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Peru’s Pedro Castillo has had four cabinet chiefs in seven months
A terror apologist, an alleged abuser and a doctor peddling “miracle water”: can Castillo govern Peru with a cabinet that’s a revolving door of questionable characters?
This week, we’re publishing Pirate Wire Services in Spanish for the first time! The translation will be available in Castellano from Friday afternoon. ¡Adelante!
Since 2001, five presidents of Peru have cycled through four or more chiefs of staff. But while it took most of them at least two years, current leader Pedro Castillo has managed it in just seven months.
In addition to his cabinet chiefs, 44 ministers have paraded through the Peruvian executive’s 18 positions so far. But is this down to Castillo’s errors or an obstructive parliament? The numbers reflect the political instability Peru has experienced over the past five years, and particularly since November 2020, when the parliament ousted president Martín Vizcarra and imposed its own regime in what the population widely viewed as a soft coup.
After massive protests and the deaths of two civilians in the ensuing repression, de facto president Manuel Merino resigned, giving rise to a transitional government. The elections that followed would bring Castillo, a rural school teacher and union leader running with the radical left-wing party Perú Libre (Free Peru), to the top job. How has his government become so erratic in so little time?
Castillo came to the presidency after a tense run-off election. His opponent was Keiko Fujimori, leader of the right-wing Fuerza Popular (Popular Force) party and daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori, who was convicted of crimes against humanity in 2009.
The leadership contest rumbled on until just two weeks before Castillo’s inauguration as Keiko, in alliance with rightwing business and conservative groups, maintained baseless claims that the election had been fraudulent. That climate of tension was clear in the relationship between the new government and the opposition, who represent more than a third of votes in parliament.
On 28 July, his first day in office, Castillo sought to build bridges between his leftwing political bases and business leaders, who feared a government that would attack private property rights. In his inauguration speech, he stressed that he would not attempt to expropriate any national or foreign companies.
The next day, however, Castillo swore in Guido Bellido as his chief of staff, an officialist congressman under investigation for terrorist apologism and known for his misogynist and homophobic comments. Following this and other controversial cabinet appointments, a clash with congress was inevitable.
Then, in late November, the media reported that while in office, Castillo had been going regularly to a house in a middle-class neighbourhood of Lima that was also frequented by business representatives. These included businesswoman Karelim López, who represented a company that went on to secure a government contract worth 232 million soles (US$58 million) to build a bridge in the jungle.
Castillo admitted to visiting the house on multiple occasions, but said that he never spoke to the businessmen about official matters. The contract has now been annulled and those involved are under criminal investigation, with the exception of the president, who cannot be tried for anything he does during his presidency until his mandate is over.
These events are proof that Castillo has been unable to build a stable administration, according to Eduardo Dargent, professor of Political Sciences at the Catholic University of Peru. “He has very quickly ceased to be the authoritarian bogeyman and turned into an improviser who is seriously suspected of patrimonialism and corruption,” he said.
Along similar lines, the political analyst María Claudia Augusto believes that the selection of Bellido was an attempt to satisfy the party bases that brought Castillo to power, but without a doubt “it wasn’t the best start for a government that needed to build legitimacy and trust”.
The initial clash with Congress came to an end in October when, threatened with congressional censure, Castillo decided to swap Bellido for Mirtha Vásquez, a center-left moderate.
With her appointment, the ministers of economy and health agreed to stay. Their portfolios represent the government’s two main achievements to date: maintaining overall macroeconomic stability and carrying out an efficient COVID-19 vaccination campaign.
Despite foreign investors’ initial fears about Castillo’s government, moderate Economy Minister Pedro Francke created a climate of stability that allowed the Peruvian economy to establish itself as one of the most stable in the region, despite the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the management of doctor Hernando Cevallos meant that Peru — the country with the most per capita COVID-19 deaths in the world — had vaccinated more than 80% of the population older than 12 years with two doses by the end of December.
Despite these achievements, both ministers were fired when a crisis broke out between Castillo and now former Minister of the Interior, Avelino Guillén, over cases of corruption in police promotions. In light of what Guillén described as the president ignoring the scandal, he decided to leave his post. Mirtha Vásquez, the moderate leftist chief of staff, resigned along with him. The events marked a break between the moderate left and the government.
Castillo decided to appoint Héctor Valer as the next Chief of Cabinet, a congressman who resigned from the party that brought him to parliament and who allied himself with dissidents from other groups. Valer brought serious political baggage along with him, including accusations of domestic violence leveled by his deceased ex-wife and her daughter.
The third chief of staff lasted only three days, following a flood of criticism from both civil society and members of the government itself. With the apparent intention of achieving some stability, Pedro Castillo next named Aníbal Torres, then Minister of Justice, as his replacement. The lawyer arrived accompanied by other controversial ministers, including new head of Health Hernán Condori, a doctor close to Peru Libre who at one point promoted a “miracle water” against diseases.
However, these new appointments seem to have one objective: partisan quotas from different sectors of Congress to keep them happy and guarantee the government’s continuity. A “truce” between the Executive and the Legislative branches was recently announced, with a view to ensuring the votes needed to confirm the new Cabinet.
Castillo is now looking to "stay with those who are loyal and keep them happy so they don't abandon him," said Dargent, adding that with a Congress that has “quickly lost prestige”, stability alone may not be the best way out of the crisis.
"What we are experiencing now is a kind of stability of mediocrity, which can be very harmful for everyone," he lamented.
According to the most recent Ipsos poll, Pedro Castillo's approval rating stands at 25%. Although these figures could be a tempting target for an opposition that has already presented a failed vacancy motion, they seem daunted by another fact from the survey: if Castillo and his vice president leave their positions, 74% think that new elections should be called to renew both powers of the state.
This scenario, oddly, seems to suggest that the Executive wishes to safeguard its position more against Congress than against the public.
“With this new Cabinet, the Executive branch has less intention of responding to criticism,” said Augusto. “That is what we see in the statements of the president and Torres, who have remained silent in the face of questions from the press about questionable measures.”
Stories we’re watching:
Colombia’s highest court decriminalized abortion Monday. The country becomes the third Latin American country in just over a year, joining Mexico and Argentina, to decriminalize or legalize abortion. The decision allows for terminations up to 24 weeks, with exceptions beyond that for health reasons or if the pregnancy was a result of rape. Activists hail the decision as a victory for human rights.
Wildfires in Argentina have consumed some 2 million acres in the north-eastern province of Corrientes, destroying more than an average fire season in California. As well as devastating farmers’ livelihoods, they have burned through 40% of the Iberá Wetlands, a crucial ecosystem where conservationists have been working to bring back more than 12 species. Biologists are speaking of “incalculable losses”.
ELN is conducting a 72-hour “national armed strike” in Colombia, imposing movement restrictions in the areas they control. The shut-down of vital transportation networks, such as the Pan-American Highway, have left some regions of the country completely isolated. They have also bombed roads and transportation infrastructure in Arauca, Cúcuta, Nariño and Tumaco. “All commercial activity and transport is prohibited during the strike,” they announced Thursday, “and those who do not comply will be considered enemies of the revolution.”
Spanish words of the week:
cabriola (f) - a caper or capriole
ufano (adj) - arrogant or jaunty. We think it sounds like a large endangered mammal related to the buffalo.