Human Rights Are Under Threat in Peru's Election

The presidential runoff pits a hard right dictator’s daughter against a dissident union leader with an old school Soviet agenda. Both dislike the free press, LGBT and gender rights.
April 28, 2021, 1:43pm
A demonstrator holds a mock book titled "How to combat corruption" during a protest against the Fujimori family and former president Alberto Fujimori in Lima on October 17, 2018.
A demonstrator holds a mock book titled "How to combat corruption" during a protest against the Fujimori family and former president Alberto Fujimori in Lima on October 17, 2018. His daughter Keiko, who is accused of money laundering, is now a presidential candidate in a runoffs on June 6, and deeply disliked. Photo: CRIS BOURONCLE, AFP via Getty Images.

LIMA, Peru — Peru’s next president is expected to be a socially conservative authoritarian with ambitions to clamp down on the media and roll back protections for gender rights.

The only question remaining for voters in the June 6 runoff is whether their new head-of-government will be hard left or hard right.

Dark horse leftist Pedro Castillo, a provincial primary school teacher and dissident union leader who ran on a Soviet-style policy platform, beat 17 other candidates in the surprise first round result earlier this month. He promised to abolish the constitutional court, nationalize Peru’s vast mining sector and liberate a notorious insurrectionist, Antauro Humala.

Castillo will now face off against runner-up Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the 1990s strongman Alberto Fujimori, who is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence for directing death squads to carry out two massacres of suspected terrorists — most of whom had nothing to do with the Shining Path subversives he was targeting. He is also on trial for the forced sterilizations of thousands of mainly poor and indigenous women.

Keiko Fujimori promises an “iron fist” against crime – and to pardon her father.

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She faces high stakes. Accused of money-laundering, her trial would be postponed if she became president — potentially giving her the chance to shut down the case by interfering with the courts. Prosecutors are asking for a 31-year sentence.

Polls now show Castillo opening up a 20-point lead over Fujimori. Nevertheless, those numbers could rise – or fall – as Peruvians become better acquainted with this relative newcomer to the national political stage.

The unpopular pair’s electoral showdown has sent shockwaves through Peru’s diverse society. 

The business class is terrified that Castillo will privatize their assets, while many on the left worry that Fujimori would resume her father’s kleptocracy and seek revenge against her opponents, including journalists and prosecutors.

LGBT and women’s rights campaigners also fear that either candidate would turn the clock back on efforts to address Peru’s deadly culture of misogyny, including some of the highest rates of femicides in the Western hemisphere.

Both Fujimori and Castillo say they support “family values” and want to remove “gender focus” classes, intended to educate kids about gender diversity and equality, from the national curriculum. Conservative groups argue that the classes teach children to become gay and even transgender.

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Gabriela Zavaleta, who heads More Equality, an LGBT group in Lima and one of various NGOs demanding the candidates make clear promises to respect human rights, fears that once in power either one could stop police from even registering hate crimes based on gender or sexuality.

She added: “We need to reduce the levels of violence. No one wants our society to carry on this way, but they have so demonized gender focus, without which we’re never going to be able to tackle this problem.”

Despite finishing ahead of 16 other presidential candidates, both Castillo and Fujimori are deeply disliked. Amid a devastating second wave of the coronavirus and widespread discontent with the democratic process after years of political turmoil and endless graft scandals, Castillo took 19 percent and Fujimori 13 percent, record lows for candidates making it to the runoff. 

Castillo, 51, first made national headlines during a teacher’s strike in 2017, with his vocal leadership of a dissident union faction opposed to an education reform intended to weed out incompetent teachers.

Yet he returned to relative obscurity, teaching in a village school in the Cajamarca region of the northern Peruvian Andes, until another far-left presidential hopeful, Vladimir Cerron, was barred from running by a corruption conviction and chose Castillo to replace him. 

Cerron, 50, a Cuban-trained surgeon and former governor of the mountain region of Junin, is known for his inflammatory comments.

He has said that Venezuela is a democracy, claimed that Peru is controlled by “Jewish-Peruvian” capitalists and that revolution is like a woman because both need “real men”. He has also said that a transgender indigenous congressional candidate is not deserving of “respect,” and repeatedly inferred that a political opponent in Junin is gay.

Castillo’s candidacy was initially expected to go nowhere, in part because of the Soviet-style policy platform, authored by Cerron and still bearing his picture, on which Castillo was running.

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It suggests that the media’s role in society is as a “moralizer” and calls for newspapers, TV and radio stations to be nationalized or regulated. It also dismisses “feminism” as the moral equivalent of “machismo,” and appears to absolve fathers who fail to pay child support, arguing that it is the state’s responsibility  to provide for mothers and their children. 

After his first-round victory, Castillo described his political contest with Fujimori as a struggle “between master and slave.” But he then moderated his rhetoric, distancing himself from the Maduro regime in Venezuela, and insisted he will respect the Constitution and not embark on a program of nationalizations.

Castillo has also sought to reverse the widespread belief that Cerron would be the power behind the throne. “Beyond whatever Cerron says, or doesn’t say, the person who will govern is me,” Castillo said last week. 

Yet many here are unconvinced by the about-face. El Comercio, Peru’s leading conservative newspaper, warned, “More than one tyrant has taken hold of power by sweetening their message.”

Castillo’s surge may also reflect just how toxic Fujimori’s brand has become to a majority of Peruvians. Many blame Fujimori, 45, for the political turmoil over the past five years that has now handicapped the government’s ability to respond to the pandemic.

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She was the runner-up in the 2011 and 2016 presidential elections, and her Popular Force party played a prominent role in bringing down two presidents, including popular Martín Vizcarra last year.

Popular Force lawmakers have repeatedly pushed legislation that would curb critical media, routinely told flagrant lies, and been involved in endless scandals, from a legislator who drunkenly groped an airline stewardess to one accused of receiving a kickback in the form of a home redecoration. 

On top of her father’s tainted legacy, Keiko Fujimori is herself infamous in Peru for taking her mother's place as first lady when her parents went through a bitter split. She then blocked her brother, Kenji, a legislator, from his attempt to get a presidential pardon for their father because it might hurt her political ascent. Finally, she had Kenji suspended from congress.

The family has also been linked on various occasions to drug-running, with 170kg of cocaine once found on Alberto Fujimori’s presidential jet and his son, Kenji, facing trial after 100kg of cocaine was discovered at a Lima warehouse belonging to one of his companies.

Yet Keiko Fujimori continues to run on her father’s legacy. One of the health ministers on trial with Alberto Fujimori for the forced sterilizations, Alejandro Aguinaga, was even just elected to Congress for Popular Force.

“That’s a signal that Keiko could be 10, a hundred or a thousand times worse,,’” says Marco Avilés, a Peruvian author who writes on race, describing the forced sterilizations, which the government presented as a way to reduce poverty, as “genocide”.

Castillo’s biggest advantage may be his identity.

On the day after his first-round triumph, he was photographed, machete in hand, amid the tall grass on his family plot of land — a powerful image in a multiracial society still largely governed by a white minority, principally men, from Lima.

“He’s not just a teacher or union leader, but is from the provinces and is indigenous and a farmer,” says Avilés. “Many Peruvians can’t identify with traditional politicians, but they feel right at home with Castillo.”