pencil - representing both his teaching background and his commitment to educational funding - Castillo is Peru’s “first president of peasant origin”, says Sky News, and was propelled to victory by “the same rural voters he grew up with”, the BBC adds.

Married with two young children, Castillo’s family home is in the country’s third-poorest district. In a symbolic gesture, he has said that he will not govern from the presidential palace, known as the “House of Pizarro”, instead handing over the Lima residency to the Ministry of Culture.

Addressing Peru’s Congress during his inauguration on Wednesday, Castillo vowed to “rebuild a great national unity”, adding: “We’ll do it democratically, seeking national consensus, guaranteeing that on 28 July 2026, I will return to my work as a teacher.”

Challenge ahead

Despite his pledge to create a fairer society, Castillo faces “huge challenges as Peru fights the world’s deadliest Covid-19 outbreak”, as well as “tensions” within his party and “weak congressional support in a divided nation”, The Guardian reports.

The country has so far reported more than 2.1 million coronavirus infections and more than 196,000 related deaths, according to latest data from John Hopkins University. A study published in The Lancet earlier this month found that the pandemic has left one in every 100 children orphaned in Peru.

Meanwhile, less than 14.5% of the population has been fully vaccinated against Covid.

Castillo this week “said his first priority as president would be to combat” the pandemic, The Guardian reports. But some commentators have questioned whether the 51-year-old new leader “is up to the job of leading Peru out of a deep, multifaceted crisis”, Al Jazeera says - a concern “intensified by in-fighting” in his party triggered by hardliners “pushing him to name a staunchly left-wing cabinet” despite the line-up having to pass a vote of confidence in the conservative-held Congress.

Claudia Navas, an analyst with London-based consulting firm Control Risks, told Sky News that Castillo’s government is starting out amid “considerable uncertainty”, adding: “We still do not have clear his main lines of policy.”

However, she added, “due to the characteristics of the Peruvian political system and the current general political and economic situation of the country”, he will probably have to “maintain a more pragmatic position than he announced during the campaign”.

As well as taking on the Covid crisis, Castillo has “declared a state of emergency in public education and pledged to boost its budget”, The Guardian reports. The new president has also promised to create “a Ministry of Science and Technology and rename the Ministry of Culture as the Ministry of Cultures to reflect Peru’s many indigenous peoples”.

But he has already “softened some of his more radical positions”, the BBC notes, including “a proposal to nationalise key economic sectors such as mining, oil, hydroelectric power and gas, and promised to respect private property”.

However, the broadcaster continues, despite congressional resistance, he remains steadfast in his promise to “call a referendum for an assembly to write a new constitution” that will have “the colour, smell and flavour of the people”.

“Even after being elected, Castillo remains an unknown,” Gonzalo Banda, a political scientist at Peru’s Catholic University of Santa Marta, told Al Jazeera earlier this month, prior to his run-off victory. But in the eyes of Castello supporters such as Rafael Otero, a music producer from capital city Lima, “a lot of people are underestimating him”.

“He is an experienced union leader and a great negotiator,” Otero told the broadcaster. “It’s not an accident that this is the first time in 200 years that someone like him, with no links to the Lima establishment, becomes president.”

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