In Mario Vargas Llosa’s 2016 novel The Neighbourhood, the regime of Alberto Fujimori, which ran Peru in the 1990s, is characterised as “authoritarian, kleptomaniac, manipulative and criminal” by one of its own apparatchiks.
That the country’s Nobel laureate would write unsparingly about the sinister nature of the dictatorship is not surprising. Vargas Llosa, who lost a presidential election to Alberto in 1990, has been a trenchant critic of the Fujimori clan for over 30 years.
But in a sign of just how volatile Peruvian politics has become, an instability aggravated by a disastrous coronavirus epidemic, the author is now calling on Peruvians to vote for Alberto’s daughter Keiko in Sunday’s presidential election run-off. This is despite the fact she has vowed to free her father from jail, where he is serving a sentence for crimes against humanity, and is herself on trial for corruption.
Vargas Llosa, a liberal standard-bearer in the region, has few illusions about Fujimori, who is attempting for the third time to return her family to power. But he believes she is the “lesser evil” compared to her far-left opponent Pedro Castillo. A teachers’ union leader from the poor interior, he was the surprise winner of April’s initial round of voting when he came from nowhere to take first place.
This contest between the radical left and the unrepentant daughter of a bloody dictator forced out of power in 2000 was one few in Peru predicted or wanted. Castillo and Fujimori both benefited from Peru’s political fragmentation, which saw them qualify for the run-off despite winning between them barely a quarter of all votes cast in the first round.
Leading the polls, Castillo is running for the avowedly Marxist Free Peru party, which advocates far greater state control over the country’s strategic mining sector as well as a rewrite of the country’s constitution.
His case has been aided by the pandemic, which has claimed more than 180,000 lives, burdening Peru with the worst death rate in the world despite a severe lockdown that caused huge economic hardship. Among the worst-hit regions are those that contain most of the mineral wealth that drove the strong economic growth of recent decades, but which nevertheless remain much poorer than the capital Lima.
“The profits generated by our natural resources are not enjoyed by the people in the regions that produce them. The pandemic has exposed this inequality. The territories which contain the resources have been the hardest-hit because they are the poorest,” says former congresswoman and indigenous leader Tania Pariona, who is among moderate leftists and progressives offering what she describes as a “critical” backing for Castillo, who holds a large lead in much of Peru’s vast interior.
For many among the country’s terrified elite, Castillo’s desire to use the state to redistribute Peru’s mineral wealth is proof that if elected he would install a “communist society” that would, according to Vargas Llosa, see the end of free elections if it did not provoke a military coup first.
Peruvian presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori: For survivors of her father’s dictatorship, her attempts to pose as a defender of democracy have provoked anger. Photograph: STR/AFP via Getty
In recent weeks, Peru has been in the grip of a red scare campaign that has frequently been inflected with racism against Peru’s poor, dark-skinned majority. Castillo’s opponents do not just accuse him of admiring communist Cuba and the chavista regime in Venezuela but are also trying to link him to the Maoist guerrillas of Shining Path, who were responsible for a majority of the 70,000 deaths in the civil war that raged in the 1980s until they were largely defeated during the Fujimori dictatorship.
Castillo has denied any link with the group and others say efforts to create one are spurious. “I don’t see any relationship or similarity between Shining Path and the left today. But Fujimori without the terrorist monster does not exist. So it is necessary to keep it alive,” says anthropologist Lurgio Gavilán Sánchez, who joined the guerrillas as a child soldier before fighting against them in the military.
As well as Shining Path, opponents have also focused on Castillo’s ties to Free Peru’s founder Vladimir Cerrón. He spent part of the Fujimori dictatorship in Cuba after his father was murdered by members of the security forces and is considered more doctrinaire than Castillo, with whom he reportedly has an uneasy relationship.
This has led to speculation that, if elected, Castillo will seek to distance himself from his party leader and govern through an alliance of the broader left. This is economically more moderate and less socially conservative than Free Peru, which selected the folksy primary school teacher as its candidate only because Cerrón is barred from running because of his own conviction for corruption.
The negative campaign being waged against Castillo, which some have compared to McCarthyism, has gained traction. Recent polls show Fujimori has narrowed the gap between them. It is a remarkable turnaround for a politician whose family is loathed by many Peruvians and who announced her candidacy while under house arrest. Prosecutors have accused her of money-laundering bribes from Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht and are seeking a 30-year sentence.
“For Keiko it was either enter the campaign or possibly enter prison. So she ran and came second and the only candidate she could hope to beat in the run-off qualified with her,” says investigative journalist Gustavo Gorriti, the director of IDL-Reporteros, a team that has spent years documenting the Fujimoris’ criminality.
For survivors of her father’s dictatorship, Keiko’s attempts to pose now as a defender of democracy have provoked widespread anger. Marches in which posters of her father’s victims were prominent have been held across the country. Like her opponent, she has sought to calm fears of possible authoritarianism by signing a pledge to maintain democracy.
But anti-corruption campaigners say a win for Keiko would halt efforts to clean up the country’s politics.
“If Keiko wins, fujimorismo will seek to redefine history and the autocracy of the 1990s,” predicts Gorriti, who was abducted and then exiled during the Fujimori dictatorship after revealing links between the regime and the country’s drug traffickers. “And if they do not seek to perpetuate themselves in power, they will look to free themselves from jail.”