Austin Gonzalez is a member of DSA’s National Political Committee and International Committee from Richmond, Virginia. He is also a co-host of Machete y Mate, a “Revolutionary Marxist program for the Latinx community in La Patria Grande and the global Diaspora.” You can read the December 2020 interview he did with The Partisan — a magazine jointly operated by DSA’s Communist Caucus, Emerge Caucus (NYC), and Red Caucus (Portland) — on his efforts to “overhaul” DSA’s International Committee here. We talked to him about the recent election observer delegation to Peru that he co-organized and participated in.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Tarig Robinson: What do you think Pedro Castillo’s victory can teach people about strategies for overcoming the problem of the urban-rural divide, a problem that rebel groups like the Shining Path and electoral groups like Nuevo Perú have been unable to solve?
Austin Gonzalez: One of the most important things that I saw firsthand in Peru was how deeply ingrained within the rural communities the Castillo campaign was. I contrast that greatly with the recent Andrés Arauz presidential campaign in Ecuador. Arauz came up short because that was a campaign that was not ingrained in the rural communities, quite infamously. Deep rifts developed between certain members of the indigenous community and the Arauz campaign, but that’s a whole ‘nother conversation for another day, I suppose. That campaign can be opposed to Pedro Castillo and Perú Libre, which truly is a party of the rural working class in Peru, a party of the campesinos. To say Pedro Castillo’s campaign was “ingrained” in the rural communities doesn't even do it justice — they were fundamentally “of” the rural communities. Castillo himself was a former rondero, a peasant self-defense leader in Cajamarca. While Andrés Arauz and Unión por la Esperanza (UNES) in Ecuador were unable to truly embrace plurinationalism and indigeneity, to embrace the indigenous communities of Ecuador, the exact opposite happened in Peru with Pedro Castillo and Perú Libre. Every indigenous group that our delegation was able to meet with in Peru was firmly behind Pedro Castillo.
You mentioned Nuevo Perú; speaking from the DSA perspective, Nuevo Perú is probably our closest ally on the ground in Peru. When we talked with them, they referenced this problem themselves — they were unable to truly connect with the indigenous communities in the way that Perú Libre and Pedro Castillo were. Nuevo Perú is perceived within Peru as more of an urban-based movement, and that hurt them in the first round, among other factors. As opposed to Perú Libre, whose roots in the rural communities were deep.
I like to say that we shouldn't look at the Bolivian, Ecuadorian, Andean, or indigenous communities in a vacuum. The indigenous communities in Peru on the other side of Lake Titicaca have seen what's going on in Bolivia and Ecuador. It was so remarkable for me to talk to these indigenous people in Peru and hear them use the exact same rhetoric that you would hear from Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) in Bolivia and the socialists in Ecuador. They talked to us about 21st century socialism and plurinationalism.
Pedro Castillo truly being “of” the campesinos was crucial. He is not a “manufactured” candidate. This is the biggest cliche in politics, but this dude is not a politician. You could feel that. You could feel that about all of the members of Perú Libre. One of the biggest lessons here is the lesson that I draw from a lot of different movements in Latin America, which is to ingrain yourself in the social movements, in the community. Don’t be a party of “Lima elites,” so to speak, which, some might say some of the other leftist political parties were a little bit closer to being. Much more so than Perú Libre.
TR: Since you mentioned the ronderos, I wanted to ask you about a potential antagonism within Castillo’s coalition. The rondas campesinas were aligned with the Alberto Fujimori dictatorship, and now a former rondero in Castillo and the federation of rondas that you met with in Lima have formed an alliance with the urban socialists. Were there any socialists on the ground who questioned Castillo’s loyalty to the Left because of his ties to the rondas campesinas?
AG: That's a very good question. We did talk about that with various people. To answer it directly, were there any leftist groups on the ground who were troubled by the fact that Castillo was literally a former rondero? No, not even a single one of the groups we met with [Movimiento Popular Perú — an upholder of the legacy of incarcerated Shining Path founder Chairman Gonzalo — feels differently]. It was amazing to see the Peruvian Left fully united behind Pedro Castillo — every Left group we talked to, at least. The Communist Party of Peru, which was founded by José Carlos Mariátegui himself, was firmly behind Castillo. The Socialist Party (which is a little bit not-that-great) was firmly behind Castillo. Nuevo Perú, of course, was firmly behind him. And when you look at how tight the vote margins were, if literally just one of these leftist parties peeled off, then Castillo definitely would not have won the election.
As far as Castillo’s work as a rondero, the rondas campesinas had a… let's just say, “very interesting” history during the 1990s. They were the peasant self-defense committees, fighting against the Shining Path, and, in some cases, fighting against the military as well. When we went to the ronderos’ headquarters in Lima, there was a giant poster of Juan Velasco Alvarado, a general who was in power in Peru in the late 1960s. Alvarado started what was known as the first agrarian reform, which led to the formation of the rondas. So the ronderos themselves have land reform and that sort of redistributive politics ingrained into their very soul. The ronderos told us that they consider themselves to be Chavistas, 21st century socialists, and plurinationalists. They had a giant banner behind them that said: “On June 6th, we're going to end neoliberalism.” So it was extraordinarily clear that the ronderos very much consider themselves “leftists,” and they considered the Pedro Castillo campaign to be a leftist campaign for campesino struggle.
