‘No More Poor People In a Rich Country’ – What Will Peru’s Left Victory Mean?

Supporters of Left Presidential candidate Pedro Castillo on the streets, image courtesy Reuters

Supporters of Left Presidential candidate Pedro Castillo take to the streets, image courtesy BBC and Reuters

It seems quite clear from the latest reports coming in from Peru that the Left-wing candidate Pedro Castillo is all set to win in what has been described as the most polarized election till date. With over 99 percent of the ballots counted, Castillo had taken a lead of approximately 80, 000 votes (50. 2 of the total) over his Right-wing rival Keiko Fujimori. The counting process, reports say, has already been considerably slowed down as ballots seem to be still arriving from abroad as well as from the remote rural areas. Votes of expatriates arriving from abroad are mostly right wing votes for Fujimori whereas the ones from the rural areas are likely to be overwhelmingly for Castillo. There also seem to be a huge number of contested votes that might need to be recounted, further slowing down the process.

Just how polarized in class terms the Peruvian election has been is symbolized in the figures of the two candidates themselves. On one side Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the jailed dictator Alberto Fujimori has become the rallying point for the entire Peruvian elite; on the other, is Pedro Castillo, son of illiterate peasants, himself a school teacher but virtually unknown till a few months ago, drawing massive support from the rural poor in particular. Castillo has also been active in the teachers’ union and has often been described as a ‘trade unionist’.

Pedro Castillo’s central campaign slogan ‘No More Poor People in a Rich Country’ has clearly struck a chord with the deeply impoverished peasantry and the indigenous people in countryside. Given the already deeply ‘class-divided’ society, and the inequalities further exacerbated by the massive impact of Covid19 on the poor, this slogan, it is hardly surprising that Castillo garnered such massive support from the poor.

Extractivism and ‘the Poor’

Up to this point, the story might not seem unfamiliar but what leaps out so powerfully, both in Castillo’s apparent victory as well as his central campaign slogan, is the nature of ‘class-divided-ness’. The slogan talks of the ‘poor’ in a ‘rich country’ – where ‘rich’ refers to the country’s mineral and resource wealth and ‘poor’ to the people. It refers to something that Latin American intellectuals and activists alike have noted very often – that it is precisely its richness that is the reason for its poverty and ‘backwardness’. In Peru, the poorest provinces are the most wealthy in that they have copper, gold, silver and zinc mines aplenty. In academic literature, it has also been referred to as the ‘paradox of plenty’ and the ‘resource curse’. Uruguayan intellectual Eduardo Gudynas has summed up this idea as endorsed by the Inter-American Development Bank, as one of ‘tropical fatalism’, where development is supposedly determined by geography; where countries richest in natural resources, situated along the equator are condemned to be poor. Though it names a wider, global phenomenon, the means by which these countries of Latin American have ‘developed’ over the past few centuries has been called ‘extractivism’ by their intellectuals. This phenomenon refers primarily to the dual character of this ‘development’ – first, being based on the extraction of minerals and oil etc from below the earth, and second, reducing these countries to becoming exporters of primary commodities and importers of industrial commodities.

This of course, has a direct consequence for peasant and indigenous communities who stay on that land, who face land grab and dispossession from corporations who have an eye on the minerals or oil beneath. Extractivism acquires a completely different valence today in the face of the exhaustion of the earth’s resources on the one hand, and the climate crisis, on the other. Given all this, the nature of ‘class-division’ in most of Latin America is hardly one where it is the ‘modern working class’ confronting the ‘bourgeoisie’. Rather, it is like most of Africa and Asia, a large mass of rural poor and indigenous people struggling to save their own livelihoods and cultures.

In fact, one might say that for most of these three continents (Africa, Asia and Latin America), it is these populations who are posing the most determined challenge to Capital. From a climate-change point of view, the ‘Capital versus Life’ becomes pretty much a global antagonism in our times. Much of the birth and growth of the New Left formations in different parts of Latin America has been based on these indigenous and rural poor, rather than the urban industrial working class.

