CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The surprise election of President Pedro Castillo has raised hopes for change in Peru’s unstable and corrupt political system, but the impoverished rural teacher and political neophyte has found himself so engulfed in impeachment votes and corruption allegations that his presidency has become an exercise in political survival.
The chances that the left-wing leader could accomplish a signature policy such as improving education or health care were initially slim, given his lack of support in Congress, and evaporated as he focuses on keeping his family in power and freedom.
In just over a year as president, Castillo has survived two congressional votes to oust him, appointed more than 60 ministers to the 19 agencies that make up his cabinet, and faced six criminal investigations into charges ranging from influence peddling to plagiarism, one which recently saw a close relative jailed. Investigations are in their early stages and no formal charges have been filed.
Castillo says he hasn’t had “a single minute of truce” since taking office and blames Peru’s political elite for wanting him out.
“I don’t talk like them, I don’t sit at these opulent tables like them,” he told people gathered in an isolated desert community. He later told a group of mothers outside a recently restored school that he was from the lower class and that the charges would not “break” him.
But Castillo’s tribulations follow a pattern in Peru, which recently had three different presidents in a single week after one was impeached by Congress and protests forced his successor to resign. Almost all of Peru’s former presidents who have ruled since 1985 have been ensnared by corruption allegations, with some jailed or arrested in their homes. One of them committed suicide before the police could arrest him. Castillo defeated the daughter of one of those presidents, Alberto Fujimori, in last year’s election.
Prosecutors’ preliminary investigations against Castillo are a first for a sitting president in Peru, as is the preventive detention of his sister-in-law following money laundering allegations.
Peru’s constitution does not specifically say whether a sitting president can be investigated for crimes, and over the past two decades attorneys general have offered to open initial investigations into three interim presidents. One against then-president Martín Vizcarra was opened in October 2020, but the attorney general immediately froze it until the end of the presidential term.
Now, however, there is a new attorney general, Patricia Benavides, who has promised to go “after the investigation of any criminal act, whether by the most powerful citizen or any ordinary citizen”.
When he took office, Castillo faced not only a fragmented Congress and his own political inexperience, but also a wary elite antagonized by controversial campaign promises that included the nationalization of key industries.
Castillo was a rural schoolteacher in Peru’s third poorest district before moving to the presidential palace. His only leadership experience before becoming president was leading a teachers’ strike in 2017.
This inexperience casts doubt on whether he is the “ringleader” of the bribery scheme, as critics claim.
“Having said that, you can’t look at Castillo’s file and say, ‘Hey, this guy is being honest. So how do we put them together? said Cynthia McClintock, a political science professor at George Washington University who has studied Peru extensively. “My feeling is that part of him doesn’t quite understand how careful he has to be. Did he just think that’s the way you do business? It’s not clear at this stage.
Five of the investigations against Castillo relate to what prosecutors describe as a criminal network run by the president involving influence peddling and other crimes. A sixth investigation accuses him and his wife of having plagiarized their master’s theses about ten years ago.
One case concerns a contract won by a group of businessmen in 2021 to build a bridge. Authorities say an informant claims former transportation minister Juan Silva told them late last year that Castillo was ‘happy’ when he received $12,900 after the contract was awarded . Silva is considered a fugitive.
In another case, prosecutors allege that Castillo, his former personal secretary and a former defense minister asked for the promotion of several military or police officers because the moves would bring them money. Authorities say they have statements from former army chief José Vizcarra saying he was pressured to promote military personnel close to the government.
Authorities also suspect Castillo of obstructing justice for firing an interior minister who had set up a team to capture Silva and one of the president’s nephews, who is also linked to the investigation into the contract of bridge.
“Ideally, the president would resign,” Peruvian congress leader Lady Camones said last month. “He was asked to do it… That would be the ideal scenario. But let’s hope in any case that the evaluation is made by the president.
In a separate preliminary investigation, agents from the prosecutor’s office entered the presidential palace in Lima last month to arrest Yenifer Paredes, Castillo’s sister-in-law, whom he raised and considers his daughter. They searched under Castillo’s bed and in the closets in the presidential bedroom, according to a research report obtained by The Associated Press.
Paredes surrendered a day later. A judge then ruled she could be detained until February 2025 while authorities investigate her alleged involvement in money laundering.
“They don’t mind breaking up the family. They don’t mind leaving our children orphans, a situation was designed to break us,” Castillo said.
Paredes’ attorney, José Dionicio, said prosecutors had no evidence against his client.
Historian Charles Walker, director of the Hemispheric Institute on the Americas at the University of California, Davis, said Castillo’s position is a reflection of the entrenched corruption that surrounds the government and a relentless opposition that has the feeling of losing power.
“It’s a perfectly miserable storm,” Walker said. “It seems that around him there is a circle of people who get contracts, who do stupid things, I mean classic, almost traditional corruption.
“But on the other hand, you have this right that feels like it’s under siege in Vietnam, that the ultra-left has taken over… and there’s this incredible paranoia. I think it almost requires a psychological explanation because most of their benefits are still intact; the elite economy is doing quite well.
Regina Garcia Cano, Associated Press