Josh Messite: As you mentioned on your podcast, there was a Peruvian politician named Ollanta Humala who positioned himself as a leftist a decade ago, and then he betrayed the Left once he became president. Castillo has promised to free Humala’s brother, Antauro Humala, who is an incarcerated leader of the indigenous fascist Ethnocacerist movement. Castillo was also a long-time member of former president Alejandro Toledo’s centrist Perú Posible party, and there’s been some tension between Castillo and the more-radical leader of his new party, Vladimir Cerrón. Currently, the Peruvian Left is behind Castillo, their social movements are behind him, the feminists are behind him, the LGBT activists are behind him. He has the critical support of people like Verónika Mendoza [a feminist activist who’s the leader of Nuevo Perú] and Gahela Cari [a trans activist who co-founded Nuevo Perú]. So clearly he’s not the straightforward reactionary he’s made out to be in Western media narratives. But are his allies prepared for the possibility of Castillo backpedaling on the concessions he has made to them? Are they ready for an outcome in which he breaks the promises and compromises he made to get elected? Or is the possibility of him double-crossing the Peruvian Left more of a “we'll cross that bridge once we get to it” consideration?
AG: This was another thing that we talked about extensively with Nuevo Perú. First, I think your reference to Ollanta Humala is a very important one to single out, because I think it's very instructive here, as far as how much Pedro Castillo can or can't implement his agenda. The more optimistic, rose-colored view of the Humala Administration is that he was well-meaning, but the right-wing institutions in Peru are so deeply entrenched that it’s just literally impossible for anybody to actually make change. The pessimistic view of Humala, which I certainly have, and which you outlined, is that he was an opportunist who turned his back on the people. That’s how I felt the Humala Administration developed, and I'd say that's how a lot of people on the ground felt as well.
But make no mistake about it — the institutions in Peru really are so right-wing that it's going to be tough regardless for Pedro Castillo to do any sort of fundamental change on the domestic level. The Peruvian Congress is still super right-wing. Perú Libre and their allies do not have a majority in Congress. This Congress just impeached three presidents in the last two years. So it's going to be a struggle.
When I think about Pedro Castillo’s ideology… just being honest here, based on the interactions I had with people on the ground and from literally meeting with Castillo, I don't see him as a guy who's really motivated by a particular ideology. People try to put him in a box, whether it’s “he's from a Marxist-Leninist party,” or “he's actually a communist,” or “no, he’s actually an evangelical.” I wouldn't put him in any of those boxes. I go back to what I said earlier — this is a guy who's simply ingrained in his rural community. He was some guy who was just like, “How the fuck is Peru so wealthy, and everybody is so goddamn poor?” That's fundamentally the vibe that I got from him. He really is who he is.
That could manifest itself in a lot of different ways. We've seen that story play out in a lot of different ways in Latin America. We've seen people like Hugo Chavez, who wasn’t necessarily super “politically” motivated at first, be pushed far to the left because of things like US intervention. And things have happened in the opposite direction as well.
I’m optimistic. The people on the ground were very optimistic about the Castillo Administration, in part because of how welcoming Castillo has been to people in Nuevo Perú, who are going to be a part of his transition team and his presidential cabinet. In fact, you mentioned how there was some friction between Pedro Castillo and the leader of Perú Libre, Vladimir Cerrón. Cerrón recently put out a tweet saying “Partido Morado tried to approach us for cabinet seats — they are a centrist party who we will not be working with.” So I remain encouraged by some of these things I’m seeing.
I mean, this is Peru! The Lima Group, the right-wing Latin American alliance, is headquartered in Peru! So though I think it's going to be tough for Pedro Castillo to advance his agenda domestically — not impossible, but tough — he can still do a lot of earth-shattering things just by being president of Peru. You mentioned he might be freeing Antauro Humala, that could be an amusing spectacle. I'm just waiting for the final death of the Lima Group, but we'll see if he's able to pull the trigger on that one. He's talked a lot about regional integration, getting Peru back involved in groups like the Unión de Naciones Suramericanas (UNASUR) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). So I’d say there’s reason to be optimistic toward a Castillo Administration staying true to its promises or at least attempting to stay true, but we should absolutely always have a healthy amount of skepticism when it comes to any sort of spontaneous movement like this.
Also, a very important contrast I would point out between Pedro Castillo and Ollanta Humala is that Humala came from the military and was educated in France. I wouldn’t say Humala came from the elites, but he certainly did not have the background that Pedro Castillo does. This is the first time that a rural teachers' union leader will be president of Peru. Peru being the 19th largest country in the world, an economic powerhouse, that's just a completely mind-blowing sentence in and of itself. I think that's also a crucial distinction between Castillo and Humala.
TR: Would you say that Castillo represents a sort of organic agrarian politics rather than any preexisting political ideology?
