Despite a wave of anti-communist propaganda and mysterious “terrorist” massacre, leftist teacher Pedro Castillo has triumphed in Peru’s presidential election. But his right-wing rival refuses to accept the results.
LIMA, PERU – Keiko Fujimori, the political heiress to the jailed Peruvian former dictator Alberto Fujimori, appears to have lost her third election in a row. This time, she has been defeated by Pedro Castillo, a leftist teacher from the rural Andes who narrowly leads in a deliberately delayed poll.
Facing a possible 30 years sentence for an array of corruption-related charges, Keiko is now challenging hundreds of thousands of ballots already deemed to be valid.
In a move that resembles former US President Donald Trump’s recent defeat and subsequent rejection of election results, Fujimori is going for a hat-trick: she has called “fraud” on the two last elections after losing, both times without success.
Keiko Fujimori says she's not conceding the election because Peru is the battleground to fight communism. pic.twitter.com/fm87gLFHDc
This time, only a small suburban elite, a concentration of corporate outlets controlled by the El Comercio Group, and several ultraconservative publications are on Keiko’s side. However, she is attempting to compel the masses into the streets in a move that is as irresponsible as it is dangerous – and which bears distinctive echoes of Trump inciting his fanatics to storm the US Capitol.
So far, the Peruvian military has respected its mandate as a non-deliberative body, and has avoided interfering in the political contest. Even the Organization of American States and Human Rights Watch, two bodies which normally side with right-wing candidates in Latin America, have openly rejected Fujimori´s accusation of fraud, and called for a swift resolution of her weak complaints. For their part, international observers agree that the poll was clean.
Fujimori firmly controlled the Congress from 2016 to 2020, shaping years of political turmoil in what many saw as a bitter revenge for not winning the presidency back in 2016, when she lost a hard-fought second round against the now infamous Pedro Pablo Kukzcynski, who is under house arrest for bribery.
In the last years of a congressional term where her party, the highly disciplined Fuerza Popular, enjoyed a comfortable majority and many allies, Keiko directed everything, from an impeachment push to the advancement of measures deemed essential by her powerful corporate backers.
In 2018, for example, her party blocked a law that would have informed consumers about high levels of dangerous food additives in many popular snack products, risking the profit margins of a business tycoon, Dionisio Romero Jr., who covertly donated millions of dollars to Fujimori’s past campaigns. He did so by taking backpacks filled with cash to Keiko and her close advisors.
But the years of political control also brought to light revelations regarding Odebrecht and illegal financial backing like the one mentioned above: millions of dollars from the Brazilian corporation tied to Lava Jato and the Peruvian banking and corporate elite went unaccounted for, or were “smurfed” into many fake and smaller backers, fractioning the money in lesser and legal donation amounts.
This year’s presidential election in Peru should have ended a few days ago, as over 98% of votes have been tabulated. But Fujimori´s denunciations of fraud, disingenuously accepted as legitimate by the conservative press and sectors of the country’s political establishment, have completely stalled Castillo’s validation as president.
Today, Peru is waiting for a decision that might “take weeks,” risking a dangerous surge of social turmoil in the streets.
A disgraced corporate media empire drives communist apocalypse panic
A fear campaign targeting Lima, where slightly less than a third of Peruvians live, has driven the political polarization of Peruvian society to degrees rarely seen in decades.
But the deed did not go unnoticed: just a few days ago, a dozen journalists were fired or forced to resign from the most important TV channel in the country, America Television, part of the El Comercio Group, drawing the attention of regulators and the public alike.
The local institution for ethics in journalism had grown alarmed by the evident degradation of the Peruvian press, where more than 70% of the news is owned and controlled by El Comercio Group. The watchdog called for a review over the way journalism is conducted the country, and emphasized the need to reform it.
La campaña mediática contra Castillo se centra ahora, además del miedo al comunismo, en la amenaza de aumento del dólar.
Las portadas contra el candidato de Perú Libre se repiten todos los días en la mayoría de los periódicos. pic.twitter.com/0ewOSNMJg7
The aggressive propaganda campaign driven by Keiko’s campaign warned Peruvians of a “communist” apocalypse if Pedro Castillo was elected, sowing panic among the upper and middle classes of Lima, spawning irrational hatred that tore friendships and families apart.
The intensity of the red-scare propagated by El Comercio, the rest of the mainstream media, and the right-wing establishment reflected the paranoia of the local aristocracy, an achievement in psychological war that nevertheless failed to stymie a Castillo victory.
Mysterious and expensive illuminated billboards suddenly appeared across the busiest avenue of Lima cautioning the public about how “Socialism leading to Communism,” “Communism is Poverty,” and about the need to “Defend Freedom and Democracy.”
The defense of the country against the evil specter of communism was equated with voting for Keiko Fujimori, who, like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro before her, campaigned while wearing the national soccer jersey.
Just as “anti-Americanism” was equated with promoting socialism during the Cold War in the US, here in Peru, leftists are widely demonized as “anti-Peruvian.”
Estos carteles anticomunistas peruanos son tan estúpidos que parecen en verdad cubanos o una traducción de alguno de Rusia de los años 30 sobre la transición al comunismo pic.twitter.com/bdjjErcFIk
Beyond the public relations scare campaign that played out in the street, major corporations threatened their employees with the loss of their jobs if they failed to vote for the right-winger, an intimidation campaign that is technically illegal in Peru and in most democracies.
