Peru Minister: Our socialist government is under attack. But we can still win.
Peru’s socialist president, Pedro Castillo, came into office to fight neoliberalism, but his agenda has been derailed by the Right. One of his ministers tells Jacobin how the Castillo government can fight back and win power for ordinary Peruvians.
The first hundred days are usually a moment when new governments take stock, celebrate their early achievements, and even weigh a change of direction. But for Pedro Castillo’s besieged administration in Peru, there was relief that his government had even lasted this long.
Castillo has been walking a tightrope since day one, faced with implacable right-wing opposition. While Congress remains fragmented, his most intransigent opponents are moving ever closer to activating a mechanism declaring the president “morally incapable” — i.e., carrying out a parliamentary coup.
As if that wasn’t enough, mounting tensions between Castillo and the Perú Libre party have exploded recently — leading to the resignations of practically all the party’s cabinet members. The rift was so severe that most Perú Libre members of Congress refused to give a vote of confidence to Castillo’s new and apparently more moderate cabinet. Some saw this as an act of censure to prevent Castillo’s administration from ceding more ground to the Right. Yet his supporters cast it as a petty maneuver that may have jeopardized the left-wing government’s future. Castillo’s cabinet has survived for now — but it remains steeped in crisis.
Anahí Durand is the minister of women and vulnerable populations in Castillo’s administration. Hers is one of the ministries that has at least made some progress amid the chaos, largely because of its close connection to social movements.
Durand, a former strategist for left-wing candidate Veronika Mendoza in the 2021 general elections, is a Marxist intellectual with a long history of activism. Hailed by some as the “feminist face” of an administration accused of flirting with socially conservative positions, the truth is that Durand plays an important role in a government dominated by uncertainty.
Jacobin spoke with Durand to get her opinion on the first one hundred days of the Castillo administration and discuss how the government can move forward.
To start, we wanted to know what you think about the first one hundred days of Castillo’s administration — and how you’d assess your own experience in your ministry.
I believe that the government has asserted itself despite fierce opposition, especially coming from pro-coup elements that have still not processed their electoral defeat and the fact they’ve lost control of the state after decades in power.
It has been a very tense hundred days, but I believe that we have managed to move forward on urgent issues facing the social majority. For example, as the president recently stated in Ayacucho, marking his first hundred days: everything related to vaccination has been redoubled. This has itself taken an enormous effort because we were among the bottom countries across Latin America for vaccination rates. Now Peru has reached a 70 percent vaccination level. Great efforts have also been made to deliver a universal income (Bono Yanapay) without the kind of restrictive frameworks that left so many people excluded during the first and second waves of the pandemic.
As for the Women’s Ministry, we took over a state that was very limited in its role as guarantor of rights and poorly connected to women, especially among popular layers. So we have proposed a way of running it that aims to reconnect with these people and address their problems more comprehensively. A key focus is the prevention of violence, especially in this crisis period. We need to not arrive too late, once the violence has already occurred.
The other focus is strengthening women’s economic autonomy, including support for grassroots initiatives and establishing a care system. We are keen for women to play a leading role in Peruvian democracy. Women are marginalized from political life: out of twenty-five regions, none of the governors are women, and out of 1,800 mayoralties, only ninety-five are headed by women. We are driving women’s protagonism by strengthening the social fabric that has already been activated in the pandemic, for example, with the olla común [self-managed, neighborhood-level collective meals].
Some assessments of Castillo’s first hundred days highlight a lack of popular mobilization in support of the government. Do you think that there are spaces — such as the Women’s Ministry — that could build that necessary link between the state and society, and help strengthen a popular dynamic both in the government and in the streets?
Yes, I think this is very important. The Women’s Ministry, as well as other ministries that have direct links with social organizations, can be a fundamental basis for communicating and implementing policies. In recent decades, a rather technocratic vision of public policies was imposed; the state, led by technocrats, treated the population as passive beneficiaries, not as subjects of rights and agents of change.
A key focus is the prevention of violence against women, especially in this crisis period.
During the last thirty years, Peruvian neoliberalism sold us the idea of a supposedly meritocratic and depoliticized public administration when, in reality, it had a revolving door by which civil servants worked first for private businesses and then for the state. Likewise, an individualistic common sense gained ground in society, detached from the public sphere, where “every man for himself” became the norm. The pandemic harshly demonstrated the need for a public health system and public policy to keep the economy from collapse. That experience most clearly demonstrated the importance of the link between the state and society, allowing us to govern together with the people.
