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International Last Updated: Dec 29, 2021 - 12:42:27 PM

Peru’s Castillo Is No Friend of the Poor
By Simeon Tegel, WPR, Dec. 28, 2021
Dec 29, 2021 - 12:40:31 PM

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LIMA, Peru—Peruvian President Pedro Castillo may or may not be a socialist, but there is no denying that his political branding is rooted almost exclusively in his identification with Peru’s most marginalized citizens. His campaign slogan for the June presidential election, “No more poor people in a rich country,” was the least of it. What carried real weight with voters was his personal background as a campesino—a rural inhabitant usually with Indigenous heritage and ties to the land. For many, that made Castillo the living antithesis to the largely white Lima elites who have overseen a booming economy in a country still plagued by galloping corruption, inequality and injustice.

But now, just five months into Castillo’s five-year term, a picture is emerging of a president who, by commission and omission, is proving to be anything but a friend to the most vulnerable Peruvians. Instead, his administration has sided with dubious vested interests to roll back badly needed reforms that were intended to improve the quality of instruction in state-run schools and finally provide Peruvians with safe, reliable public transport. Meanwhile, the 52-year-old Castillo has already become personally immersed in a series of scandals in a country where endemic graft has long hampered growth and fueled economic inequity, even as the proportion of Peruvians living below the poverty level—defined as anyone living on less than 360 soles, or $90 per month—jumped to 30 percent during the pandemic, up from 20.2 percent in 2019.

To make matters worse, Castillo has also proved incapable of providing the kind of leadership needed to recover from the devastation wrought by a pandemic that has seen Peru record the world’s highest COVID-19 mortality rate. Needless to say, although the coronavirus pandemic has touched almost all Peruvians personally, it is the poor who continue to bear the brunt of the health crisis and its economic fallout, and who are most hurt by the lack of a stable, serious government as Peru attempts to fight its way back from a national nadir.

Yet Castillo, a former rural schoolteacher who never previously held public office, has proven both indecisive and reclusive, having yet to give a single media interview or hold a press conference, apparently aware that he would not emerge intact from questioning by any serious journalist. Meanwhile, his erratic, populist economic messaging, including threats of unconstitutional expropriations, has spooked investors, damaging the prospects of everyone from the corporate mining sector to working-class Peruvians seeking to launch micro-businesses.

No wonder, then, that by a margin of 2-to-1, Peruvians—including many who voted for Castillo—now view him as lacking “leadership,” while his approval rating has sunk to just 28 percent. Even more telling, perhaps, is the fact that just 6 percent of Peruvians believe the country is progressing, and that the proportion of Peruvians who believe the president is concerned for those “who have the least”—supposedly Castillo’s political calling card—has dropped from 53 percent to 42 percent.

But it is in the president’s support for counter-reforms in the education and transport sectors that his government is most directly harming the poor. Castillo first rose to national prominence in 2017 leading a wildcat teachers’ strike against an attempt to improve the woeful quality of Peru’s underperforming state schools, and he has maintained his opposition to those reform measures now that he is in office. The reforms required primary- and secondary-school teachers to pass exams for the first time to ensure a minimum standard of instruction, while also offering pay hikes and a merit-based promotion scheme. Teachers already in the system were given coaching and multiple opportunities to retake the exams, with dismissal only reserved as a last resort. Indeed, 13 current lawmakers from Castillo’s Free Peru party, all career educators, had taken and failed the exam, some up to seven times, without losing their jobs.

Now, as president, Castillo has used the pretext of a leaked teachers exam, allegedly put up for sale by a Free Peru congresswoman, to suspend the merit-based promotion process altogether. In doing so, he has placed teachers’ job security over the right of millions of pupils at Peru’s creaking state schools—nearly all of whom come from the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder—to a decent education. The decision comes at a time when, thanks to the pandemic, those schoolchildren have already seen their education gravely affected, having been forced to sit out almost two entire school years without in-person classes and, in many cases, no online schooling.

Just five months into Castillo’s five-year term, a picture is emerging of a president who is proving to be anything but a friend to the most vulnerable Peruvians.

Separately, Castillo has so far failed to oppose a bid in the legislature to undermine an equally vital university reform process initiated six years ago. The reform targets the numerous low-quality but lucrative private colleges, several of them owned by prominent conservative politicians, that have historically preyed on students from underprivileged backgrounds. Various lawmakers are now pushing bills to relax the legal requirements needed to certify a university, including having professors with higher degrees, and to appoint university rectors to the board of the regulatory agency that oversees the accreditation process, the Sunedu, effectively allowing private universities to once again self-police.

The nature of the problem is illustrated by Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, one of the universities that the Sunedu stripped of its license. The school allegedly failed to meet all eight of the agency’s quality criteria, yet the rector, Luis Cervantes Linan, was reportedly earning 2 million soles, roughly $500,000, per month, far more than his counterparts at the likes of Harvard or Oxford. Now, six years after the Sunedu’s creation, the agency is on the brink of being captured by the owners of the substandard private universities whose shady business models it had sought to regulate. When it lands on his desk, Castillo could refuse to sign the bill into law. But so far, all the signs, including his ominous silence on the issue, seem to indicate that he is more concerned about accommodating political opponents than defending students’ access to decent, fairly priced higher education.

The story is similar in the disastrous and frequently deadly public transport sector. Under Peru’s passenger transit system, bus routes are awarded to shell transport companies—often behind closed doors—who then subcontract individual drivers that pay the concession-holders a fixed daily fee for the right to cover those routes using their own vehicles. The result is chaos on the roads and a fleet of rusting, polluting, overcrowded minivans that race each other for passengers and routinely flout traffic laws, including by running red lights. The system has long been criticized as perverse, and was slowly being phased out. The newer concession model aimed to provide for a fleet of much larger, natural gas and electric-powered buses owned by formal consortia.

That was until Castillo’s transport minister, Juan Silva, who himself allegedly has a stake in a company that was fined for operating informal passenger buses, promised various concessionaires that he would halt the transport reform. In doing so, he prioritized a tiny group of shadowy middlemen—who invest nothing in modern vehicles or driver training while profiting hugely from the mayhem and death on Peru’s roads—over the millions of poor Peruvians dependent on public transport as their only way to get from point A to point B.

Nevertheless, the issue most likely to see Castillo face another impeachment attempt, having just survived his first on Dec. 7, is the corruption in his inner circle. The most glaring case is that of his now former presidential secretary, Bruno Pacheco, who has been accused of meddling in military promotions and pressuring the head of the national tax agency to provide favorable treatment to a friend. Investigators subsequently discovered $20,000 in cash hidden in the bathroom of his office, which was located next to Castillo’s.

Until recently, it appeared that Castillo was simply an ingénue president who, in desperate need of allies, was tolerating corruption, perhaps even unwittingly, rather than personally benefitting from it. But in the past few weeks, it has emerged that the president himself secretly met with lobbyists and executives from construction and energy companies that subsequently won two public contracts worth a total of more than $130 million in processes plagued with irregularities.

In a country where six of the last eight presidents have been implicated in graft scandals and where voters are in no mood to tolerate a seventh, the notion that Castillo has also been on the take has been greeted with fury—and frantic digging by both prosecutors and journalists. Far more popular presidents have been ousted on a congressional whim. In the shadow of that precedent, Castillo could be counting his remaining days in office on a metaphorical advent calendar

Source:Ocnus.net 2021

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