CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Turmoil in Peru’s government boiled this week as President Pedro Castillo overhauled his Cabinet for a third time in six months and then it quickly emerged his new prime minister has faced domestic violence claims, highlighting doubts about the political neophyte’s ability to lead a nation.
Castillo, a rural schoolteacher in a poor Andean district, was an underdog when he entered the race for the presidency last year and initially campaigned on promises to nationalize Peru’s crucial mining industry and rewrite the constitution to end the historical discrimination against Indigenous people and vulnerable populations. He softened his rhetoric when he advanced to a runoff and shocked everyone when he came out victorious.
Critics immediately warned about his nonexistent political experience. Just months into the job, which he assumed as the country suffered like few others from the coronavirus pandemic, some of his decisions have validated the criticism. But they have also highlighted 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-member Cabinet, including the ministers of finance and foreign relations. And as Peru grapples with a big oil spill from a refinery on its Pacific coast, the raised questions by naming a geography teacher and member of the president’s party as minister of the environment.
The changes came after the previous interior minister and prime minister resigned and accused Castillo of not acting swiftly against corruption, an endemic problem in Peru. They also complained that the 52-year-old leader listens to dubious advisers.
“Once in office, inexperience and bad advice do come into play,” said Cynthia Sanborn, political science professor at Peru’s Universidad del Pacifico and a fellow at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center. “Not only was Castillo unprepared for national political office, he also did not have a political or social base to count on for support, nor was he able to bring in capable advisers and experts in the various sectors any president needs to govern.”
Sanborn said Peru was long overdue for social change when Castillo took office last July, but he and his party and allies on his left lacked the political and technical skills to deliver. As a result, she said, various groups are “surrounding the president and taking advantage of the situation to advance private and illicit interests.”
Every Peruvian president of the past 36 years has been ensnarled in corruption allegations, with some imprisoned. One killed himself before police could arrest him.
Finishing first among 18 presidential hopefuls in April’s election, Castillo advanced to a runoff ballot with less than 20% of the overall 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 South American nation cycled 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 some records,” said Claudia Navas, an analyst with the global firm Control Risks.
Interior Minister Avelino Guillén resigned last week alleging Castillo had not supported him to make changes in the police so authorities could more efficiently fight corruption and organized crime. On Monday, Prime Minister Mirtha Vásquez quit, also saying that Castillo was not addressing corruption.
“What the government lacks is a direction, to define a direction,” Guillén said after resigning.
By Tuesday, Castillo was already reshuffling his Cabinet. He appointed fellow Peru Libre party member and teacher Wilber Supo the environment minister amid the country’s worst environmental disaster in recent years, from the coastal spill of nearly 500,000 gallons of oil in mid-January.
But a bigger problem may be selecting Héctor Valer as prime minister. Shortly after the announcement, it became public that authorities in 2017 granted a protection order to Valer’s wife, who alleged domestic violence, and that a year earlier his daughter reported him to police for allegedly hitting her.
Valer denied the accusations Thursday during an interview with a radio station. He invited psychologists to publicly analyze him, which he said would clear him. “I am not afraid,” he said. “I’m not a perpetrator, I’m not one that hits (others).”
Castillo has not commented on the situation.
Previous members of his Cabinet have also been accused of wrongdoing. So has his former private secretary, whose corruption investigation led the prosecutor’s office to find $20,000 in a bathroom of the presidential palace.
“Castillo is facing growing pressures from the unions and social organizations that supported him who want to have increased participation in his government,” said Navas, the Control Risks analyst. “Some of his Cabinet appointments reflect that pressure — also how he is seeking to strike a balance between responding to the demands of his constituents and improving relations with Congress.”
The analyst added that “this practice is not particularly unique to Castillo, but a reflection of the structural flaws of the political system regardless of who is in power.”
Peru’s 130-seat, unicameral Congress is deeply fragmented among 10 political parties and rarely can come to any consensus on passing legislation. Castillo’s party is the biggest faction, but it has only 37 seats, and opposition members lead key committee.
The divisions make it highly unlikely that Castillo will find sufficient support for passing yet-to-be defined proposals to implement his promise to create a Peru where there are “no more poor in a rich country.”
Analysts say the factionalism also might help keep Castillo in office.
“With local and regional elections coming up later this year, the parties will scramble to get ready and may not want to attempt to win national office at this point,” said Sanborn, the university professor. “A lot depends on how strong public outrage will be — if there are sustained protests — and, also, what position the media take.”