A week in government

Professor Castillo: from the charm of symbols to the harsh reality of politics

Professor Pedro Castillo’s biggest challenge is not to disappoint those who gave him victory. On its way, the government will discover how many of its promises are possible or not, and it will have to learn to correct its mistakes in time, as popular wisdom advises.

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“I will vote for the hat,” said Mrs Victoria Nicolaza Vargas, at the end of the first televised debate of the presidential candidates. She has been a domestic worker in my house for 21 years, a Quechua-speaking migrant from Apurimac, with a good command of Spanish. She had never seen or heard of the professor. That was the starting point for me to understand the importance of the peasant professor and his political novelty in Peru. The hat, his condition as a simple Cajamarca professor with a simple language, signs and manners, which she understood perfectly. After the first results announcing her victory, in a conference at the request of Dr. Modesto Montoya, on his YouTube channel, I tried to understand her triumph by appealing to a new fictional encounter between the foxes from above and below, from Huarochirí and Arguedas, after they had met in Chimbote two thousand years ago after Huarochirí, and after the encounters that the theatre group Yuyachkani, our yuyas, and the dialogue in Villa el Salvador by the theatre group Arena y Esteras.


In the mythical universe of Huarochirí, the foxes from above and below have the task of protecting the Yungas inhabitants of the valleys of Lima and the Quechuas of the warm lands and shepherds of the punas. They go up and down the foxes to find out how they are doing. In Chimbote and Lima, the foxes were called upon to protect the migrants from the voracity of the fishing entrepreneurs and their world of corruption; from political violence, in particular that of the armed forces on Ayacucho migrants accused of being terrorists; and now, to favour and defend the victory of Professor Castillo over Mrs K.


In anthropological analysis, the mythical-magical universe of peoples is part of what we call reality, a word that represents the complex world of the everyday lives of yesterday, today and tomorrow. In a country like ours, politics and the mythical universe have common spaces, shared in different ways. On the right-wing side, the mythical-magical and mystical is mainly the Christian myth of the creation of the world, of life and the human species, the valley of tears and suffering for having to pay for the original sin of Adam and Eve’s temptation of the flesh, and the hope of finding happiness in heaven. On the side of the professor and above all of his Andean and Amazonian voters, there are: on the one hand, part of the Catholic Christian universe and Protestant groups, and on the other, the reality full of charms in the Andes, the Amazon and also in the hidden Coast, beyond the big cities. The remarkable spectacle of the officially so-called “symbolic” swearing-in of President Castillos in the Pampa de la Quinua is a visible, audible and sensitive example of this magical world.


One, the symbols as the visible face of the moon


The peasant teacher has the Andean colour of the earth, he always wears his Chotano hat, his school is in the middle of the countryside; the teacher and his family work the land, ploughing, harvesting, looking after the cows, lambs, hens, guinea pigs; Lilia, his wife is a peasant teacher like him. In his campaign, the school, the pencil, the first letters, the memory of the old contemporary myth of the school are present:


“Because we are Quechua, because we speak our language and live according to our customs and we do not know how to read and write, we live in the world of the night. We have no eyes and we are helpless like the blind. On the other hand, those who can read and write live in the world of the day, they have eyes. It makes no sense to stay in the world of the night because we must progress to be like those who go to school and have eyes. By going to school, we open our eyes, we wake up” (Myth collected in the ayllus of Puquio in 1975, quoted in the book by R. Montoya, Por una educación bilingüe en el Perú, Cepes, Moscas Azul Editores, Lima, 1990, p. 94).


His simple, plain, fully understandable speech is Andean Spanish, different from standard Spanish, more or less common to all of us who speak it, and far removed from the so-called “cultured language” of writers and poets. Those who feel themselves masters of culture in the singular are indignant when migrants confuse the e with the i and the o with the u, call them motosos, despise them and want nothing to do with cultures in the plural, which belong to the peoples, nations, homelands and bloods in the Andes, the Amazon, the Coast, in what is called metropolitan Lima, beyond the Lima of the lords, grouped between San Isidro, Surco and San Borja, also far from the middle and popular class belts of that old Lima that is beginning to be part of the past. The professor is neither Quechua nor Aymara, he is a peasant from Puña-Chugur-Tacabamba-Chota-Cajamarca, but we saw him identified with the indigenous peoples, the Afro-descendants, and accompanied by symbols of that search for the Inca, which sprouted from Túpac Amaru I in 1572 and came to the surface with Santos Atahualpa in 1742, Túpac Amaru II 1781. Tito Flores Galindo called this Andean ideal based on the Inca and the reciprocity of Inca society an Andean utopia.