During the pandemic, networks were activated to hold things together, even in the absence of the state and the market — for example, the neighborhood meals in Lima. So there is a great organizational potential there, which some conservative parties want to co-opt and involve in clientelist ties. What we want is to have empowered social actors who can play an active part in shaping public policies for women; for example, contributing to the ministry’s proposals for a national care system.
We can imagine that the Women’s Ministry is also one of the most hard-fought fronts in terms of confrontation with the Right. What, in general, can be done to deal with a right-wing opposition like the one you have in Peru — a completely intransigent reaction that seemingly just won’t accept the Castillo government?
We are facing an organic crisis of the Peruvian right, which headed into the last elections dispersed across at least six parties and which includes blatantly violent and pro-coup sectors.
Today the power that the Right once had to control the state has deteriorated and the consensus around the 1993 constitution, imposed by [former far-right dictator] Alberto Fujimori, has also deteriorated; today we are talking about political issues that were not even mentioned in the 1990s and early 2000s. But their loss has also led Peru to have more avowedly right-wing groups that have been openly calling for the president’s removal from day one (though their own constitution clearly states that the president is elected for five years and not when some congressmen feel like saying that there is a vacancy due to the president’s “moral incapacity”).
In general, this is a difficult moment for promptly enacting the changes that the president promised and that the people are demanding. The people are expecting campaign promises to be fulfilled: that gas be placed under the control of the masses, that work be done for the health and education of the majority, that people’s dignity, so trampled upon for so many years, be restored.
To advance these changes and at the same time isolate the pro-coup right, I believe we need a policy of national concertation with the most clearly democratic forces.
There are also issues where building bridges is urgently necessary, and on which we in the Women’s Ministry are seeking consensus. For example, we are responsible for vulnerable populations in the country with most children orphaned by the pandemic — almost one hundred thousand. So we have a proposal for orphan bonds, which we believe must have a basic consensus from all political forces, as well as our proposals on eradicating violence against women.
We have to move forward in this sense without losing the perspective that we have a government that wants to do things differently. If the president were to wake up tomorrow and say, “Well, we are going to do the same as always,” I believe that the intensity of the political attacks would significantly decrease.
Certainly, a divided Right may represent a political opportunity. Some even argued that, in order to guarantee the government’s survival, there should be a change of cabinet — a more moderate one, let’s say — to avoid the greater part of the Right rallying around the most pro-coup elements. What do you expect from the new cabinet, which received a slim vote of confidence only after the break with Perú Libre (which, for its part, has alleged that the new cabinet represents a “turn to the right”)?
I believe that both the first and the second cabinet have a clear component of people committed to social struggles, who believe in the change agenda that has been proposed and are listening to the demands of the popular sectors.
Perhaps the difference is that the first cabinet was built in a more consensual manner with the political forces that won the elections. It was very much built around bringing together the forces of the Left in the face of attacks from a ruthless Right, and it did so by affirming the leadership of Perú Libre, which held the prime minister’s office. I think that, later on, the dynamics of the government showed that a more cumulative, more strategic, and more concerted policy was needed, and there were difficulties in promoting that kind of turn immediately.
The state, led by technocrats, treated the population as passive beneficiaries, not as subjects of rights and agents of change.
I also believe that this first cabinet was the target of many attacks from the ultraright, especially from Congress, where they have entrenched themselves. They do not have a majority because it is a fragmented parliament with ten groups. But the conservative sector is united around three of them — Avanza País, Renovación Nacional, and Fuerza Popular (of Fujimorism) — and it is very active.
As for the possibility of a “turn to the right,” the current prime minister, Mirtha Vásquez, was president of Congress and has considerable political experience. She has spent years in the socio-environmental struggle in Cajamarca, confronting the power of the big mining companies. It is a political misjudgment to say that she represents a shift to the right.
I think this change seeks to widen a little the margin of maneuver in a decisive stage of the transformation process that we are pursuing. It is true that the change generated tension with the government party, but I am convinced that bridges must be built, because Perú Libre has a place in this government; both in Congress and in society, it is important to rebuild that relationship.
Could some of the problems the government has experienced in these one hundred days — such as a rather bumpy transition between an electoral and a government coalition, or the confusion and speculation about whose interests it responds to — have been avoided or cushioned with a more solid party structure than the Peruvian left currently has?
