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Peru: Conflict marks beginning of Pedro Castillo’s government

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – For many Peruvians, the first message to the nation from leftist Pedro Castillo when he was sworn in as President of Peru on July 28, 2021, was reassuring and conciliatory, after the uncertainty surrounding his policies.

However, Castillo swore in his first cabinet the next day, which sparked heavy criticism from several sectors. The reason: the cabinet was to be headed by Guido Bellido, under investigation for praising the terrorism of Sendero Luminoso, and pointed out as misogynist and homophobic for his messages on social networks.

Legislators from different benches have joined the call for Prime Minister Bellido’s resignation. (Photo internet reproduction)

But the new Prime Minister was not the only one challenged. The Foreign Affairs portfolio was taken over by Héctor Béjar, a former guerrilla of the Peruvian National Liberation Army (ELN), known for his stance in favor of the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes.

And the Ministry of Labor was to be headed by Iber Maraví, who, according to police reports, had links with the Movadef, believed to be the political arm of the Sendero Luminoso. In total, over 20 appointments to Ministries and State bodies have been challenged due to accusations or for lacking the profile required for the post.

According to local media, Vladimir Cerrón, founder and president of the Marxist ideology party Peru Libre, for which Castillo ran as an invited candidate, is said to be behind these appointments. A neurosurgeon trained in Cuba and former regional governor of Junin under investigation for corruption, Cerrón is said to have pressured Castillo to appoint people from his party and ideological allies to key positions in the government.

Simple mistake or political strategy?

According to Alonso Gurmendi, a political analyst at Peru’s Universidad del Pacífico, there is a double reason that would explain Castillo’s first steps: “First, there is a lack of cadres within the party and, secondly, I suspect it is a political strategy to implement a more radical program, expecting that a confrontational cabinet will not receive the confidence of Congress,” Gurmendi said.

And the latter seems to be one of these intentions. In videos of Peru Libre party meetings leaked in recent days, deputy Guillermo Bermejo, very close to Cerrón, explains to his party colleagues that “if Congress does not like the Bellido Cabinet, they will refuse confidence and we will immediately present another one. If they do not like that one, then goodbye Congress.”

Bermejo finished saying that “close the Congress a thousand times, if what comes next is a Constituent Assembly.”

The Peru Libre deputy is referring to the president’s power to dissolve Congress, according to the Constitution, in case it denies confidence to his Cabinets twice. The last precedent occurred in 2018, when Martín Vizcarra dissolved Congress with a Fujimorist majority. The difference is that, at the time, Vizcarra was supported by the majority of Peruvians due to the opposition’s obstructionism against the Executive.

However, Lucía Dammert, an analyst on governance issues in Latin America and director of Espacio Público civil organization, does not believe that Castillo has premeditatedly designed a confrontational cabinet. Rather, this is the cabinet “of a government that is improvising, that has brought in anyone, that does not make clear what the economic or political policy will be,” Dammert explains, adding that this will result in “tremendous uncertainties.”

Calls for impeachment

Congress has taken Castillo’s political moves as a confrontation. A growing number of legislators from different benches have joined the call for Prime Minister Bellido’s resignation.

The conservative right-wing opposition has even expressed its desire to start discussing Castillo’s “vacancia” (impeachment). The rejection has also begun to move to the streets: last weekend, some 2,000 people protested in Lima for Congress to initiate the presidential impeachment process against Castillo.

In addition, a recent poll by Datum International shows that 76% of Peruvians believe that Bellido should not be head of the cabinet. However, analyst Gurmendi believes that talking about impeachment at this time undermines the legitimacy of the claim.

“Impeachment has been wrongly proposed in Peru for quite a few years. The perfect enemies have joined together: the right-wing that the left-wing wants and the left-wing that the right-wing wants. This foreshadows periods of great instability in the future,” he says.

Moreover, surveys show that the population is not looking for a radical change in the Constitution: “I am worried that they want to do whatever it takes. If the intention is to change it, the procedure established in article 206 of the current Constitution should be followed,” Gurmendi points out.

For her part, analyst Dammert laments that President Castillo has lost “a tremendous opportunity” to form a cabinet that takes into account the concerns of citizens, but that instead creates “more controversy and polarization.” “It is a strategic blunder that could cost him dearly,” the director of Espacio Público cautions.

The Lima Group, without Lima, according to Cerrón

On the other hand, although the Foreign Ministry has not yet made it official, different media and Vladimir Cerrón himself on his Twitter have reported that Peru is withdrawing from the Lima Group. Should the exit materialize, Peru will join Mexico, Bolivia and Argentina in abandoning the group supporting opposition to Venezuela.

“That is terrible. Cerrón is not a member of the government and should not get involved in government politics, much less make announcements as important as this,” Dammert said.

The voices that assure that Cerrón is the one who in reality governs Peru from the background are growing. All of this before Castillo’s tight-lipped nature, who hardly gives any statements to the press.

Gurmendi does not believe that Cerrón is the one directing Castillo, but that both are the same: “Castillo is not a victim of Cerrón, but rather his associate. I think they are working toward the same goal. They think alike, and that’s the problem,” Gurmendi says.

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