Two, the charm of symbols, vows and hope


Symbols have the particularity of condensing, synthesising, reducing segments of reality, for example: in a flag, a piece of clothing, a verse, a song. That is why symbols enchant, they seem like fragments of magic, easily understandable. Remember the fresh images of that precious ceremony in the Pampa de la Quinua, its blue sky, its travelling clouds, the dancers reproducing the beauty of the rainbow to the rhythm of the music, the melody of the scissors, and the frustrated effort of a young painter from Ayacucho to give the professor a portrait with the presidential sash in the wind, with gratitude and admiration. In politics, symbols embody hopes that are translated into votes and victories; also, into defeats, it is true.


To win the popular vote in 1990, Alberto Fujimori presented himself as “the little Chinese like you”, arousing sympathy because Peru is full of little Chinese who are often not even five percent Chinese, let alone Japanese. Later, Alejando Toledo, in 2001, had a more Andean face than Pedro Castillo, was born in Cabana Norte, told a pretty story of having been a shoeshine boy, of being a statistical error because men like him do not make it “to Harvard University”, and was seen as a winner for having married twice to the same European lady. Fujimori and Toledo won, governed, used the people to win the elections, then forgot and dedicated themselves to stealing in dollars; more so, the former, because while he accumulated a huge fortune (which is hardly spoken of), he gave orders to kill hundreds of Peruvian men and women accused of terrorism, without saying a word about his state terrorism. Then came Alan García Pérez, his great fortune and his suicide minutes before being taken to prison on the orders of a prosecutor with no way out; the series continued with Mr Humala, Mr Kuczynski and Mrs K, Keiko Fujimori, whose trials are inevitable. In two words, a disgrace for the right-wingers who got rich thanks to them and her, and a thousand disgraces for the whole of Peru.


Three, victory against all the united right-wingers


It seemed impossible for a simple professor to beat the right wing confident of victory in the first round with some of its candidates competing with Mrs. K. It seemed unattainable that 20% of her lead in the first subsequent poll. The fear – old and new of the conservative political class of Lima and owner of Peru – forced all its segments to unite, appealing to all weapons, showing with open mouth and bare chest, all their hatred and racism, dividing the country into Peruvian democrats, them, their restricted us; and non-Peruvians, terrorists, Shining Pathists, enemies of democracy, precisely those who have the colour of the earth, them who are part of a much bigger and richer us. Mr. López Aliaga asked for the professor to be killed and Mr. Jorge Montoya (retired admiral) promised that the armed forces would go out to solve the problem to save democracy. We have been hearing that speech for 200 years and they have no way to save it. As always, all the precious words about Peruvian unity to solve the problem of the pandemic were left behind, belied by the appearance of a candidate that the right wing did not know and that was beyond their control.


They lied, slandered, bought votes; the bourgeois who do not know the republican promise threatened their workers with dismissal if they voted for Pedro Castillo and, to prove that they would not do so, they had to present a photo of their identity card taken with a mobile phone; as if they had wings, old accusations of alleged crimes still unproven came out of the judicial and police archives in order to muddy the professor’s allies; they did not say a word about the request for 30 years in prison that the prosecution proposed for Mrs. K accused of running a criminal gang. It is a monumental disgrace for Peru and its fledgling democracy that a woman with such a record should be allowed to stand in an election. Against her, Professor Castillo had and has clean hands. It should be borne in mind that the doctor Cerrón Rojas, secretary general of the Peru Libre party, with a judicial conviction, was not a candidate in the elections and was replaced by Professor Castillo.


With the extraordinary effort and economic deployment, the united right wing believed they would win, they appealed to dozens of legal tricks to annul the professor’s votes, but they lost, with a small but sufficient difference. Unanimously, all international delegations certified that the elections were fair.


