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Peru's New President Will Be Sworn Into Office On Wednesday


In Peru, a former elementary school teacher named Pedro Castillo is being sworn in as president today. Castillo is a socialist. His parents were farmers who never learned to read. And his rise to power surprised almost everyone. Here's NPR's Philip Reeves.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Pedro Castillo is from the mountains of northern Peru. He's from Chota, one of the poorest provinces. This morning, its people are celebrating as one of their own assumes the nation's highest office. Festivities will start early, says Exequiel Blanco, a teacher who lives there.

EXEQUIEL BLANCO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "Everyone is full of hope," he says. "Soon, they'll also be full of food."

BLANCO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "Special celebrations like this usually require feasts involving fried guinea pig and pork and trout from the mountain rivers," says Blanco. Pedro Castillo is 51. He's an elementary school teacher who lives in a house he built with his family, who rise at dawn to milk the cows. In 2017, Castillo made headlines by leading a teacher's pay strike. Yet even a few months ago, most Peruvians hadn't heard of him. Few imagined he'd soon be in the capital, Lima, in the presidential palace wearing his signature wide-brimmed white hat. No one saw this coming, says Andres Calderon, a law professor at Peru's Universidad del Pacifico.

ANDRES CALDERON: I would say that he was a very strange figure to the general population. Even two months before the first round of the general election, he was polling less than 1%.

REEVES: Peru's electoral authorities took more than a month to confirm Castillo's victory. The final round numbers were very close. His right-wing opponent, Keiko Fujimori, alleged fraud.



REEVES: As he finally celebrated victory last week, Castillo called for national unity.


CASTILLO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: That's easier said than done. Castillo's from the Marxist Free Peru party. Some of his right-wing enemies paint him as a dangerous leftist radical and compare him with Venezuela's former leader, Hugo Chavez. Others say he won because he's an outsider. And this is another sign that South Americans are fed up with corrupt political elites, left or right. Jose Carlos Requena is a political analyst writing for El Comercio. He says Castillo is socially conservative and believes he'll turn out to be a pragmatic president

JOSE CARLOS REQUENA: If he thinks it's more convenient for him to be moderate because most of the Peruvians prefer moderate politicians, he will be moderate.

REEVES: Fixing Peru's problems is not going to be easy. It has the world's highest per capita COVID death rate. Poverty has risen sharply since the pandemic began. Peru's once booming economy shrank by 11% last year. Even if Castillo seeks to make radical changes, he controls less than one-third of Peru's parliament. That means he's vulnerable to impeachment, says Andres Calderon.

CALDERON: The biggest threat that Peru faces right now, it's not communism, it's not terrorism, it's instability - political instability with a very weak president, with a very improvised and uncertain presidency.

REEVES: Peruvians have a habit of dumping presidents. Last year, they got through three in just one week. As Castillo's friends high in the mountains celebrate his inauguration today with their plates of guinea pig, they'll hope for better than that.

Philip Reeves, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "RETURN TO AIR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.