Havana-Trained Marxist Pushes Peru’s New President to the Left

Peruvians are keenly focused on every move and utterance of their new president, Pedro Castillo, coming from a Marxist party.

Havana-Trained Marxist Pushes Peru’s New President to the Left
Pedro Castillo speaks to supporters in Lima, Peru. (Photographer: Miguel Yovera/Bloomberg)

Peruvians are keenly focused on every move and utterance of their new president, Pedro Castillo, a previously little-known teacher from a Marxist party. But the real attention perhaps should go to the man widely seen as his sponsor and guiding hand, Vladimir Cerron, the party founder and chief.

While Castillo’s ideology may be in flux -- he has sought to reassure investors -- there is nothing about Cerron to suggest either wavering or flexibility. He couldn’t run for president because of a criminal conviction, so he chose Castillo, advising him on policies and appointments, including prime minister.

“Cerron is the owner of the Peru Libre party,” said Jose Alejandro Godoy, professor of social and political sciences at Pacifico University. “He brings doctrinal and ideological oversight but also a personality element of almost messianic leadership. No moderation will come from Cerron.”

Havana-Trained Marxist Pushes Peru’s New President to the Left

On Friday, Castillo appointed a new foreign minister after his first one, a Cerron ally, was pressured to leave over radical statements. The new appointee, Oscar Maurtua, is more of an old-guard politician. Cerron wasted no time tweeting his concern that he’s insufficiently orthodox, suggesting a struggle may ensue between the president and party leader. 

A neurosurgeon who was trained in Havana and who admires the Cuban regime, Cerron, 50, embodies the most radical aspects of Peru’s political struggle, both intellectually and personally.

His parents were professors. His father, who taught Marxism, was kidnapped and murdered as part of a series of attacks at the National University of Central Peru in 1990. The perpetrators were apparently state-sponsored killers who suspected him and others of ties to the Maoist terrorist group Shining Path. Ex-army officers are currently on trial over those killings. 

So while conservatives in Latin America often toss out, as a smear, accusations that their opponents are Marxists, Cerron is the genuine article with deep familial grievances against the establishment.

Fiercely Intelligent

He embodies leftism at its most personal and unyielding. Highly educated with a reputation for fierce intelligence, he has held firmly to the principles of class struggle and anti-colonialism his entire life, not softening his stance as his influence grew.

While most Peruvians reject such rigid ideology, many are furious at the traditional political class and, between Covid-19 and a growing sense of inequality, seem willing to see where Cerron’s party will take them. 

Cerron’s disqualification for office on corruption charges is seen by his supporters as the juridical framing of a man whose ideas are a threat to the nation’s elites. 

The opening paragraph of Cerron’s party manifesto talks about the need to “embrace Marxist theory.” In a TV interview this month, he called for an end to dependence on the U.S. 

“We need to free our country from a neo-colonial dependence that we see at every level,” Cerron said. “Our education system, our economic system, even our military, everything depends on North American software.”

Cerron didn’t reply to requests for an interview, and people close to him declined to talk. In fact, normally chatty legislators, when asked about him, clam up, afraid of alienating a powerful figure. 

Investors’ best-case scenario was that Castillo would run a government along the lines of leftist Latin American leaders of recent history who have presided over successful economies and falling poverty rates, such as Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Bolivia’s Evo Morales. But the influence of Cerron and his cohort makes that less likely. 

Havana-Trained Marxist Pushes Peru’s New President to the Left

Peru’s currency has plunged since the government took office -- only Afghanistan’s suffered a bigger drop -- as Cerron appeared to be calling the shots, and investors brace for a more radical administration than they had expected. 

“He knows what he’s doing, he’s an experienced politician, he’s a capable man, and that’s what’s worrying,” said Eduardo Jimenez, an economist at Macroconsult, a consulting firm in Lima. “Investors’ biggest fear is the presence of a very radical position fundamentally linked with Vladimir Cerron.”

One of Castillo’s first appointments was of Guido Bellido as prime minister. Bellido is close to Cerron and on the far left. 

The sell-off in the nation’s assets paused when Pedro Francke, a former World Bank economist, took the role of economy minister, while long-term central bank chief Julio Velarde agreed to stay on. Both men are seen as counterweights to Cerron. 

But Castillo will need Cerron and his radical followers to defend him in congress to stand any chance of finishing his five-year term, in a country where impeaching presidents is easier than almost anywhere else on earth. While the opposition controls the 130-seat congress, Cerron holds sway over a couple dozen seats, and the government has few other allies there. 

Former president Martin Vizcarra had no supporters in congress and was impeached last year. 

Cerron was born in an Andean town about 200 miles (320 km) north of Lima, a district that was badly hit by conflict when Maoist guerrillas fought the security forces in the 1980s and 1990s. He started studying electrical and civil engineering but the spreading violence caused him to stop before finishing. 

In 1991, he won a scholarship to Cuba, according to his party’s web page. And after graduating as a doctor in 1997, he won a second scholarship to specialize in neuroscience, also in Cuba.  

This month, he praised Cuba for its free health care, its high numbers of doctors per capita and high literacy levels.

Cubans, he said, are “champions at everything.”

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