Four, disenchantment with the other side of the moon


In the first week of President Castillo’s government, successive waves of disappointment began; on the one hand, opposition from all segments of the right and, on the other, from those who voted for the professor. The former were horrified by the colour of the soil of many of the ministers, their surnames, the guerrilla chapter in the life of Héctor Béjar (Minister of Foreign Affairs) and the 24-hour retirement of Pedro Francke and Aníbal Torres, who refused to become ministers minutes before the swearing-in. With their claws and fangs, the right-wing journalists, who consider themselves wise and seem to have become expert prosecutors and judges, demanded the resignation of the president, the prime minister and many ministers. As these right-wingers today have no influence whatsoever in suggesting and even less in appointing ministers, they renew their hatred shown in the second round and have no shame in detesting ministers who do not resemble in face or surname the former ministers they know well, they are on a first-name basis and treat as little brothers and sisters.


Only in the incipient Peruvian republic and democracy does it happen that when the right wing loses, they assert their right to suggest and dare to recommend names, dictate to them the measures they should take, not touch the eternal constitution of 1993 and its sacred economic chapter. This time they insist on the same thing, without realising that Castillo is not like any of the former presidents.


Alberto Fujimori, Alejandro Toledo, Alan García, Ollanta Humala, Martín Vizcarra or that Merino. The ministers under attack have not yet defended themselves as they should, to denounce the racism that has reappeared against them, beyond their accounts payable, whether true or not, and their competence to assume the positions they have been given. One week later, it is already being claimed and repeated that “Mr Cerrón has vacated the office of President Castillo”. If this prediction is true, the end of the new government should be expected in a very short time. In the Congress, specific interpellations are being prepared with the aim of striking a final blow at the right moment. There, Castillo’s forces are in the minority. If all this were to happen, what an inglorious end to the Bicentenary celebration, which seems to have been left in a corner, heading for oblivion.


Five, the new comes with the old: surprise, improvisation, first mistakes (big and small)


We learned from history that the new never comes pure; it is always burdened, wrapped and hidden by the old. In the examination I try to make of reality – full of mystery, with insufficient and changing information – I do not fail to take into account two facts as a starting point: surprise and inevitable improvisation. This is the starting point for big and small errors, whether correctable or not.


An important piece of information has already been shared: the Peru Libre party ran for the elections with the candidate Professor Castillo, in the hope of winning five or six seats in Congress to ensure a national political presence for the regional-Huanca rather than Lima-based party. The surprise was twofold: Professor Castillo went through to the second round and won the right to contest the presidency of the republic; the party won 37 seats. In the following months, the leaders devoted all their time and energy to winning the second round. Did they have time to think about the policy to be followed if they won? The formal plans presented to the electoral body were insufficient to respond to the country’s concrete problems. They did not have time to form teams to agree on the policy to be followed after victory in each of the ministries as part of an overall government project.


Improvisation was inevitable in order to find “with time on their hands” the people who could fill the top positions. Amidst the cracks in the known information and the loose facts that are appearing, I paid particular attention to an organisation that seems to have been created recently, as well as to the faces, professions and surnames of a significant part of the chosen ministers. I was not aware of the existence of a National Organisation of Peruvian professionals, or anything like it. With their banner, a group of their members arrived at the house occupied by the professor in Breña (not in Miraflores or San Isidro, as is almost always the case). They demanded management positions for professionals from the provinces. The provincial hare was back: the ‘limeñitud’ in the dock, no more limeño bosses! In other words, let the ministers be like you, Professor Castillo, “like us, who have the colour of the earth”. If this had been the line to follow, it is not daring to suppose that competence and qualification for the posts would not have been a requirement of the first order; a university degree, having worked for victory, being friends of Professor Castillo, of Dr. Cerrón, a bit of luck, and a support prayed to a little virgin or to one of our Apus, of which there are many in the Andes, would have sufficed.


In the last few days the government has made many mistakes: it lost its presence in the Congress’ executive board, leaving the way clear for the right wing to organise the hard opposition, already visible; it took no care in choosing ministers with local faces and professional titles, without the qualifications and competence due for the posts, without checking their backgrounds to avoid easy onslaughts from the right wing; its marches and counter-marches with dates, times and ministers leaving the room without being sworn in and doing so 24 hours later; his decision to return to a dangerous kind of compulsory military service for young people without work and without technical or university studies; his decision to recognise a new teachers’ federation with the open purpose of dividing the Single Union of Peruvian Education Workers, SUTEP, (the Velasco government tried the same thing and failed), the politically and trade union ethic is to cleanly win the leadership of SUTEP and not to divide it.