Neo-Extractivism and the New Left

It has lately become commonplace to say that the New Latin American Left is distinct from the Old communist Left but how and in what ways is not often discussed. At one level, it is quite obvious that the unlike the old modernist Left that was sold on the dream of modernity and industrialism, the New LA Left was clearly not modernist. It seems quite obvious that where the Old Left wanted the whole world to become capitalist before it could begin its task of socialist transformation, the New Left was to protect the rights of ‘Mother Earth’ and its indigenous children.

However, there are some unresolved areas which even this New Left, constituting the ‘Pink Tide’, seems to have evaded facing. And that has to do with its vision of the future that is very clearly tied up with the analysis of the present. It is one thing to critique imperialist exploitation and extractivism; it is also easy to stand by the ‘rights’ of the indigenous people over their own lands and culture, but it is quite another to say what will or should take its place. Is it enough, for instance, to argue today that once ‘we, the representatives of indigenous peoples’ take power, every problem will automatically resolve itself? Does this not basically mean that all you need to think of today is of replacing those in power, as if you can simply go on doing more of the same when you are in power? This is a question very much on the agenda today across the world, including India where it is simply assumed that all that matters is who is in power, regardless of what it is they do when in power.

This is certainly an affliction of the Old Left for it does not want to think anything afresh but it seems to me that the New Left too has been trapped within it. That is probably why, from the beginning of the 2000s a critique of what is now called ‘neo-extractivism’, associated with these New Left wing regimes began to be articulated. Basically, the progressive new regimes took over the business themselves, as a kind of ‘resource nationalism’ that sought to achieve greater state access to and control of natural resources so that they could garner more benefits from their extraction. There wasn’t, critics argued, any serious critique of ‘extractivism’ itself. In many ways, it was a continuation of the hegemonic idea within the Left even now, of the irreversible and international nature of capitalism, that made it difficult to think of even partial -de-linking’, to borrow Samir Amin’s old expression. Thus neoextractivism was extractivism under state tutelage but it maintained a subordinate involvement in the international market. As Alberto Acosta argues, the critics do recognize that these changes cannot come overnight, nor be brought in all of a sudden. He therefore talks of ‘building the transition’:

“This new economy will not come about overnight. It is also difficult to imagine the possibility of a sudden shut-down of the oil fields or mines that are operating at the moment. But this transition will never be a reality if extractivist activities continue to expand and if there are no specific alternatives for gradually cutting them back by means of a properly planned process of change. Of course, this transition will not be easy in a capitalist world that is unthinkable without extractive industries like oil, mining and forestry. Building this transition is today’s vital task, and it will require all the capacities for critical thinking, inventiveness and creativity in society and its organisations.”

The point of the critics seems to be that there has simply been no effort in this direction. It is understandable that in the day to day business of governing, it is not possible to think on your feet, especially when it a break of such a fundamental nature. It is precisely for that reason that these questions need to be on the table, right now, everywhere.

One of the effects of the inability to break out of that system is precisely what happened to many of the ‘Pink Tide’ regimes – they remain caught within the corrupt logic of corporations and their devious ways of subversion. Eventually, Left-wing and progressive regimes too start appearing a bit like the regimes they replaced. Maybe not viciously so but that is hardly a consolation for those who are at the receiving end of the state’s arbitrary actions.

That is why, Argentinian sociologist Maristella Svampa, author of Neo-Extractivism in Latin America says that this phase spurred a critique of the productivist logic underlying development, and of the expansion of extractive mega-projects (from large-scale mining to mega real-estate), undertaken by the new regimes. She puts it bluntly,

“Such new forms of extractivism are characterized by the intensive occupation of territories, land grabbing, and the destructive appropriation of nature for export.”

In a way, even as the exciting news of the almost victory of Pedro Castillo comes in and one cannot help feeling optimistic about it, one is also held back by the possibility that this too might go the way of the earlier regimes. Will Pedro Castillo be able to remain true to the interests of his massive rural supporters or will he too, eventually fall victim to ‘capitalist realism’ (to borrow an expression from Mark Fisher).

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