AG: 100%. When I look at the massive social revolts that have broken out across the world in the past couple of years, including in the United States, in many places (including in the United States) the Left was not able to really tap into those revolts, to truly play a vanguard sort of role. In Peru, Pedro Castillo and Perú Libre were able to do that. Peru had a massive upheaval just a year ago, which led to the resignation of the president at the time, and that was a giant clusterfuck in and of itself. Pedro Castillo and Perú Libre have been able to tap into that spontaneous anger. One of the biggest reasons they were able to was that they had ties to the social movements. Castillo was a union leader, a former rondero, he’s from the rural community. When we met Castillo, he gave an amazing little speech talking about how he saw life in the rural communities, having to clean toilets for rich people, having to clean hotels. This is the life that he lived. There was this infamous video that went viral after he won the first round of camera crews going to his house and he's just milking his cows. Once again, he is who he is. And that's a big reason why he's been able to tap so deeply into that spontaneous anger and that spontaneous uprising that happened in Peru. Like I said, that didn't happen in most places in the world. In a lot of places like the United States, that anger has not really been tapped into to that extent.
TR: Obviously, the US and Peru are very different countries. But what lessons could the American Left take away from Castillo’s election victory?
AG: The consistent lesson I draw from socialist movements in Latin America is truly being ingrained in the social movements and the union movement. I think a lot of people in the United States can get a little hung up on the idea of starting a Communist Party or some other leftist third party, but as long as we don't have strong social movements and a strong union movement, there's no way we could ever expect to actually maintain some sort of party discipline, or to actually have an effective leftist party. That's the biggest lesson I draw from my experience in Peru. Having an actual coalition built within the social movements was critical. I go back to how tight that vote total was — if a single component of that coalition peeled off, Castillo wouldn't have won. It took literally every aspect of the Left, every aspect of progressive society, every aspect of indigenous society, to come together in support of Castillo to put him over the line. We talk ad nauseum about the party question within DSA and within the US Left. I believe we're putting the cart before the horse. Let's wait until DSA has a million members first, and maybe then we can have some sort of conversation about a party. But there's a lot of base building, a lot of movement building and a lot of growth that the US Left needs before we can reach that point.
JM: Building on what you were saying about Castillo’s desire to pursue South American regional integration, do you expect a Castillo Administration to be able to completely rupture from the Lima Group and its logic, to form strong alliances with left-wing movements in Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil, and Chile, and to normalize relations with Venezuela and Cuba? With regard to that last possibility, how much weight should people give to Castillo’s decision to disavow Hugo Chavez and to talk about deporting Venezuelan immigrants? Was that just campaign-trail pragmatism, or is it a genuine red flag about Castillo’s internationalism?
AG: This issue is “make-or-break” for me, and it’s also where I'm the most optimistic. I think we'll find out very soon, within the early stages of a Pedro Castillo presidency, just how serious he is about actually changing Peru’s foreign policies. To answer your question about his comments on Venezuela, I think Castillo moderated a lot of his views approaching the second round of the election — including some of his shittier ones, like his evangelical views. You saw him adopt a tactic of “I’m probably going to win, so let me be as non-controversial as possible right now.” We can pick apart that strategy if we would like, which is totally fair. But because of that, I still say that I have a healthy amount of optimism toward his foreign policies.
There’s no reason for him not to pull out of the Lima Group, so if they don’t, that would be an epic failure in my opinion. Pedro Castillo has been very clear about continuing regional integration with groups like UNASUR and CELAC, which leaves me feeling optimistic. I think at the very least they'll normalize relations with Cuba and Venezuela, I'm very confident that they're going to do that. Regarding the Lima Group, we’ll see. I'm going to be crossing my fingers that they kill that motherfucker, but we'll find out about that.
The reason I'm hesitant to say anything too concrete is because he's going to be dealing with a lot of pressure. He already is right now. There's already talks of a preemptive military coup because of fraud accusations by Keiko Fujimori. Overcoming that pressure over these first few months is going to be critical. He’ll be dealing with a Congress that has impeached presidents for far less. So we'll see what happens, but everything that I have seen gives me reason to be optimistic when it comes to his international policies.
That’s why I think it was so crucial after the election’s first round when people like Evo Morales decided to embrace him, different socialist organizations and social movements in Peru embraced him. Because I think Castillo is somebody who is not fundamentally motivated by an ideology. I think he’s somebody that the international community should be embracing. I think it's important for socialist movements to be following the lead of our comrades on the ground in Peru, like Nuevo Perú, the Peruvian Communist Party, the Peruvian Socialist Party. They’re all backing him with a healthy amount of skepticism, but also with optimism about what they'd be able to achieve with him, in part because of the deals that they've been able to work out with Perú Libre.
When it comes to some of his shakier stances and questionable social views, the most important aspect is the critical support from socialist movements that can actually “call him in” like Evo very publicly did after the first round. I think that was a very important gesture.
TR: When you spoke with incoming Perú Libre Congressman Guillermo Bermejo, did he give you any sense that there was a plan to expand the base and the self-reliance of the Peruvian economy? Because it seems like their economic reliance on the export of mineral resources poses a major challenge to the future of Peru’s radical political movements, much like an excessive dependence on oil did in Venezuela.
AG: Absolutely. This is something that they were very mindful of. I'm glad you mentioned Guillermo Bermejo, who’s a guy with a fascinating background to say the very least, quite a character. But yes, this was something that a lot of people in Peru were very mindful of. For me, one of Castillo’s most eye-popping promises was the nationalization of resources. I know he's been a bit wishy-washy on it here and there, but I think there's a reason that proposal was something important to the campaign. When we met with the ronderos, they talked to us about how transnational corporations like Monsanto fucked them over, just like they fuck over people in the United States.
