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Elections in Peru: The crossroads between the unknown cowboy and the dictator's daughter

And the unlikely support of a Nobel laureate. The second round of elections in Peru, taking place next weekend, marks yet another chapter in the country's turbulent history

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The first time I met Latin America was in books. At the age of 14, I was already an avid reader of Chileans Isabel Allende and Pablo Neruda, Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa, Colombian Gabriel García Márquez and many others. My first face-to-face meeting with her, however, happened when I was barely 15 years old and decided to leave Brasilia by bus and cross the border in Puerto Quijarro towards Bolivia, aiming to reach Machu Picchu, in Peru.

I took the famous “Tren de La Muerte” to Santa Cruz de La Sierra, from there to Cochabamba. Then I went to Lake Titicaca, where, shortly after, I crossed from Copacabana to Puno, already in Peru. It was my first contact with this original Latin America, whose traits were so different from those I knew, that I was surprised by strange foods like purple giant corns, languages that I ignored until then, like Quechua, a world that seemed strangely distant from mine.

From my first foray into Latin America, about 25 years ago, comes one of my strongest memories: my half-hour stop in Cuzco, trying to understand a millenary stone wall built by the Incas. I had been noticing that the walls had a perfect fit, a kind of Inca-Tetris, that lacked any kind of grout or concrete to keep those stones fitting together for so many years. As if it wasn’t enough, there was another geometry that intrigued me: some stones had many sides, octagons embedded perfectly without anything being able to get through them. Out of ignorance, I even flattened the wall looking for gaps, pushed a little to feel the force that was sending me back, solid and defiant.

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I was reminded of this wall when I started covering the Peruvian presidential elections this year. Like these ancient walls, in politics, no space is left empty. Back then, when I first visited the country, I wasn’t exactly a politically well-informed young woman. Peru was then ruled by the dictator Alberto Fujimori, who is now serving a sentence for crimes against humanity, corruption and embezzlement – at my tender age of 15, however, I don’t remember being warned that some cities had roadblocks controlled by the “communist” group Shining Path. I was already gathering the fatigue of having crossed Bolivia, with all the symptoms of altitude sickness, and usually slept in any transport I traveled in. I never knew, when we were stopped at dawn, if they were roadblocks from the police or from the Shining Path.

I thought about Peruvian politics again in 2011, when I had to cover the controversy caused by the invitation of Peruvian writer Vargas Llosa to the main literary event in Argentina, the Buenos Aires International Book Fair. Vargas Llosa was for many years an intellectual connected with progressive ideas, and later became a conservative who openly criticized left-wing governments in Latin America. Even as a conservative, and with a letter from Argentine intellectuals weighing against his participation as a guest of honor, many recognized his value as a writer, although they claimed it was impossible to separate the man from his work. 

Llosa was a fierce enemy of Fujimori, a descendant of Japanese immigrants who defeated him in a runoff in the 1990 presidential election. For many years, Llosa had used his prestige as a Nobel literature winner to fight Fujimoriism in Peru, being one of the main voices against, for example, the closure of the Peruvian Congress in 1992. All this animosity and years of enmity with Fujimori changed with an article published by Llosa last April 17 in the Spanish newspaper El País.

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Peru elections 2021: “Between a rock and a hard place”

In April, when Peruvians reached the polls for the first round of presidential elections, they had no less than eighteen candidates on the ballot. From Keiko Fujimori, daughter of Alberto Fujimori, whose campaign motto is the promise of ruling with a firm hand, to Hernando de Soto, who pledged a “war” government against the pandemic, and the ultra-right Rafael López Aliaga, who assured to deport all foreigners committing crimes in the country immediately – a political scientist in the country even compared that spectrum to the “menu of a Peruvian restaurant”. As a result of this fragmentation, the “surprise”: the second round would be disputed by two candidates whose votes were not expressive: Pedro Castillo, a “stranger”, with just under 20% of the votes, and Keiko Fujimori, with just over 13%.

Peru’s political fragmentation, with unimpressive political parties, characters from the past returning and newcomers emerging, is the result of more than a decade of political turbulence in the country, with almost all former presidents imprisoned or investigated for corruption. Keiko herself is investigated for corruption for allegedly receiving bribes from the Brazilian contractor Odebrecht.

Such turmoil even had tragic outcomes, such as that of former president Alan García, who, in 2019, when police raided his house to arrest him on charges of taking bribes from Odebrecht, asked to make a phone call in private and ended up firing a bullet at his own head, dying shortly after.

Throughout this period, Vargas Llosa made choices he described as weighty. In 2006, unable to refrain from a choice that he even described as an option “between cancer and AIDS”, he chose to support Ollanta Humala, the far-left candidate against Keiko Fujimori in that year’s presidential race. Ollanta Humala was the winner.

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Keiko Fujimori, candidate of the right-wing Popular Force party. Photo: Creative Commons.

The abyss 

On April 17 this year, however, Vargas Llosa surprised everyone with a public declaration of his vote. In an article titled Getting Close to the Abyss, the Nobel laureate declared that he would vote for Keiko and called for Peruvians to do the same. According to him, the candidate represents a “lesser evil”. But what is the threat that Peru’s greatest intellectual wants the people to run away from?

The outsider

Pedro Castillo, candidate of the left-wing Peru Libre party for the presidency of Peru. Photo: Playback / Facebook / Vladimir Cerrón

Pedro Castillo is considered “unknown” by the world press,  an outsider resulting from the fragmentation of the country’s politics. He caught the eye when he arrived on election day to vote wearing his signature cowboy hat and riding a horse

A scene that was all over the world after the result of the second round was announced: an illustrious “stranger”, who until then had escaped the social networks, with a humble three thousand followers on Twitter, would face one of the greatest forces of the last decades in Peru, the dreaded Fujimori dynasty.

Castillo projected himself from the first city I met: Puno, in southern Peru. A professor, union member and from a self-designated “Marxist” party, Castillo advanced into the rural areas of the country, leaving the capital Lima behind, and conquering the territory left by the percentage division among so many candidates. 

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Another overlooked factor is that the south of the country is historically home to some of the nation’s greatest revolutions. With so many recent scandals, anti-establishment sentiment has been gaining steam, slipping off the radar of many watchful eyes. 

He started to gain national prominence in 2017 when he led a 75-day teacher strike in the country. In an article published in the New York Times, writer Gabriela Wiener stated that she would vote for Castillo, as a vote that would go beyond anti-Fujimorism. She defined her choice as anti-colonial and said she understood that many analysts understood the professor’s leadership as “the day that, in Peru, we realized that the country is more than Lima”. 

But, for her, he will have to keep his promises, his roots and not deviate from the country’s social problems. Polls point to a likely victory for Castillo, but everything could influence voters’ mood. Officials in the country recently accused the group Shining Path of getting back to headlines as the perpetrator of a slaughter in one of the country’s largest coca-growing areas.

Whatever the outcome of the second-round elections taking place in the country on June 6, the only certainty is that no Peruvian majority will emerge victorious. And the next president will face a country whose political institutions are a mosaic of disparate ideas. As Vargas Llosa wrote, “uncertainty is a daisy whose petals are never fully plucked.” (La incertidumbre es una margarita cuyos pétalos no se terminan jamás de deshojar). We will have to wait and see.