The boy woke up at five in the morning, while it was still night. In the kitchen he was preparing lunch illuminated by candlelight. He warned himself from the cold with a poncho and kept a plastic bag in his pocket in case it rained. Then he went around mountains and steep paths of dirt and stone until he reached the school, a two-hour walk away. It skirted ravines 3,000 meters high, with the sensation of living on the roof of the world. The clouds did not allow him to contemplate the abyss below his feet. That short and small boy spent all the way making gestures and waving his hands in a vehement way, like a conductor. Neighbors watched him pass while harvesting potatoes and corn in their gardens. One of them got worried and went to talk to his mother.
“Get Pedrito cured,” the neighbor advised. He’s upset.
The mother waited for her son that day, restless. He asked for explanations as soon as he arrived. The townspeople, he warned him, believed he was losing his mind. “Ignore it, I’m not sick. I am doing my homework, I write in the air. So when I get to class I already know it ”, the boy replied. Then he gave his mother a kiss on the head and went to sleep.
Doña Mavila Terrones remembers that as the moment in which she discovered that her son was special, that he was going to go far in life despite having been born in San Luis de Puña, a poor and remote area of Peru. “But not that I was going to go that high! We are only peasants ”, adds Ireño Castillo, an old man with a palm hat. They are the parents of Pedro Castillo, the left-wing school teacher who leads, by a small difference, the polls to be the next president of his country. His parents come on Wednesday, after receiving the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, to pray in a dark and damp church. They place near the altar of the Lord of Mercy three white candles entrusted to Pedro, the last push for Sunday, when he faces Keiko Fujimori, a conservative politician, daughter of the autocrat Alberto Fujimori, who grew up in Lima, in a city of large buildings facing the sea.
The origins of the two contenders are the most disparate that one can imagine. “Diosito, listen to us,” whispers Dona Mavila on her knees on a kneeler. Mr. Ireño, meanwhile, remains seated on a bench. When he takes off his hat, he reveals his gray, flattened hair. He was born 85 years ago on a farm owned by the Herrera family, a family of landowners in the Sierra de Cajamarca, an area of the Andes. He did not go to school, just like his wife. They cannot read or write. The man worked in the fields on land for which he paid rent to its owners until June 1969, when General Juan Velasco Alvarado carried out an agrarian reform after giving a coup. He distributed the large estates, until then in a few hands, among the peasants. “We stopped being slaves,” Ireño recalls. At his son’s rallies there are often black and white portraits of the big-headed general with the thin mustache.
Castillo, 51, has led the encounters during the first weeks of the campaign by a 20-point difference. Keiko Fujimori, in the last, has reduced the distance until almost achieving a technical tie. He got 19.09% of the votes in the first round, she 13.36. Both socially conservative, they are distinguished by their economic model of the country. Now there can only be one left. The candidate of Fuerza Popular and the establishment Peruvians have made a very aggressive campaign against the trade unionist, whom they accuse of wanting to destroy democracy in order to establish a communist system. The professor has signed two democratic commitments, in which he assures that he will protect the institutions. In the debate last Sunday, he repeated incessantly that he will respect private property, the pension system and companies. He tried to attract the urban left, who might be tempted to see Fujimori as a less adventurous option.
The professor has focused his speech on the need to recognize health and education as fundamental rights and on the fight against corruption, the most questionable aspect of his rival, which is being pursued by several open cases. Castillo is assigned to Peru Libre, the Marxist-Leninist formation led by a former governor suspended from office for a corruption case, Vladimir Cerrón. That is the flank from which Fujimori has attacked him the most. Cerrón is a dogmatic leftist, close to the populist and authoritarian governments of Latin America. Castillo has tried to distance himself from that figure by forced marches.
Some of his statements have generated controversy. He assured that a democracy operates in Venezuela or that, once in power, it will consult in a referendum the approval of a constituent assembly. On other occasions he has had to qualify what he proposes. He said that he would end the pension system, later that he would only modify it. At his rallies he has attacked extractive companies, prompting Fujimori to proclaim that he wanted to nationalize them. His proposal, in reality, consists of renegotiating with the mining and gas companies so that they reinvest a percentage of their profits in the country.
Castillo’s path, from the deep mountains to the gates of power, has been long. As a child, he combined school with work in the fields. He carried buckets of water, cooked, collected firewood. And soon he was very judicious. He taught us better how to do things, ”says his older sister, Mercedes Castillo, while planting yucca. As teenagers, the two went to work in the Peruvian Amazon, where they grew rice. In the cities they sold ice cream. Castillo saved to pay for his studies. That explains why he was two years behind in high school. Thanks to that, he met Lilia Paredes, the mother of his three children, a devout and temperamental woman in class.
He studied teaching. He taught in Puña, where he was born. Most of the students were related to the teacher. 25 years later, in that same school, nestled between two streams, the teacher is Castillo’s niece and the six students are related to the candidate in one way or another. Well seen, they even look like Pedro. Time seems stopped up here, where Castillo is a little God. Rare is the person who appears on the road who has not lived some experience with him, a moment that reveals his goodness, his talent or his leadership. There are those who claim that they cry listening to him speak. Within these stone walls, the professor with the hat and the fiery verb, in a very short time, has acquired the character of a myth.
Let’s get back to the facts. In 2002 he entered politics for the first time. The party of Alejandro Toledo, the first president after the ten years of authoritarian power of Fujimori father, ran for the mayor of Anguía, a small town close to his, by Peru Posible, the party of Alejandro Toledo. Castillo was defeated, but he belonged to that formation until 2017. Castillo and Toledo share humble origins. Toledo’s father, whom his Belgian wife, in a public harangue, called “cholo (Andean) healthy and sacred”, was a shoe shine. But there are some differences between them. Toledo studied on a scholarship in the United States and before launching into the presidential race, he had made a career as an economic analyst in Lima. He was an urbanite. Castillo, on the other hand, remains a man of the country. The day after going by surprise to the second round, in April, the journalists who went up to his field found him walking without shoes through the grass, carrying a bowl. He came from milking a cow.
In 2017, Castillo became a union leader during an education strike. He demanded better salaries for those in his guild, among other things. He became the visible face of the professors who negotiated with the congressmen. He lived a flash of popularity. After the strike, people forgot about him. When he ran for office, not everyone remembered him. The teacher’s union supported him. At rallies he brandishes a giant pencil. His campaign slogan is “no more poor in a rich country.” Peru has been traveled from top to bottom. In a month they have written him 32 songs of cumbia, traditional and modern music. Its popular dimension is unquestionable.
Whatever happens on Sunday, Castillo will wake up early the next day, just like when he was a child, and take care of his animals. Now he lives in a nine-room house perched on a hill in Chugur, right in the village where he walked after a two-hour trek. The family usually has lunch in a chipped kitchen, with a fire pit on one side and a religious calendar on the other. His eldest daughter, Jennifer, remembers that in January her father told her to invite the pastor to lunch. He had something important to announce. He asked his wife to cook a chicken broth. That day, when they finished eating, everyone shook hands and Castillo announced, from that far away part of the world, that he wanted to be the next president of Peru.
“Amen,” replied the rest.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.