I think that question of a self-sufficient economy in Peru — taking Peruvian resources and using them for the Peruvian people — in many ways I see that as one of the central aspects of the Castillo campaign. The truly “central” aspect that all of his promises revolve around is definitely the new constitution. But I think what gave the Castillo campaign its actual color, what resonated with a lot of the social movements and groups on the ground, was Castillo promising to build a self-sufficient economy. Look at the motto of his campaign: “No más pobres en un país rico” — no more poor people in a rich country. What is that talking about? A redistribution of wealth. Using the natural resources that make Peru a rich country in order to benefit poor people.
The Venezuela example is an important one, because this is a question that all countries in the Global South have to grapple with: how can we actually provide for a self-sufficient diversified economy when we're so starved for the capital that’s getting gobbled up in the Global North? In Venezuela, from year one, the Venezuelan constitution talks about diversifying the economy. Twenty fucking years later and that's clearly a lot easier said than done. Although Venezuela is overly dependent on oil, while Peru is dependent on other resources, such as copper — Peru is the second-largest copper producer in the world.
JM: Does it seem like a Castillo Administration and its political coalition would be willing and able to effectively mobilize the masses in their defense if/when the Peruvian Congress tries to prevent them from implementing agrarian reform or using Peru’s resource wealth to fund social services, or if their Congress tries to impeach Castillo?
AG: One million percent yes. I even saw it firsthand, it was amazing. On election night, we were at Casa del Maestro, which is the name for the Perú Libre party headquarters, and after the quick count came in showing that Castillo was likely to win, polls started coming in giving Keiko a pretty sizable lead for quite a significant amount of time. People started to get worried about things such as ballot-stuffing or any sort of fraud on Keiko’s part. Literally right then and there, we left party headquarters because a rally was mobilizing immediately in defense of Pedro Castillo. So everybody met at the electoral authorities’ office on election night. People were not fucking around.
And that was in Lima, which is a Keiko Fujimori stronghold. This is what really worries me, because if there is a preemptive military coup, if he does get impeached by the Congress, if there is some sort of bullshit like that, then yeah, things will be bad in Lima, but I don't see any reason why you wouldn't see a full-on urban versus rural conflict of epic proportions. Just look at the vote totals in rural communities like Ayacucho, where it was over 80% for Castillo. These communities are mobilized and will mobilize to defend him if some sort of bullshit happens. Would things get crazy in Lima? Of course. But I think about those rural communities, and I basically have to predict an open revolt. Depending on one's interpretation, it wouldn’t be the first time that's happened in Peru, and that sure as shit was ugly as hell.
To answer your question, they absolutely have a base prepared to mobilize to protect him at all costs, at the drop of a hat. Once again, I saw it firsthand in Lima of all places. I can only imagine how strong and fierce the mobilizations would be, will be, and currently are in the rural communities, which are firmly behind Castillo.
TR: What are the vehicles through which this mass activity is being carried out? Is it particularly strong trade unions? Campesino groups? In the event that there is a sort of “counter-revolutionary” coup, who would be the major players in pushing back against it?
AG: I’ve mentioned the ronderos quite a lot, they’re obviously a player. The force that’s probably the most important is the Confederación General de Trabajadores del Perú (CGTP), the national union in Peru. The CGTP has been contacting our delegation almost daily, saying: “Hey, things are getting kind of fucked up here, please be aware, watch our backs.” The CGTP is firmly behind Pedro Castillo, and they’re already mobilizing their members in support of him. They’re especially important because Castillo himself comes from the union movement, he’s a former teacher's union leader, so there's a lot of union solidarity there.
I also look at other political parties like Nuevo Perú, who, once again, from the DSA perspective, are a historical DSA ally. They’re another group that is going to be particularly important for Castillo’s base of support, mobilizing in defense of Castillo, particularly in more urban areas. Definitely in Cusco as well, which is a more indigenous area, but also a base of support for Nuevo Perú.
It’ll also be the social movements, the different progressive movements. All these groups already did mobilize in the streets just a year ago during the massive protests that happened in Peru. Speaking from my perspective for a moment, it was amazing meeting with them, because when you hear about everything that happened in Bolivia during the coup and all the people who fought and died there, it’s a whole ‘nother thing actually going there and talking to people who could literally be fighting for their lives if things go south. Because people are 100% prepared to fight.
A slightly different point, but an important and related one, is the stark contrast between the Peruvian media and international media on the Castillo-Fujimori election. Even in the United States, you see papers like the Washington Post going: “Ha! Fraud? What the fuck is Keiko talking about? Loser.” In Peru it’s completely different. The entire Peruvian media is behind her, pushing this narrative of: “Oh my god, what happened, this is some bullshit.”
TR: I read something a couple of days ago about the reactionary Peruvian emigre community in Miami organizing a demonstration. How strong is the right-wing opposition to Castillo in Peru itself at this moment, and what organizations or figures do you think it will coalesce around? Will it be Keiko or someone else?