Yes, that’s clearly the case. But in the meantime, the National Front for Democracy has been created, which seeks to fulfill a role of social articulation and to carry out initiatives outside of the government’s own control. It brings together trade union centers (such as the teachers’ union), the Confederación General de Trabajadores del Perú, and political organizations. Around this space — which also directly confronts the Right — a social bloc is being created, capable of promoting the changes that Peru needs.
There is, indeed, a need for well-structured political parties that also constitute a force able to fight for power. For example, we have local elections next year and it will be a challenge to advance strong candidacies with a chance of winning regional governments, provincial and district-level administrations.
So party building is a challenge. This is already part of the whole structural crisis of political parties in Peru or, rather, of how the political system has slowed the constitution of new parties. To take the closest example at hand, Nuevo Perú is going through a registration process that has already lasted two years; the electoral commission is completely bureaucratic and closes the system off to new parties.
Moreover, we believe that a unitary process expressed in a “leftist roundtable” is important. This is precisely what we have been promoting with Frente Amplio, Perú Libre, Nuevo Perú, and the other forces now involved in the government. We hope this can be successful, because it is very much needed.
Let’s hope so. To close, we wanted to know your expectations for the next one hundred days of the government. What will be — or what should be — the government’s priorities in the coming period?
We need to push more institutional and structural changes. We have started to have a clearer diagnosis of what we have in the executive branch. Remember that we were given fifteen days for the transition because the whole electoral process — with the false accusations of fraud — prevented it lasting the two months or more it usually does. So we have come into government without having that previous diagnosis, and only now do we have more clarity about what is going on within the state.
We have laid some foundations and we already know where to move forward. In the Women’s Ministry, for example, we have to consolidate strategies such as “governing together,” which includes working with social organizations and political authorities in order to provide a leading role for women (especially organized women and women from popular sectors) in the design and implementation of public policies. And also, to consolidate a new strategy to fight against violence, one of a much more preventive nature and with a wider presence across territories.
I believe that it is necessary to adopt more concrete measures for the recovery of natural resources and the massification of gas — a fundamental consideration in these times of energy crisis. Another issue is the safe return to the classroom, because the schools suffer great abandonment: many have no water or drainage. So “back to the classroom” must also mean rebuilding the educational infrastructure dilapidated during the neoliberal era.
There are sectors of the Right that will do everything possible to prevent us from moving forward, and that is where we need to retake the leadership in communication and have a more fluid dialogue with the population. Unfortunately, practically all media take a very aggressive editorial line against the government.
And one more thing, not to be left unmentioned: we need the social front I just mentioned to begin to gain strength and take more concrete steps toward the Constituent Assembly, because that space is key in the task of mobilizing the popular forces to promote actions that will allow us to decide on the future of our Magna Carta and to promote the collection of signatures for a referendum that will allow us to decide whether there will be a new constitution.
The Constituent Assembly seems to be both necessary and hard to achieve: the people — or at least the people who voted enthusiastically for Castillo — loudly demand it, while the Right fights it tooth and nail. What possibility do you see of carrying out these more fundamental changes, which were part of Castillo’s electoral promises?
There’s no lack of demands for change; in fact, that is something on which there’s a large consensus. In the different polls, when asked the reasons for voting for Castillo, the main answer was “For a change.” There is a broad consensus that we are living through a large-scale crisis in Peru: corruption, the pandemic, economic crisis, unemployment, and much else. In short, people aspire to change and associate the president and the government with that possibility.
Now how are we going to give substance to these changes? I believe that it goes from the constituent project and the change of the constitution — a campaign promise that all of us in the cabinet share — to more concrete measures, such as generating employment and granting subsidies and extraordinary income in a more universal way to the people who are suffering the economic crisis, as we have effectively started to do.
There are similar redistributive changes aimed at improving people’s lives, but there are also more structural changes, which have to do with measures that we have already announced, such as the tax reform. It is worth remembering that Peru is one of the countries with the lowest tax burden in the continent (less than 15 percent). And to a undertake all these changes we need resources: to allocate to health, to education, to guaranteeing women’s rights and those of the most vulnerable populations. Addressing more structural issues is interrelated with change in the constitutional framework — that is, with a democratizing process that changes the institutional and economic model imposed by Fujimorism and supported by the 1993 constitution.
At the same time, the Right is very active in the streets collecting signatures to prevent a referendum from taking place. So the basic debate is whether the executive branch should promote the Constituent Assembly process or leave it to the social movements and parties. On that, we have an open discussion among the Left. But it is clear that this must be a task that brings people together and mobilizes the population. We — the political forces that insist on the need for a profound transformation — must find our own place on this path.
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