The hysteria among Keiko’s base has reached the point where many are convinced that the country is falling not only into the hands of a stereotypical communist dictatorship, but also into the hands of the Shining Path, a brutal Maoist insurgent group that was defeated and mostly destroyed in 1992 under the presidency of Alberto Fujimori.
A highly suspicious massacre that took place in the jungle locality San Miguel del Ene on May 23, where 16 people were murdered, including two children, reopened wounds and memories of the bloody years of terrorism that ravaged Peru.
— Semanario Hildebrandt en sus trece (@ensustrece) May 28, 2021
A mysterious massacre fuels Keiko’s anti-communist campaign of fear
The attack in San Miguel del Ene was immediately attributed to a narco-terrorist group that splintered from the Shining Path more than a decade ago to pursue the cocaine business. But the Militarizado Partido Comunista del Peru (MPCP), as the remnants of the Shining Path calls itself these days, has not been known to engage in political attacks like the aforementioned massacre.
Mysteriously, flyers were found at the site of the massacre with an ominous message that could have only benefited one of the candidates in the race: “Don’t vote for Keiko Fujimori…”.
The Peruvian military’s assessment that the disappeared Shining Path were “definitely” responsible for the killings drove public fear to new heights, and propelled Keiko’s popularity. Yet the military failed to consider that the Shining Path and MPCP are bitter enemies, or that the former group’s leadership is either long dead or in prison. Further, the investigation into the massacre had been fully in the hands of the police – not the army.
Predictably, the pro-Keiko El Comercio media conglomerate seized on the army’s version of the killings to determine the Shining Path’s culpability ipso facto. When independent reporters went to the scene of the crime, however, they heard testimony that raised serious questions about the official story.
Instead, every local in a hundred miles around San Miguel del Ene, the village where the 16 were brutally murdered, provided testimony completely at odds with the official version. Villagers said they knew the narco-terrorists well, referring to them as “cousins” and “uncles” when they enter their towns.
They explained that killing civilians in such fashion would not only deprive the narcos of workers for their coca fields, but also risk alienating the people from those localities, which they depend on for information, services, and labor.
Among many other details disregarded by the mainstream press and authorities was that witnesses had told the independent Peruvian outlet Hildebrandt en sus trece that, moments before the attack, phone and electrical services were cut off. Locals said this happens every time the military is about to initiate a raid against the narco-traffickers.
One female survivor described the attackers as “normal” people, dressed not like terrorists, the police or the army.
Immediately after the killing, three to five attackers were seen fleeing the scene in motorcycles – a vehicle not normally associated with narco-gangs – in the direction of a locality called Valle Esmeralda, where a military detachment is based.
As expected, the papers comprising El Comercio’s pro-Keiko tabloid empire ignored every piece of witness testimony detailed above.
Is the fear of Castillo justified?
During the first round of voting, a whopping 70% of voters did not choose either Pedro Castillo or Keiko Fujimori. Despite that fact, neither candidate attempted to moderate their tone to appeal to a wider constituency until the very end of the campaign.
Although the talk about nationalization of natural resources and key industries is an obvious red line for the country’s conservative right-wing, Castillo has also been notoriously inconsistent, telling one thing to certain audiences in his tour around Peru, and then another to television cameras, concerned authorities, and opposition journalists. Castillo’s economic gaffes during several press conferences highlighted his urgent need for PR support and careful political management.
Even after Castillo toned down his rhetoric, only a small portion of the undecided segment of voters said they would consider voting for him. Many had been convinced that Vladimir Cerrón, the avowedly Marxist leader of Castillo’s party, Perú Libre, was calling the shots from behind the scenes. In fact, one of the main themes of the right-wing propaganda blitz of recent weeks has been presenting Cerrón as the real power behind Castillo’s throne.
The focus on Cerrón was particularly damaging given that a criminal verdict against him was recently lifted by a notoriously unscrupulous judge. Issued during the most heated days of the election, the decision appeared suspicious, and now poses a serious risk of inflaming an already explosive situation by sending more people to the streets in opposition to Cerrón’s return to political influence.
Perú Libre is constituted in part by school union organizers like Castillo, but also maintains loose ties to MOVADEF, a political movement that seeks amnesty for convicted terrorists. Its members actively participate in different branches of the same public union as the left-wing teacher and de facto president. This is why many citizens taken in by the right-wing media’s fearmongering regard the surge of Perú Libre as a “terrorist threat.”
However, the accusation is simply baseless. In reality, Castillo was a “rondero” who helped lead peasant civilian militias that were officially recognized by the Peruvian government to defend small towns in the Andes against the Shining Path terrorist cells during the 1980s and early ’90s.
Indeed, the stigmatized MOVADEF members do not promote violence; instead, they advocate political participation and reconciliation between fully rehabilitated former terrorists and the citizenry at large.
Following a deluge of anti-communist propaganda aimed at reviving the ghosts of modern Peru’s darkest days, and without an impartial or remotely professional press to counterbalance it, the country is entering into dangerous territory.
History, however, seems already written: international institutions, and even establishmentarian entities, are rejecting Keiko’s caustic ploys and recognizing Pedro Castillo as the next president of Peru.