Lima, Peru – For years, Peruvians have anticipated the 200th anniversary of the Andean nation’s independence, on July 28, 1821, as an auspicious date meant to usher in a new, fairer and more prosperous society.
But as Pedro Castillo was sworn in as president on Wednesday, he and his 32 million compatriots will survey a society almost brought to its knees by the COVID-19 pandemic, political instability, endemic corruption and a bitter election campaign that has left Peruvians deeply divided.
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The previously little-known rural school teacher and union leader was a surprise winner of the presidential elections earlier this year. Nearly one in three voters still believe his defeated opponent Keiko Fujimori’s unsubstantiated claims that Castillo owed his victory to fraudulent ballot counting.
Yet the 51-year-old is by definition a truly historic president, the first in Peru’s history to be a “campesino”, a subsistence farmer from the provinces with no prior connections to Lima’s corridors of power.
“It’s time to rebuild a great national unity,” Castillo said during his inauguration speech to Congress. “We’ll do it democratically, seeking national consensus, guaranteeing that on July 28, 2026, I will return to my work as a teacher.”
As he spoke, police kept a small group of his supporters well distanced from the Congress. Most of Lima and the rest of the country remained quiet.
In addition to his day job teaching in a village primary school, the rabble-rousing, ideologically amorphous left-winger still worked his family’s small plot of land until recently, even using a horse-drawn plough to help sow his crops.
That has led many in the country to question whether Castillo is up to the job of leading Peru out of a deep, multifaceted crisis. Their scepticism has been reinforced by the president’s own erratic, frequently contradictory campaign rhetoric and, since winning, low public profile.
The risks to his presidency also have been intensified by infighting within Castillo’s socialist Free Peru party, with hardliners pushing him to name a staunchly left-wing cabinet from within their own ranks – despite the fact that the new ministers will need to pass a vote of confidence in a Congress controlled by the conservative opposition.
One potentially ominous sign of that infighting is that Castillo, whose campaign slogan was “No more poor in a rich country”, has yet to officially name any of his cabinet nominees, and their swearing-in was pushed back from Wednesday to Friday.
“Even after being elected, Castillo remains an unknown,” Gonzalo Banda, a political scientist at Peru’s Catholic University of Santa Marta, told Al Jazeera earlier this month.
Yet, not everyone agrees with the perception of Castillo as lacking the political skill for his enormous new responsibilities.
“A lot of people are underestimating him,” said Rafael Otero, 46, a music producer from Lima. “He is an experienced union leader and a great negotiator. It’s not an accident that this is the first time in 200 years that someone like him, with no links to the Lima establishment, becomes president.”
Castillo’s most immediate challenge will be to accelerate the coronavirus vaccination effort.
Peru is currently enjoying a lull between the second and an expected third wave of the pandemic. But arguably no country has been as badly hit by COVID-19, with the South American nation recording the world’s highest per capita mortality rate.
So far, just 14 percent of Peruvians have been fully vaccinated.
The outgoing government of interim President Francisco Sagasti has signed contracts for 80 million vaccines to be delivered this year. Although some in Castillo’s transition team have questioned whether those doses really will materialise, they promise a significant potential boost to the new president’s political capital if the manufacturers deliver on time.
“It’s worrying. The vaccinations were finally going well, but no one knows if that will continue with Castillo,” said Carla Quispe, 33, a shop assistant from Lima. “The first thing he should do is tell us clearly what his vaccination plan is. It’s easy criticising from the outside, but now it’s his responsibility to deliver.”