CARACAS, Venezuela — Unrest in the Peruvian government boiled over this week as President Pedro Castillo reshuffled his cabinet for the third time in six months, then it quickly emerged his new prime minister had faced charges of domestic violence, highlighting doubts about the ability of the political neophyte to lead a nation.
Castillo, a rural teacher in a poor Andean district, was an outsider when he entered the presidential race last year and initially campaigned on promises to nationalize Peru’s crucial mining industry and rewrite the constitution to end historic discrimination against indigenous peoples and vulnerable populations. . He softened his rhetoric when he advanced to the second round and shocked everyone when he emerged victorious.
Critics immediately warned of his non-existent political experience. Just months into the job, which he took on as the country suffered like few others from the coronavirus pandemic, some of his decisions have validated the critics. But they also exposed Peru’s long-dysfunctional political system in which no party holds a majority and it is difficult to push through new programs or make changes.
Castillo on Tuesday appointed a new prime minister and replaced half of the 18 cabinet members, including the finance and foreign relations ministers. And as Peru grapples with a major oil spill from a refinery on its Pacific coast, Peru has raised questions by appointing a geography professor and member of the president’s party as environment minister.
The changes came after the former interior minister and prime minister resigned and accused Castillo of failing to act quickly against corruption, a problem endemic in Peru. They also complained that the 52-year-old leader listens to dodgy advisers.
“Once in office, inexperience and bad advice kick in,” said Cynthia Sanborn, a political science professor at Peru’s Universidad del Pacifico and fellow at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center. “Not only was Castillo unprepared for national political office, he also had no political or social base to rely on for support, nor was he in a position to bring in advisers. and competent experts in the various sectors that a president needs to govern.”
Sanborn said Peru had long awaited social change when Castillo took office last July, but he and his party and allies to his left lacked the necessary political and technical skills. As a result, she said, various groups are “surrounding the president and taking advantage of the situation to advance private and illicit interests.”
All Peruvian presidents for the past 36 years have been ensnared by corruption allegations, and some have been imprisoned. One of them committed suicide before the police could arrest him.
Finishing first among 18 presidential candidates in the April elections, Castillo qualified for a second round with less than 20% of the vote. He then defeated a member of the country’s political elite by just 44,000 votes, becoming Peru’s fifth president since 2016. He succeeded Francisco Sagasti, who was appointed by Congress in November 2020 as the nation South America has gone through three heads of state in one week.
A revolving door of cabinet members has plagued previous administrations in Peru, but Castillo is “certainly hitting records,” said Claudia Navas, an analyst at global firm Control Risks.
Interior Minister Avelino Guillén resigned last week, alleging that Castillo had failed to back him to bring about changes in the police so that authorities can fight corruption and organized crime more effectively. On Monday, Prime Minister Mirtha Vásquez resigned, also saying Castillo was not tackling corruption.
“What the government lacks is a direction, to define a direction,” Guillén said after his resignation.
On Tuesday, Castillo was already reshuffling his cabinet. He appointed Peru Libre party member and teacher Wilber Supo environment minister amid the country’s worst environmental disaster in years, following the coastal spill of nearly 500,000 gallons of oil in mid- January.
But a bigger issue could be the selection of Héctor Valer as prime minister. Shortly after the announcement, it became public that in 2017 authorities had granted a protective order to Valer’s wife, who alleged domestic abuse, and that a year earlier his daughter had reported to the police for allegedly hitting her.
Valer denied the charges Thursday during an interview with a radio station. He invited psychologists to analyze him publicly, which he said would exculpate him. “I’m not afraid,” he said. “I am not an aggressor, I am not the one who hits (others).”
Castillo did not comment on the situation.
Former members of his cabinet have also been accused of wrongdoing. The same goes for his former private secretary, whose corruption investigation led the prosecution to find $20,000 in a bathroom in the presidential palace.
“Castillo is facing increasing pressure from unions and social organizations that have backed him and want greater participation in his government,” Control Risks analyst Navas said. “Some of his Cabinet appointments reflect that pressure — also how he seeks to balance between meeting the demands of his constituents and improving relations with Congress.”
The analyst added that “this practice is not particularly unique to Castillo, but reflects structural flaws in the political system, regardless of power.”
Peru’s unicameral Congress, which has 130 seats, is deeply fragmented among 10 political parties and rarely achieves consensus on passing legislation. Castillo’s party is the largest faction, but it has only 37 seats and opposition members lead a key committee.
The divisions make it highly unlikely that Castillo will find enough support to push through yet-to-be-defined proposals to implement his promise to create a Peru where there are no more poor people in a rich country.
Analysts say factionalism could also help keep Castillo in power.
“With local and regional elections coming up later this year, parties will be scrambling to prepare and may not want to try to win national elections at this stage,” said Sanborn, the university professor. “A lot depends on the strength of public outrage – whether there are sustained protests – and, also, what stance the media will take.”