Keiko Fujimori in Peru, like Trump in U.S.

In Peru, they have rebuilt the bridge. Or rewoven it. The famous Q’eswachaka rope knit bridge, half a millennium old, which had collapsed during the COVID-19 epidemic, has been restored by the local Huinchiri community. Knot by knot, from each side to the centre — a routinely terrifying journey re-established.

Even the modern cable bridges across the ravines in Peru takes not merely trust in the manufacturer in South America (haha), but a certain leap of faith and fate. You either step onto the bridge and take your chances of extinction — small, but not nothing — or you stay on your side. There’s no other way across. When you step on, there is a lightness that enters your body. Get to the other side and anything seems possible.

Anything is possible, when a stetson-wearing communist can win a presidential election in the land of the conquistadors. Not a Communist in the old capital-C sense, Pedro Castillo is a man of the people — a 51-year-old teacher who emerged from the large field of candidates in the first round of the election to go up against the right candidate, Keiko Fujimori, daughter of 1990s president Albert Fujimori.

Fujimori pere was of the “extra-democratic” right. His daughter is contesting the result of the election on scant evidence. To say Fujimori jeune fille is Trumpian, as some have suggested, is to get things in the wrong order. Trump was a clown-show version of South American junta politics, which Fujimori is restarting. An attempted coup is underway.

Castillo is a schoolteacher born of illiterate peasants in the Andes, who worked as a barefoot teacher and community organiser for years before becoming a teachers’ trade union leader. The “communist” label has come from a panicked right that suddenly realised, in the months leading up to the first round, that Castillo, coming from virtually no support, was going to get past the 15% needed to put him in the running for the second round, and that he had once said some kind words about the “communist” spirit in humanity.

In fact, he’s explicitly rejected the label of communist, a deadly one in a country ravaged by the ultraviolent Shining Path for a decade. The charge is ironic, because Castillo was one of a group of leftists who signed up to a police force to protect villages from the terrorist group. He was later in a left group that included some former Shining Path sympathisers. But though he’s seen as, and has spoken of, being in the gradual but steady tradition of Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Uruguay’s Jose Mujica, his program is to the left of theirs, although short of full Chavismo/caudillo socialism.

He wants to tax properly — or tax at all, actually — the transnational copper miners who rip the stuff out of the country and leave nothing; double state spending on housing and education, nationalise a small number of sectors privatised by previous Peruvian governments, neoliberal on the Chile-Chicago model — the Pinochet-Hayek boys.

But Pedro Castillo’s victory is more momentous, and more complicated, than it first appears. He has won with a solid left political-economic program in part because he has also been explicitly social-conservative. Casttillo has refused to be dragged into demands for a “whole ticket” progressivism which would have alienated a mass base in a country that is part Catholic, part Inca and part tribal animist.

Castillo is opposed to open borders, large-scale immigration, same-sex marriage, contemporary notions of gender and — what takes him to the edge of leftism — opposed to fully legal abortion. That’s significant, because figures such as Morales have always tried to appeal to the global rainbow coalition arising from the global anti-capitalist movement of the late 1990s, and it’s always been touch and go.

But Peru has a sizeable Spanish-origin ascendency, where Bolivia’s is a smaller elite, and those folks don’t muck around. Nothing can be left to chance. Castillo is the sort of leader needed by left parties in both global South and global North: genuinely from the poor, and able to express their mix of radicalism and traditionalism without having to fake it. That is not easily achieved.

For all their harrumphing about rejecting the elites, etc, Labor here are no nearer to projecting that value mix, much less holding it, than they were three years ago. Every act of possibly necessary bastardry — on borders, etc — is undermined by stuff on women, gender or regulation of social and cultural life that makes them indistinguishable from the Greens, because, by politics, most of them are Greens. They can’t fake it, and some cling to Whitlamite era notions of the grand progressive-suburban coalition, which trips them up again and again.

Witness the tragi-comical push by Labor grandees to have Adam Bandt challenged in Melbourne by… Emma Dawson, head of the Per Capita think tank, who tells organisers of unemployed workers to “get a job”. The clinging to the vision of a unitary grand progressive coalition was equally fatal to Corbyn, and to Sanders. Castillo’s victory may be the first in this cycle to win victory by doing what has to be done on the political-cultural front. How much of his program he can get through remains to be seen: his party only controls 37 seats in the 137-seat assembly.

The Peruvian right certainly thinks so. As an eye-opening report in Counterpunch notes, Fujimori’s team has hired just about every lawyer in Peru to contest the result at just about every polling station, even though international observers have declared the elections free and fair. And of course, the US has just appointed a new ambassador to Peru who is, of course, an ex-undersecretary to Trump’s secretary of state Mike Pompeo, and a CIA veteran.

The US has been heavily involved in Peruvian elections for the past decade, and much before. In their bitterness at Castillo’s victory, the coastal elites are becoming vocally chauvinist, rejecting the result as the triumph of the inland peasant horde. You can see why the Shining Path’s last major act was to invade the bougie districts of Lima one early morning and hang a thousand dead dogs from lampposts.

These bastards, really. There’s been half-a-dozen non-Chavez regimes in South America of moderate leftism, with the ancient elites still making out like bandits behind the scenes. But they actively do not want any improvement in people’s lives, any attempt to give the masses a life worth living. Instead, they want everything, to step on the neck of the people forever.

In South America, it’s not simply about the money; it’s about divine order, a medieval conception of the saved and the damned that came over with the conquistadors’ ships. Movements like the Shining Path, and Chavismo (vastly less violent than the Shining Path) emerge from that despair, from the centuries in which whatever is achieved falls away. But knot by knot, it must be made again. There is no other way across. As a wise man once noted, there is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.

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