Photo: Peruvian President Pedro Castillo / Source: BBC, Getty Images.
Peruvian President Pedro Castillo is currently on his fourth cabinet since taking office at the end of July 2021. Unfortunately for Castillo, all signs point to this cabinet being short-lived like the rest. Many observers attribute the administration’s churn to the extreme leftist political views that Castillo promoted during his campaign, while media hype showcases his disorderly government and perceived ineptitude. However, the Castillo government becomes less chaotic when viewed in the context of Peru’s geopolitical needs and constraints.
Peru’s underlying imperatives have remained unchanged throughout all the commotion. Imperative refers to the deep structural needs a country must pursue for its survival. Peru has three imperatives: establish strategic depth to control natural resources, integrate remote Andean communities with coastal centers, and secure control of its coast. These needs remain consistent over time and transcend party politics; what changes is the country’s ability to act on these needs and the strategies used to meet them. Leaders are obliged to pursue these needs and often encounter constraints in terms of their ability to do so. For this reason, there is often a disconnect between campaign promises and government behavior once in office. Such is the situation that Castillo faces today.
A major constraint shaping the Castillo government is the country’s ongoing political crisis. Political rumblings emerged at the end of the Ollanta Humala administration (2011-2016), with corruption charges inching closer to the president. Unfortunately, his successor, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, did not fare much better and resigned over corruption allegations halfway through his term. Three more presidents would follow before Castillo’s election. In parallel, there was prominent political and public discourse over the need for judicial and political reforms.
Moreover, the latest election results reflect these forces supporting political change. The first- and second-round presidential elections saw non-traditional candidates, including Castillo, make strong showings at the polls. In Congress, four of the ten parties—Perú Libre, Renovación Popular, Avanza País, and Juntos por el Perú—made their congressional debut. Together, they occupied a combined 62 of the 130 seats. Since the election, the Peruvian Congress has fragmented further with the emergence of Perú Democrático, a group of seven legislators who broke away from Perú Libre and other leftist parties. In this tumultuous environment, Castillo must work to address Peru’s needs.
Peru’s imperative to maintain strategic depth and control of natural resource deposits is by far the most developed and closest to fulfillment. The Andes Mountains region holds the overwhelming majority of Peru’s natural resources. Since colonial times, the population, administrative, and financial centers gravitated to the coastal region. Nevertheless, resource extraction and exports served as the engine of the Peruvian economy, thereby necessitating Lima’s control over the Andes. Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Peru fought several wars (with varying degrees of success) to secure its borders and ensure control over natural resources.
The government’s firm reliance on its military to pursue this imperative has shaped the relationship between the executive branch and armed forces to this day. In the absence of interstate warfare, Peru deploys its military to address internal threats to extractive activities, such as illegal mining and large-scale social unrest. Despite his pro-Indigenous and pro-labor stance, Castillo still needs and uses the military to help maintain stability within the country. He cannot alienate this institution because it serves as his primary tool for stability, particularly in the short term. Alternative moves, like social programs, do not yield results until years down the line.
This security strategy touches on Peru’s most dynamic imperative, the need to integrate the many interior communities into the central fold. Peru’s geography starkly demarcates the coastal and mountain regions. The country’s economic model, based on resource extraction in the mountains and export along the coast, further reinforces this divide. Additionally, the various valleys within the mountain region result in population pockets that are relatively isolated from one another. These characteristics make it extremely difficult for Peru’s central government to maintain a strong presence in remote locations. These combined features have resulted in strong economic and social disparities between the coast and mountain regions.
Since democratic elections returned in 1980, these socio-economic differences have directly impacted the formation of political parties and the country’s governability. Parties have formed around specific population segments—each with their own set of priorities and corresponding policies to solve their problems. The domestic discrepancies and numerous registered parties result in a broad and polarized political spectrum.
Peru’s past few elections resulted in the centrist vote being divided among multiple candidates, resulting in candidates from more polarized parties advancing to the second round. As a result, whoever won the election did not enjoy support of over half the electorate and was instead seen as the better of two second-choice candidates. This polarization also means that Peruvian presidents tend to govern with comparatively low levels of public approval that reflect their original base. For example, according to IEP’s December 2021 poll, Castillo had a 28.9 percent approval rating. While this showing is good by Peruvian standards, it does not negate the fact that he will struggle with governability and consistently need to politically maneuver and keep allies to get anything done.
Peru’s third imperative—control of its coasts—takes on more of an international scope. Its greatest vulnerability for invasion lies mainly along its coast and adjacent lands. Furthermore, the country’s export model relies heavily on maritime transit to move goods to foreign markets. Securing the coast requires a strong navy whose required capabilities have historically been beyond that of Peru’s forces. The country has compensated by aligning with a powerful ally that can help provide security guarantees. Since the end of World War II, the U.S. has occupied this role and remains the best-suited partner for the task. As a result, the U.S. plays an integral role in Peru’s overall security scheme. This relationship is one that Peruvian governments, including Castillo’s, must honor since failure to do so risks their own maritime and internal security.
Castillo’s greatest challenge lies in how COVID-19 amplified the challenges he faces in pursuing the country’s imperatives. Peru was among the hardest-hit countries in the world when it came to COVID-19 cases and deaths. Economic shutdowns and deterioration encouraged an uptick in illicit market activity and temporarily paused major extractive projects. In addition, populations in the Andes and other remote locations did not have sufficient public health facilities to confront the pandemic or receive adequate care. The pandemic’s impact on Peru’s international trade policy and economic activity is most notable. The country’s economy remains vulnerable to fluctuations in commodity prices, which have become more volatile in the wake of the pandemic. Moreover, the government’s limited public funds for economic recovery means it must rely heavily on trade and foreign investment from other countries. These challenges have compelled Castillo to keep ties open to all major economic partners (for example, the U.S. and China) as well as ensure domestic regulations and practices do not discourage needed investment.
Peru’s economic downturn will define the Castillo government in three major ways. First, on the political front, Castillo faces a catch-22. The political crisis requires deep reforms and not mere trade-offs that Castillo has recently engaged in. However, the government will not execute its ambitious agenda of reforms because of the constraints created by so many competing political parties and forces.
Secondly, the need to usher in economic recovery will require a more market-friendly economic policy that facilitates foreign direct investment and trade. Castillo needs to strike a balance between national ownership and participation in extraction with the foreign participants in a way that does not alienate his political base.
Finally, history shows that extreme economic disparity and downturn in Peru can trigger the emergence of a rebel group that poses a major security and political threat—examples include the Tupac Amaru Rebellion and Sendero Luminoso. The current downturn may not provoke such a reaction, but the risk exists.
Allison Fedirka is the director of analysis for Geopolitical Futures, where she oversees the intellectual quality of analyst work, guides the forecasting process and trains new analysts. Prior to joining Geopolitical Futures, Ms. Fedirka worked for Stratfor as a Latin America specialist and subsequently as the Latin America regional director. She lived in South America—primarily Argentina and Brazil—for more than seven years and, in addition to English, fluently speaks Spanish and Portuguese. Ms. Fedirka has a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and international studies from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in international relations and affairs from the University of Belgrano, Argentina.