Peru's Socialist President-Elect Didn't Come out of Nowhere | Opinion

Last week, a slim majority of Peruvians voted Pedro Castillo, a rural school teacher, to be their next president. Castillo beat Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of the country's former dictator, by about 50,000 votes. The country now waits for authorities to certify the results.

Commentary here in the United States has tended to depict Peru's election as a contest between bad and worse. Castillo, the latest in the Latin American "pink tide" of left-wing populist heads of state, has positioned himself as an opponent of foreign corporations, and of the U.S.'s presence in Peru. Fujimori, on the other hand, ran on the promise of pardoning her father Alberto, currently imprisoned for corruption and human rights violations he committed as president in the 1990s. Keiko herself spent time in prison for corruption shortly before launching her campaign, and prosecutors charged her again in March.

Politicians like Castillo and Fujimori seem to pop up over and over again in Latin American countries. We may be tempted to assume that this happens because some places just aren't very good at democracy yet, or have some inscrutable cultural aversion to the kind of nice, upstanding liberal politicians we want them to have. But make no mistake: Latin American politics doesn't happen in a vacuum.

We may not think much about Latin America, but the U.S. looms large across the hemisphere. As the United States grew into a superpower, we've taken for granted that our neighbors to the south would be open for business—whether that means extracting resources, dumping waste or offshoring not-quite-legal enterprises. The history of U.S.-Latin American relations, going back more than a century, is spotted with examples of big businesses leveraging poverty, corruption, crime and even violence to their advantage. In recent decades, Wall Street has gotten in on the action. U.S.-based hedge funds have made a habit of buying up South American—including Peruvian—national debts during hard economic times and then pressuring the countries to pay up, sometimes decades later.

At times, the U.S. government has stepped in to install business-friendly regimes by force. We've backed coup attempts in Guatemala, Cuba, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Honduras and elsewhere. Peruvians are no strangers to this trend. Fujimori—democratically elected in 1990—dissolved Peru's legislature and judiciary by force in 1992 because they refused to support his economic agenda of austerity, privatization and easing regulations on foreign capital. The U.S. issued a token condemnation before switching its message and supporting the "self-coup" after only two weeks.

Pro-U.S., pro-business regimes in Latin America have hardly been bastions of freedom. Instead of free marketplaces where domestic entrepreneurs have the resources to cultivate an organic ecosystem of small businesses, the result of U.S. intervention has more often been cronyism, with multinational corporations absorbing natural resources and arable land—and the proceeds, more often than not, lining the pockets of friendly politicians.

Some Latin American leaders have concluded that the only way to reclaim their nations' sovereignty is to nationalize the economy and develop a domestic industrial base along socialist lines (contrary to the capitalism on offer from the U.S.). We tend to depict these individuals as mere ideologues, dyed-in-the-wool communists bent on world Marxist revolution. But Latin America's "pink tide" has tended to express itself in overtly nationalist terms. Let's take the most extreme example—Fidel Castro, several years before taking power, lamented Cuba's lack of economic sovereignty under U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista: "More than half of our most productive land is in the hands of foreigners.... We export sugar to import candy; we export hides to import shoes; we export iron to import plows."

Pedro Castillo's economic agenda is very much in this nationalist vein, though significantly more moderate. Instead of Castro-style "expropriation" (state seizure and redistribution of land) from multinational corporations, he's proposed taxing windfall profits and renegotiating mining contracts—a move more likely to hurt Chinese firms than U.S. ones. Still, that has been more than enough to get Castillo denounced by the international political class, and called a communist by his opposition.

Peru Pedro Castillo
Peruvian leftist presidential candidate Pedro Castillo of Peru Libre waves to supporters from his party headquarters balcony in Lima on June 8, 2021, keeping a narrow lead in the final vote tally with right-wing candidate Keiko Fujimori on Fuerza Popular following the runoff election of June 6. Gian Masko / AFP/Getty Images

But there's another way that Castillo doesn't fit the stereotype of a communist ideologue: his social conservatism. His campaign featured vocal opposition to abortion and support for the traditional family. Observers have depicted these views as a mere byproduct of Castillo's Christian religious beliefs, but like his left-wing economics, they have a special resonance thanks to the U.S.'s longstanding approach to Peru.

In addition to advising Latin American leaders to open their economies to foreign capital, American experts and bureaucrats have historically pushed for population control. In the 1970s, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) began to promote population control as a means of third-world economic development, but also (more importantly for U.S. business interests) to prevent "revolutionary actions" and the "expropriation of foreign interests" and to create "the environment needed to attract the foreign capital vital to increasing levels of economic growth." The resulting programs have tended to target poor, rural and indigenous groups—coincidentally, those least likely to be happy with the effects of the globalized economy on their lives, and therefore the most likely to vote against pro-U.S. candidates.

As with U.S. insistence on economic liberalization, Alberto Fujimori played ball on the "population problem." He enacted a "National Population Program" that forcibly sterilized thousands of Peruvian women—with support from USAID and the UN. Fujimori touted the program as having lowered the country's birth rate from 3.7 births per woman to 2.7 births in less than a decade. In March of this year, he went to trial for it.

Castillo appears to believe Fujimori didn't enact his brutal agenda alone. The president-elect pledged to expel USAID from Peru, as Bolivia's Evo Morales did in 2013 to "nationalize the dignity of the Bolivian people." The targets of Fujimori's population program—poor, rural, indigenous Peruvians—voted overwhelmingly for Castillo, in hopes of opting out of the system designed by pro-business, anti-family U.S. technocrats.

And can we blame them? We wouldn't accept Fujimorism in our own country. Imagine a politician running on a platform of selling off the country's assets to big business and Wall Street, enriching the politically connected and imposing population control on those left behind in the process. He'd be a Frankenstein's monster stitched together of the elements Republicans and Democrats dislike the most about each other.

We can, of course, blame Castros and Fujimoris for the political violence and human rights violations their governments commit. Those can never be explained away or justified. But they take place in a context shaped by U.S. policy. Much of our foreign policy still reflects a Cold War-era elite consensus that everyday Americans, Right and Left, are questioning at home. What's long been pitched to the American public as promoting democracy and free markets has ended up looking like propping up despots and spreading cronyism. That's just as true in our own hemisphere as it is in the Middle East, where we pay more attention. Castillo has good reason to ask the U.S. to step back, and we have good reason to ask our elected leaders to stop taking our neighbors for granted.

Philip Jeffery is deputy opinion editor at Newsweek.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.