With the surprise swearing-in of Pedro Francke as finance minister, the right-wingers have regained some calm, but this appointment – which represents a step forward – will not be enough.


Six, challenges: not to disappoint the promises that brought victory, to correct mistakes in time, and not to allow the nascent hope to fade before it bears fruit


Not letting down those who gave it victory is the biggest challenge. It would be fatal for the government to look only forward and not turn its eyes to the consequences of the promises that have been frustrated in the little time of the last thirty years: the Apra disappeared over the horizon, the responsibility of Haya de La Torre and Alan García, his favourite disciple, Fujimori is in prison, Toledo and his wife are facing a very long prison term, and this would also be the path of Ollanta Humala and Kuczynski. If he looks in the mirror of these predecessors, President Castillo is obliged to be faithful to his promises. The people have already shown that their vote goes where the wind of promises blows it and that they are not loyal to any party or movement. To be loyal to his “master’s word”, he will have to keep some of his fundamental promises. The Constituent and a new constitution do not have an easy path: in the cases of Bolivia and Ecuador, the constitutions were the fruit of previous political coalitions, achieved in elections and constituent assemblies with large majorities in favour. This is also the case of the Chilean constituent assembly, now in full swing; it is not the case in Peru; here, the government as such does not have the majority of a coalition to defend it; the path of the street is possible, but it is too early for that….


Along the way, the government will discover how many of its promises are possible or not, and it will have to learn “to correct its mistakes in time”, as popular wisdom advises. For this, the professor and his government colleagues should listen carefully to the advice given by the wise Uruguayan José Mujica, a former guerrilla fighter – president of Uruguay, competent, clean and honest – who listened to his people, represented them with dignity, retired in time, and became a venerable and exemplary colleague.


“I ask you, please, I know that the electoral struggle is hard, but don’t let rancour build up in your heart… when you come out of this you will have many grey hairs… the only thing hatred does is make us lose freedom, above all it mortgages hope… it is very easy to lose [trust]….


“Play fair with your people, don’t deceive them, and when you don’t have the strength because you don’t have the resources, tell them the truth… it is not easy to twist the course of reality in favour of the weakest. (José Mujica and Pedro Castillo, Encuentro de maestros, 3 May 2021, YouTube).


If President Castillo goes down this path, it is possible that the flame of hope that he lit in the midst of the wasteland of Peruvian politics, both right and left, will be maintained and illuminate the way forward. On the side of hope, there are all the Andean, Amazonian and part of metropolitan Lima who gave him victory; also the Christians who have not forgotten the Liberation Theology of Father Gustavo Gutiérrez; surely, other intellectuals like me, who without losing their critical thinking are on the opposite side of all the right and in favour of the left-wing movements that start from the grassroots.


In the territory of hope, there is a precise example: Héctor Béjar’s speech on taking up his post as foreign minister. The former guerrilla fighter – never a terrorist – offered a lesson in a political vision of the international situation based on Peru’s profound inequality. It is a proposal to change the course of Peru’s foreign relations. The media, operators of the right-wing and related parties, said nothing about his speech, nor did the hidden ideologues of the right; they only called for his head to be thrown out of the Ministry for having been a guerrilla 56 years ago, forgetting his years in prison in El Frontón, his support for the military government of General Velasco Alvarado, his professional work, his studies and his doctorate at San Marcos, his status as a man of the left. If only the former ambassadors would come out to argue with him; with ideas, without insults and without also calling for his head, to quote part of a beautiful poem by Javier Heraud:


Porque mi patria es hermosa

Like a sword in the air

And bigger now

And even more beautiful

I love it and defend it with my life.


Rodrigo Montoya Rojas is a Peruvian anthropologist and writer, born in Puquio, Ayacucho. Professor Emeritus of the University of San Marcos, Lima, from which he received his doctorate in 1970. He also holds a PhD in Sociology from the University of Paris, and is a visiting professor at several universities in Europe and America.

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