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Will Peru Get on the Marxist Path?


Peruvians will vote in a runoff presidential election on June 6, and if the polls are correct, Marxist candidate

Pedro Castillo

will win. An upset by his rival, center-right candidate

Keiko Fujimori,

is not impossible, but she is definitely the underdog.

Ms. Fujimori trails Mr. Castillo by 10 percentage points in a Datum poll released Thursday night. Importantly, some 22% of those surveyed say they are either undecided or will cast a blank vote because they don’t support either candidate. Voting is mandatory in Peru.

Until Saturday Ms. Fujimori had been confined to campaigning in Lima because she is the subject of a criminal investigation. That prohibition on travel has been lifted and she now has six weeks—an eternity in Peruvian politics—to make up for lost time.

Mr. Castillo’s thinking is frighteningly similar to that of the late

Hugo Chávez,

who ruled Venezuela from 1999 until his death in 2013. Chavismo strangled Venezuela’s democratic institutions, sent human capital fleeing, destroyed the economy, and generated widespread poverty. The military dictatorship is now headed by

Nicolás Maduro

with important intelligence backing from Havana.

Venezuela was once one of the most advanced countries in the region. Today Venezuelans live primitively, often without running water, electricity or basic medical supplies.

Mr. Castillo has begun to moderate his speech from time to time. But his “government plan” makes no secret of his admiration for Chávez’s ideals and for tyrants like Cuba’s Castro brothers, Nicaragua’s

Daniel Ortega,

Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Argentina’s

Cristina Kirchner.

According to his ideology, state ownership of key parts of the economy is necessary to ensure a just society. He has warned multinationals that their days in Peru are numbered.

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These are bad signs. Peru has attracted capital and reduced poverty significantly by pursuing stable fiscal policy, low inflation, contract security and open markets. But it needs more growth if it is to raise living standards further. Candidate Castillo’s threat to freedom is so serious that Nobel Prize-winning author

Mario Vargas Llosa,

whose intense dislike of the Fujimori political machine is well-known, has endorsed Keiko.

Peruvians are particularly vulnerable to demagoguery at the moment. They have been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic. While a government-mandated lockdown didn’t halt the virus, it crushed the economy. Peru’s 2020 gross domestic product contracted by more than 11% and its case-fatality ratio is among the highest in the world. A battered population is looking for answers and Mr. Castillo’s populism is seductive. If he wins, the bill will come later.

Mr. Castillo, who is from the department of Cajamarca, was the leader of a violent national teacher’s union strike in 2017. His political adversaries allege that his associates in that strike included the legal offshoot of the terrorist group Shining Path.

He has refused to answer questions from the media about whether this is true. But he is the candidate for the hard-left Peru Libre party, which was founded and is run by Cuba-trained

Vladimir Cerrón,

a hard-core socialist.

Mr. Castillo promises to impose price controls, confiscatory taxes on mining profits and heavy regulation. He has said that if elected he would close the constitutional court, though after a public outcry he walked that threat back. He wants to eliminate private pension accounts and the free press, which he accuses of complicity in the sin of capitalism.

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“Lenin was very right when he declared that true freedom of the press in a society is only possible when it is freed from the yoke of capital,” Mr. Castillo’s government plan says. The plan goes on to quote

Fidel Castro,

who complained that with a free press “the means of mass disclosure are in the hands of those who threaten human survival with immense economic resources, technological and military.” The plan warns that the “mother of all battles” will take place in the communications arena.

Like most Peruvian politicians Ms. Fujimori is dogged by corruption allegations. She has a faithful following but also high negatives. Her fate now hangs on whether voters who dislike her will hold their noses and pull the lever for her because a Castillo presidency is unthinkable.

Mr. Castillo’s big lead in runoff polls has sent the Peruvian currency plummeting against the dollar. This translates to higher prices for staples like chicken, bread and gasoline. It could explain why Mr. Castillo’s lead, while substantial, has been shrinking and Ms. Fujimori now has the momentum.

In recent years Peruvians have chosen seemingly disastrous presidential candidates, like populist

Alan Garcia,

when he ran for a second term in 2006, and Ollanta Humala, who campaigned as a socialist-nationalist in 2011. Once elected, neither reversed the market-friendly policies of earlier administrations.

Mr. Castillo promises that this time will be different. It is a commitment that could help Ms. Fujimori turn the tables on her opponent.

Write to O’Grady@wsj.com.

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