Turmoil as Peru leader sets second Cabinet overhaul this week

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The President’s struggles this week have only added to earlier doubts raised about the political neophyte’s ability to lead a nation.

Turmoil in Peru’s government boiled even more on February 4 as President Pedro Castillo announced plans for a fourth Cabinet shakeup in six months, moving just three days after the third overhaul of his Ministers that was quickly followed by revelations that his newest Prime Minister once faced domestic violence allegations.

The President’s struggles this week have only added to earlier doubts raised about the political neophyte’s ability to lead a nation.

Peru declares ‘environmental emergency’ on coastal area hit by oil spill

Mr. Castillo, a rural schoolteacher in a poor Andean district, was an underdog when he entered the race for the Presidency last year and initially campaigned on promises to nationalise Peru’s crucial mining industry and rewrite the constitution to end the historical discrimination against indigenous people and vulnerable populations. He softened his rhetoric when he advanced to a runoff and shocked everyone when he won.

Critics immediately warned about his non-existent political experience. Just months into the job, which he assumed in July as Peru like few others from the pandemic, some of his decisions have validated the criticism. But they have also highlighted Peru’s long-dysfunctional political system in which no party holds a majority and it is difficult to push through new programmes or make changes.

On Friday, Mr. Castillo didn’t give specifics about the latest changes planned for the Cabinet, but his announcement implied that newly appointed Prime Minister Héctor Váler would be resigning as Peruvian law requires that post to be vacant before the Cabinet can be overhauled.

Speaking at a news conference from the Presidential palace, the President said only that he would re-constitute the Cabinet and his Ministerial team will be characterised by openness to all political forces. He said he acted after leaders in Congress declined to hold a vote of confidence on the Cabinet named on Tuesday.

Mr. Váler has denied he was guilty of domestic abuse, though his now late wife and daughter had both made such allegations against him in 2016. A judge issued a protective order for the wife.

Mr. Castillo already had raised questions on Tuesday when he announced his third Cabinet shuffle that saw Mr. Váler named Prime Minister and half of the 18-member Cabinet replaced. Among those changes, a geography teacher and member of the President’s party was appointed Minister of the Environment as Peru grapples with a big oil spill from a refinery on its Pacific coast.

The changes came after the previous Interior Minister and Prime Minister resigned and accused Mr. Castillo of not acting swiftly against corruption, an endemic problem in Peru. They also complained that the 52-year-old leader listens to dubious advisers.

“Once in office, inexperience and bad advice do come into play,” said Cynthia Sanborn, political science professor at Peru’s Universidad del Pacifico and a fellow at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center. “Not only was Castillo unprepared for national political office, he also did not have a political or social base to count on for support, nor was he able to bring in capable advisers and experts in the various sectors any president needs to govern.” Ms. Sanborn said Peru was long overdue for social change when Mr. Castillo took office last July, but he and his party and allies on his left lacked the political and technical skills to deliver. As a result, she said, various groups are “surrounding the President and taking advantage of the situation to advance private and illicit interests.” Every Peruvian President of the past 36 years has been ensnarled in corruption allegations, with some imprisoned. One killed himself before police could arrest him.

Finishing first among 18 Presidential hopefuls in April’s election, Mr. Castillo advanced to a runoff ballot with less than 20% of the overall vote. He then defeated a member of the country’s political elite by just 44,000 votes, becoming Peru’s fifth President since 2016. He succeeded Francisco Sagasti, who was appointed by Congress in November 2020 as the South American nation cycled through three heads of state in one week.

A revolving door of Cabinet members has plagued previous administrations in Peru, but Mr. Castillo “is certainly hitting some records,” said Claudia Navas, an analyst with the global firm Control Risks.

Interior Minister Avelino Guillén resigned last week alleging Mr. Castillo had not supported him to make changes in the police so authorities could more efficiently fight corruption and organised crime. On Monday, Prime Minister Mirtha Vásquez quit, also saying that Mr. Castillo was not addressing corruption.

“What the government lacks is a direction, to define a direction,” Mr. Guillén said after resigning.

Previous members of his Cabinet have also been accused of wrongdoing. So has his former private secretary, whose corruption investigation led the prosecutor’s office to find $20,000 in a bathroom of the Presidential palace.

“Castillo is facing growing pressures from the unions and social organisations that supported him who want to have increased participation in his government,” said Navas, the Control Risks analyst.

“Some of his Cabinet appointments reflect that pressure – also how he is seeking to strike a balance between responding to the demands of his constituents and improving relations with Congress.” The analyst added that “this practice is not particularly unique to Castillo, but a reflection of the structural flaws of the political system regardless of who is in power.” Peru’s 130-seat, unicameral Congress is deeply fragmented among 10 political parties and rarely can come to any consensus on passing legislation. Mr. Castillo’s party is the biggest faction, but it has only 37 seats, and Opposition members lead key committee.

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