Peru’s socialist president-elect did not come out of nowhere
Last week, a slim majority of Peruvians elected Pedro Castillo, a teacher in a rural school, to be their next president. Castillo defeated Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of the country’s former dictator, by around 50,000 votes. The country is now waiting for the authorities to certify the results.
Comments here in the United States have tended to portray Peru’s election as a contest between evil and worst. Castillo, the latest in the Latin American “pink tide” of left-wing populist heads of state, has positioned himself as an adversary of foreign companies and the United States. presence in Peru. Fujimori, on the other hand, ran on the to promise to pardon her father Alberto, currently imprisoned for corruption and human rights violations he committed as president in the 1990s. Keiko herself spent time in prison for corruption shortly before launching her campaign, and prosecutors charged her again in March.
Politicians like Castillo and Fujimori seem to crop up over and over again in Latin American countries. We may be tempted to assume that this is happening because some places are not very good at democracy yet, or have an impenetrable cultural aversion to the kind of kind, honest liberal politicians we want them to have. But make no mistake: Latin American politics do not take place in a vacuum.
We may not think much of Latin America, but the United States occupies an important place across the hemisphere. As the United States became a superpower, we took it for granted that our neighbors to the south would be open for business, whether it was extracting resources, dumping waste or relocation not entirely legal businesses. The history of American-Latin American relations, stretching back over a century, is punctuated with examples of large corporations taking advantage of poverty, corruption, crime and even violence to their advantage. Over the past few decades, Wall Street has stepped into the action. US-based hedge funds have made a habit of buying South American domestic debt, including Peruvian, during tough economic times and then lobby countries to pay, sometimes decades later.
Sometimes the US government has stepped in to forcefully put in place pro-business regimes. We have supported coup attempts in Guatemala, Cuba, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Honduras and elsewhere. Peruvians are no strangers to this trend. Fujimori – democratically elected in 1990 – forcibly dissolved Peru’s legislative and judicial power in 1992 because they refused to support its economic program of austerity, privatization, and relaxation of regulations on foreign capital. The United States issued a symbolic condemnation before changing its message and supporting the “self-coup” after just two weeks.
The pro-American and pro-business regimes in Latin America have hardly been bastions of freedom. Instead of free markets where domestic entrepreneurs have the resources to cultivate an organic ecosystem of small businesses, the result of US intervention has more often been cronyism, with multinational corporations absorbing natural resources and arable land – and the most often produces pocket lining of friendly politicians.
Some Latin American leaders have concluded that the only way to reclaim the sovereignty of their nations is to nationalize the economy and develop a national industrial base along socialist lines (unlike the capitalism proposed by the United States). We tend to portray these individuals as mere ideologues, die-hard communists bent on the world Marxist revolution. But Latin America’s “pink tide” has tended to be expressed in overtly nationalist terms. Take the most extreme example: Fidel Castro, several years before taking power, lamented Cuba’s lack of economic sovereignty under US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista: “More than half of our most productive lands are in the hands of foreigners … We export sugar to import candy; we export skins to import shoes; we export iron to import plows. “
Pedro Castillo’s economic agenda is very much in this nationalist vein, although much more moderate. Instead of a Castro-style “expropriation” (seizure and redistribution of land by the state) of multinational corporations, he proposes to tax windfall profits and renegotiate mining contracts – a decision more likely to harm Chinese companies than those in the United States. Yet this was more than enough for Castillo to be denounced by the international political class and labeled a communist by his opposition.
But there’s another way Castillo doesn’t fit the stereotype of a communist ideologue: his social conservatism. Her campaign featured vocal opposition to abortion and traditional family support. Observers have represented these views as a simple by-product of Castillo’s Christian religious beliefs, but like his left-wing economy, they have special resonance thanks to the United States’ long-standing approach to Peru.
In addition to advising Latin American leaders to open their economies to foreign capital, American experts and bureaucrats have historically pushed for population control. In the 1970s, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) began to promote control of the population as a means of economic development of the Third World, but also (more important for American business interests) to prevent “revolutionary actions” and “the expropriation of foreign interests” and to create “the necessary environment to attract foreign capital vital for increasing levels of economic growth. The resulting programs have tended to target poor, rural and indigenous groups – coincidentally, those who are least likely to be satisfied with the effects of the globalized economy on their lives, and therefore the most likely to vote. against pro-American candidates.
As with the United States’ insistence on economic liberalization, Alberto Fujimori played the game on the “population problem”. He promulgated a “national population program” which forcibly sterilized thousands Peruvian women — with the support of USAID and the UN. Fujimori touted the program as having lowered the country’s birth rate from 3.7 births per woman to 2.7 births in less than a decade. In March of this year he went to trial for that.
Castillo seems to believe that Fujimori did not implement his brutal agenda alone. The elected president promised to expel USAID from Peru, like Evo from Bolivia Moral did in 2013 to “nationalize the dignity of the Bolivian people”. The targets of Fujimori’s population program – poor, rural and indigenous Peruvians – voted overwhelmingly for Castillo, hoping to withdraw from the system devised by pro-business, anti-family American technocrats.
And can we blame them? We would not accept Fujimorism in our own country. Imagine a politician running on a platform selling the country’s assets to big business and Wall Street, enriching politically connected population control and imposing on those left behind in the process. He would be a Frankenstein monster bringing together the elements that Republicans and Democrats dislike most about each other.
We can, of course, blame Castros and Fujimoris for the political violence and human rights violations committed by their governments. These can never be explained or justified. But they are taking place in a context shaped by American politics. Much of our foreign policy still reflects an elite Cold War-era consensus that ordinary Americans, right and left, are questioning at home. What has long been presented to the American public as promoting democracy and free markets has come to resemble supporting despots and spreading cronyism. This is just as true in our own hemisphere as it is in the Middle East, where we are paying more attention. Castillo has good reason to ask the United States to step back, and we have good reason to ask our elected leaders to stop taking our neighbors for granted.
Philip Jeffery is Associate Opinion Writer at News week.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.