AG: In Peru, not only is the entire right-wing united against Pedro Castillo, but even the liberals are united against him. That includes Mario Vargas Llosa, the famous Peruvian author who's like the archetypal liberal. It's amazing, I tell people: if you want to study the liberal brain, just look up the career trajectory of Mario Vargas Llosa, who’s currently defending a neo-fascist to save his own ass. The entire Peruvian Establishment is against Pedro Castillo. All of them. When I think of major players that are going to try and fuck over Castillo, I think El Comercio, the newspaper that owns about 80% of the Peruvian media, is important. El Comercio is out there gunning for Castillo. Another important figure to keep your eyes on is Rafael López Aliaga, who ran for president in the first round and lost. López Aliaga is basically a fascist — on the campaign trail he literally called for the death of Pedro Castilo. López Aliaga is just a foul motherfucker, that’s how I would describe him. I would say that Keiko will continue to be a player, only because Fujimorismo is the thing the Peruvian Right is going with, but if Castillo takes office — when he takes office — her ass is going back to prison. That’s almost a guarantee. She’ll have to fly to Miami or something. Take some lessons from Jeanine Áñez — if you stay too long, you’re going to jail. That’ll be fun to see. Although I am an abolitionist. But still, it’ll be fun to see.
You mentioned the right-wing diasporas in the United States. Being in Peru as a representative from the largest socialist organization in the United States, Perú Libre would send me reports saying, “Hey, we're hearing from people in the United States about consulates screwing them over. Have you heard about this?” I was even getting DSA contacts who would tell me these things. People from Miami DSA told me people were getting assaulted by Keiko supporters. The Peruvian consulate reportedly had Keiko propaganda all around the voting booths. The diaspora vote in the United States went for Keiko because of stuff like that, because the consulates were firmly backing Keiko. You mentioned Miami, and it's hilarious to see all the right-wing Peruvians in Miami doing that, but shout out the comrades down there who are some hard-body motherfuckers that struggle in one of the most right-wing environments. God bless them.
But yeah, I think the Peruvian media is such an issue. We all know the media within Latin America trends super right-wing. I mean, the media in the United States trends super right-wing too, so we've seen it firsthand. But while I was in Peru, the first campaign sign I saw was a giant billboard that said “Five days to vote no to communism!” Even one of the major human rights organizations we met with brought up the problem of the Peruvian media to us consistently. They said that because of how bad and biased their media is, it's almost impossible to even have an actual fair or democratic election there.
To return to your question, as far as hilarious characters to watch who are going to probably be trying some fucked up shit, definitely Rafael López Aliaga. He’s a sick motherfucker.
JM: How did Castillo manage to win in such a hostile environment? When people talk about Jeremy Corbyn’s loss in the UK, for example, obviously the UK and Peru have very different situations, but their respective media situations are not so different. How was Castillo able to overcome this reactionary media dominance, when Corbyn’s Labour Party was unable to do that a couple years ago? What did Perú Libre do to effectively challenge and overcome this attempted brainwashing? Especially in light of the painful history of revolutionary politics in Peru, where they had a Maoist uprising in the 1980s and 1990s which committed excessive violence, had an alienating, dogmatic, arrogant attitude, and ultimately failed. As a result of the Shining Path’s errors and defeat, many people thought that it would not only be impossible for non-electoral revolutionary projects to succeed in Peru, but that even electoral leftist projects would be doomed to fail. So how did Castillo win an election despite that dark history and the complete domination of the Peruvian media by reactionaries?
AG: I would almost say that I'm actually fairly well suited to answer this, at least with respect to your comparison with Corbyn, because I also traveled to London for that election on behalf of DSA and talked to people in London about why they were not voting Labour. So I can give you a pretty good contrast of what I felt on the ground in both of these situations. There’s definitely lessons that should be taken. First, I also never would’ve expected to see a result like this in Peru. Things are so right-wing in Peru, and I would never expect the Peruvian Establishment to reach a point where this defeat is possible. You mentioned Peru’s history and media, I've mentioned the institutions, these things that have all been stacked up against them. In London, the media was also very anti-Corbyn. When I went to London, I did canvassing and talked to people on the ground about the election, and they would say that Jeremy Corbyn is an antisemite and that kind of stuff. Here’s the biggest difference to me: Perú Libre and Pedro Castillo were able to tap into anti-Establishment sentiment in ways that Jeremy Corbyn and Labour simply were unable to. Castillo and Perú Libre were able to make themselves the faces of change. They were able to make themselves the faces of the protests that happened in Peru last year. Whereas with Jeremy Corbyn and Labour, Brexit is fundamentally what fucked them — because of Brexit, Labour was viewed as trying to uphold the established order. They weren’t necessarily saying that the UK should stay in the European Union (EU), but they were wishy-washy about it. I talked to plenty of people in London who said something to the effect of: “I’ve supported Labour my whole life, but I'm not voting for Jeremy because he doesn't support Brexit.” Regardless of one's views on the EU, Labour was simply unable to tap into anti-Establishment sentiment, in the ways that I guess Boris Johnson was able to.
It must also be pointed out that Castillo was running against Keiko Fujimori in the runoff, and that's a huge factor which allowed him to win. Keiko Fujimori truly was Castillo’s perfect opponent in many ways. Keiko is not only the epitome of the Peruvian Establishment — quite literally, her dad was their dictator — not only somebody who was the epitome of the most odious aspects of their right-wing — again, her dad was the fucking dictator — but she was also somebody who was literally in prison just a year ago for corruption because of the Odebrecht scandal. Things kind of fell into place for Perú Libre in that way — it made it a lot easier for them to be identified with and really own that sort of anti-Establishment brand of politics which has been very popular in many places in the world over the last decade.
Something that I say about Latin America, which I think is very important for people to remember, is that anti-Establishment politics in contemporary Latin America will always manifest themselves exclusively on the Left. The reason is that, for them, being anti-Establishment means being anti-neoliberal. If you're a conservative in Latin America, you're probably boot-licking the United States and talking about how neoliberalism is actually awesome. And that's always going to fuck the Latin American Right. I look at somebody like Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico — some people might have different views about him, but I consider him to be, if nothing else, a Mexican nationalist. Because he is a nationalist in Latin America, he trends somewhat to the Left, because that sort of nationalism manifests itself as striking back at US neoliberalism, which is fucking their countries over.
Contrast that with nationalism in Europe. It's very easy for right-wingers in Europe to shit all over neoliberalism. Fascists do it all the time in Europe. They certainly did when I was on the streets of London before the Corbyn election. You just don't see that sort of right-wing populism in Latin America right now. The Bolivian golpistas, the putschists, the coup-mongers, they weren’t talking about destroying neoliberalism. They were saying, “fuck yeah, let's sell all this shit to the United States.” That was clearly the summation of their policies.
But once again, I think Pedro Castillo and Perú Libre were able to truly ingrain themselves into populist anger in Peru, and populist anger within the indigenous communities specifically. Because it’s the indigenous communities that delivered this victory for Perú Libre. The indigenous communities were where Castillo’s vote totals were at their absolute highest. These indigenous communities have been forgotten. They’ve been left behind in Peru as Bolivia and Ecuador were having these amazing social revolutions. The way Castillo and Perú Libre were able to ingratiate themselves in rural indigenous communities was also critical in overcoming this media blockade.
I should also say, I would talk to average people on the ground about the media blockade and how tough the right-wing media is. For example, when we were in Lima, we would ask every cab driver we had what they thought about the election, and interestingly enough, almost every single one of them said they were supporting Castillo. Again, this was in Lima, so we were kind of surprised, but the sentiment among average people was merely that the Peruvian media is just another corrupt institution of the Establishment. Kind of like how we would view the media here in the United States. If somebody came to you and was like: “But Fox News is saying all this bullshit all the time. How are you able to get your brain away from it?” Your answer would be that they’re a bunch of corrupt fucks, too, that they're a part of the same Establishment that we're fighting. That’s the type of thing people in Peru would say to us. They were aware that it was all bullshit propaganda, and they recognized biased media coverage of Castillo as part of the corruption of the Establishment that funds it.
TR: What do you think DSA’s role in this victory, minor as that role may be, means for the future of DSA’s relationship with the broader Latin American Left? Do you see DSA taking a more prominent role in these various struggles happening throughout the hemisphere? And if so, how specifically?
AG: This work is certainly my pride and joy in DSA. In the past year, DSA’s International Committee has grown significantly, to the point where we're actually able to critically engage with leftist movements in Latin America and leftist movements throughout the world. That was one of the biggest reasons why I and a few of my other comrades put together this observer delegation to Peru — it was specifically for that purpose, to show the rest of the organization that this was not only something that’s possible, but also something that’s essential. This is a place where DSA can be present. It was amazing to see how happy people in Peru were to be able to talk to people from the United States about this, because they know the power that the United States has, the power of getting this message back to the United States.
There’s going to be a critically important election in Chile in November, and you already know that I want to send an observer delegation to that. The DSA International Committee has been in early talks with some comrades on the ground in Chile to do just that. Election observing is a place where we can be so effective as an organization in building ties to socialist movements throughout Latin America, and also in “increasing our standing” here in the United States, so to speak. When we were in Peru, there were a couple of different institutions that we coordinated with closely — one was the Progressive International, and another was the Party of the European Left. If those institutions are doing it, why the fuck shouldn’t DSA be doing it? Organizations from the United States usually don't go to these sorts of things, and we need to change that. We need to actually be embracing movements across the world, rather than just living in our own bubble here. Speaking of different ways that we plan to connect with the Latin American Left, I’m actually leaving the country again tomorrow morning on a brigade to Venezuela. Brigades to other countries are another thing that we want to keep doing and do more of. Not just election observing, and not just in Latin America. I would love to do brigades to Palestine, Vietnam, places like that. I think it's important to be present in these places. To me, going to a place like Venezuela is not an implicit endorsement of Maduro or the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) — it’s just an endorsement of the Venezuelan working class. We are going there to meet with actual Venezuelan workers and actual Venezuelan people to hear from them what the situation on the ground is. I think we should do that for every country that we can. I think those are things that the largest socialist organization in the United States should be more-than-capable of doing.
I would also like to not only send DSA National Political Committee members like myself and DSA elected officials, like the people in the group that went to Peru, but actual rank-and-file DSA members. Rank-and-file members should be able to go to these places and actually learn from those people and then pass on the lessons that they receive once they return.
So I think this Peru observer delegation is not only just the beginning, but is just the tip of the iceberg. At least I hope.
TR: How do you think the Biden Administration will respond to these developments in Peru? What do you think organizations like DSA can do to fight back against any US interference?
AG: Here's the thing: there's no way that the Biden Administration is just going to watch what's happening in Peru with its arms folded, not caring. I think the current US Ambassador to Peru [Lisa Kenna] was a longtime CIA agent or something preposterously bad like that. I don’t know what direct role they're playing right now. I'm sure there's kind of two mentalities. One is a bit of a “wait and see” approach, like “let’s see if our people down in Lima can handle this.” I think the other mindset is questioning whether Castillo can even accomplish anything: “let him just fail or fizzle out on his own.” Since once again, he's up against a lot.
If he was able to actually start changing things… Here's what will be the marker: the normalization of relations with Cuba and Venezuela. If he does that, that's when he'll draw the ire of the United States, that's when you see the Biden Administration react. They wouldn’t sanction him over that or anything, but you’d see some finger-wagging. I'd be curious to see how they respond specifically, but I would predict that the normalization of relations with Cuba and Venezuela would lead to some actual anger from the Biden Administration.
Regarding how DSA can help counteract pressure from the Biden Administration — when we were in Peru, we brought some elected officials with us. We had Carlos Ramirez-Rosa from the Chicago City Council, and we had Marcela Mitaynes from the New York State Assembly. We were also there with a delegation from the Progressive International, and they brought members of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), a Washington, DC based think tank. Because we had these different people in the same room, we realized that different people had different connections to the Congressional Progressive Caucus. A couple of days after the Peruvian election, the Congressional Progressive Caucus put out a statement saying that the election was fair and the results needed to be respected — that statement happened because of our delegations down there. Carlos and people from CEPR called the people they knew in Congress asking them to put that statement out. And those sorts of statements go a long way, because they make it tough for Keiko to regurgitate “fraud” accusations. It's those sorts of statements that filter out to papers like the Washington Post, so that when they report on this election, they look at it as something that Keiko already fucking lost rather than regurgitating that right-wing “fraud” narrative. So these are the little things that DSA can do to bring some awareness and attention to these situations. And it means a whole hell of a lot to the Peruvians.
Almost every single meeting we went into, when we asked them how we could help from the United States, their first question was: “Do you guys know AOC? Can we get Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to put out a statement?” Of course, that’s much easier said than done. She has a very busy office. But still, just being able to get the Congressional Progressive Caucus to put out a statement saying that these elections were free and fair was really important to the Peruvians on the ground. It's an example of the sorts of things we can contribute from the United States, being able to “fight within the empire,” so to speak, to give respect to these sorts of places. Once again, Peruvians on the ground deeply appreciated the solidarity.
JM: I’ve always felt a great deal of excitement about the commune project in Venezuela, because I feel like that's an example of a socialist movement directly handing power to the masses instead of only giving them power indirectly through State representation. I know that the primary goal of the Castillo Administration is to empower the masses through a constitutional referendum, to organize a Constitutional Assembly to replace the Alberto Fujimori constitution. But thinking about the Venezuelan communes makes me wonder if anything similar is being considered in Peru. Are there any plans for that type of direct empowerment, or for the time being is the only idea to restrict the masses’ power to the voting booth and to the protection of the power of their electoral representatives?
AG: Very much the former. The people that I talked to, like the campesino groups, they 100% saw their movement and their revolution as one and the same with the one that Chavez started in Venezuela with their communes, and also one and the same with what you see in Bolivia and Ecuador. These were agrarian workers who talked about using the communities for their own self-sufficiency. Going back to the Venezuela example, I think it's very instructive. Granted, Hugo Chavez was a “somewhat radical” guy, just like Castillo is a “somewhat radical” guy. Like Castillo, Chavez ran on the promise of a new constitution. He did not run on the promise of “building all these communes and tearing this motherfucker down.” It was a gradual process. Running on a new constitution gave Chavez the ability to actually learn what the fuck the masses wanted. “What the hell do you want your government to be doing? How can we be doing better for you?”
I think a new constitution is absolutely critical to any sort of progress that happens in Peru. I’ve seen Castillo renege on natural resources, renege on foreign policy, go back and forth on social views. That’s one thing. I get it. “Politics.” But if he ever reneges on the constitution, that's the fucking red flag. That's when it’s ok to say: “Well, that’s another one, huh.” Luckily, Castillo and Perú Libre have stayed firm on that new constitution so far, as has Nuevo Perú.
I think that’s exactly what the campesinos look for, that’s what they want. They talked about “buen vivir,” the dream of living a good life. They don't want luxury, they don't want splendor. “Can we just have a good life? Can we grow our own shit and feed our people? Is that a fucking problem?”
We met with the leader of one of Peru’s agrarian workers unions, and he said: “They call Castillo ‘Chavez,’ they call him ‘Maduro,’ and — no disrespect to comrades Chavez and Maduro —” because clearly, in his head, it's all one and the same struggle. Once again, I say we shouldn't look at these things in a vacuum. In Peru, agrarian workers look at the example of Venezuela, and they see that as something that should be upheld and something to move toward. But make no mistake about it — it took over 10 years to even get to that point in Venezuela, where the communes were able to grow and become as powerful as they've become. It took a coup in 2002, it took the oil lockout and recall campaign in 2004. It took a decade of struggle for the communes to get to that point. I think in Peru, they definitely want to get to that point. Especially because it's fucking Peru — the home of Mariátegui, the home of the Inca. They think of the old examples of indigenous food sovereignty and stuff like that. That's ingrained into their ideology. So once again, it's going to take a lot of struggle for them to get to that point, but that's absolutely something that they talked about a lot.
TR: If Peru normalized relations with Venezuela and Cuba, it would undoubtedly become an enemy state in the eyes of the US State Department. What do you think the consequences of that would be for DSA?
AG: My opinion is that Castillo absolutely should normalize relations. Because here's the thing — if Castillo wants to change the constitution, if he wants to do literally anything that he wants to do, that's going to draw the ire of the United States. So I think it's imperative to be pushing for South American integration which includes all of South America. I think that's the sort of rhetoric that Castillo has been trying to strike. He’s not saying: “Hell yeah, we're going to have an Ambassador to Venezuela and we're going to fucking hug each other, it's going to be awesome.” No. He’s framing it in terms of South American integration. Like: “We're embracing all of the countries here. We're not picking and choosing. This is about bringing all of our people together.” In the Latin American context, I think that's an important message.
When I think about DSA — like I said, we’re literally sending a brigade to Venezuela tomorrow. Once again, I don't look at that as necessarily an implicit “hugging” of the Maduro Administration. This contact is crucial if we want to normalize relations with Venezuela and stop the sanctions. Actually meeting Venezuelans, putting a face to the people that are suffering, getting closer to normalizing relations, which can hopefully end the sanctions, which are crippling for Venezuelans. It’s critical to make Venezuela and Cuba less like regional pariahs. So I 100% think that Castillo should be normalizing relations with Venezuela and Cuba. That’s from my perspective as a socialist, that’s from seeing how bad Cuba and Venezuela are struggling right now, from having a country like Peru which was a right-wing bulwark for so long come out and embrace them to some extent — it would be absolutely massive. It would draw the ire of the United States, but to me, it’s the least that a Castillo government could do, because these are the sorts of things that are in his power. He doesn't need Congress to do those sorts of things.
Regional integration and the new constitution are the litmus tests for me.
TR: Right, there's no question that Peru should pursue Latin American integration. I was more asking if you thought that DSA, by building relationships with organizations in other countries that are opposed to US geopolitical interests, could bring down the old FBI hammer in some way.
AG: My philosophy is that in the United States, the empire, the belly of the beast, it's almost inevitable to be drawing that sort of ire. Again, though, we are focusing on support for the people. We are not negotiating with governments, so to speak. We are negotiating with activist groups and social movements, platforming those activist groups and social movements. But if we want to be serious about international solidarity, if we want to be serious about being there for socialist movements across the world, it's going to require a degree of risk almost no matter what we do. Especially where I am, here in Virginia — I got the Pentagon just an hour north of me, I got Langley right up here, you know? [laughing] So I think all of this is going to take a healthy amount of risk.
I think it's important for us as socialists to be viewing our struggle internationally. If there's one thing that we have in the United States, it's a tremendous amount of privilege. Even as the Peruvian government was trying to intimidate us, not for one second did I think they were going to try to fuck with us in any way. The reason is that they don't want that sort of media attention. They don't want the news story of a group of elected officials from the US getting fucked with by the Peruvian government.
As much as I would love to say, “Oh yeah, they got FBI files on all of us” — I mean, maybe they do — but as long as DSA is an organization of only 100,000 in a country of 350 million, there's literally so much fucking work we have to do to even be considered a “threat.” I don’t know if that’s the word I want to use… how about “force”? To be considered an actual force.
But yeah, I think when it comes to engaging with Venezuela and Cuba, and with other socialist governments, there's always going to be a healthy amount of risk. I think it's important to recognize that, but it’s more important to be there.
JM: Do you have any closing thoughts on the future of Peru and the future of solidarity with South American socialist movements?
AG: I’ll finish on what I just said: being socialists in the United States, it’s important for us to show up for these communities. Not only showing up, but actually listening to them. In the United States, I heard that Pedro Castillo was a “machista” [male chauvinist], that he has really backward social views. And all I heard when people would say that was people talking over the Peruvian gay community, which is firmly behind Castillo. I heard people talking over the Peruvian progressive community, which is fully behind Castillo. If you're worried about those sorts of things, listen to the actual people who are going to live under that presidency. Listen to what they think about it. They were firmly behind Castillo. Out of both candidates, only one of them actually met with gay groups, and it wasn’t Keiko Fujimori. Castillo made an agreement with Nuevo Perú to moderate his social views and to welcome them into his team. These are very encouraging signs that people in the US should be aware of.
Peru is one of those places where it’s almost impossible for me to be fully optimistic about it, but man, being there… it’s hard not to be optimistic about what the future could hold for Peru. I've said multiple times, that almost no matter what happens, this is a sea change. And this is just the beginning. Chile in November — the Left’s looking really good. Next year, there's two barnburner elections in Colombia and Brazil. Bolsonaro, motherfucker, you’re going down. You already know. The right-wing in Colombia, good God, talk about entrenched right-wings. But we’ll see what happens.
Here’s what I’ll leave on: Peru is just the beginning. This story is not done yet. People should keep paying attention.