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Celibacy, sackcloths: Could Peru soon have an Opus Dei, ultra-conservative president?

Peru’s Rafael López Aliaga, who practices celibacy and says he wears a cilice to keep his physical desires in check, is among the top contenders for the presidency.
Image: Peruvian presidential candidate Rafael Lopez Aliaga in Lima
Peruvian presidential candidate Rafael Lopez Aliaga addresses the media, in Lima, Peru, on March 12, 2021.Angela Ponce / Reuters

LIMA — Peru’s Rafael López Aliaga, an ultra-conservative member of Opus Dei who practices celibacy and says he wears a sackcloth to keep his physical desires in check, has a serious shot at becoming the Andean country’s next president.

The 60-year-old has jumped in recent opinion polls ahead of the April 11 first round vote, and is firmly within a cluster of contenders who could force a second round run-off with populist front-runner Yonhy Lescano.

López Aliaga, a financier and rail magnate, said his first action as president would be to expel Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht, at the center of graft probes around the region that have dragged in a number of Peruvian ex-leaders.

“Odebrecht leaves Peru on July 28,” López Aliaga told Reuters at his party offices in Lima, referring to the day on which the next president is set to take office in the world’s second largest copper producer. He added he would seek a fine from the company and look to seize all its remaining assets in Peru.

Odebrecht has admitted to bribing officials throughout Latin America in the past but said recently it has transformed itself and will be strictly guided by ethics.

López Aliaga also said he would cut government red-tape by reducing the number of ministries to nine from the current 19 and get rid of what he called “parasites” who were getting rich off the state.

His strident anti-elitist views have led to comparisons with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, which López Aliaga rejected.

“Bolsonaro insults the gay community, I am inclusive, the community must be welcomed, as Pope Francis says,” he said.

López Aliaga told Reuters he opposes gay marriage, though supports a “solidarity pact” to protect same-sex couples. “Marriage though needs to have a mother and a father,” he said.

A member of conservative Catholic organization Opus Dei, he is also against abortion and said even in cases where women became pregnant after being raped they should not be allowed to have abortions but should be taken into shelters and the baby found adoptive parents if needed.

"A small mortification for God"

In a recent radio interview, López Aliaga said he represses his sexual desire by thinking of the Virgin Mary and flails himself with a cilice, a sackcloth garment with points that stick into the body, a practice from early Christianity.

“Christ suffered so much that wearing a hair shirt is surely not painful. In my case I already have calluses, 40 years old, you can imagine,” he told local station Exitosa.

“But it is a small mortification for God and for men... I do it alone, 10 minutes, 20 minutes, to unite myself to the cross of Christ.”

If elected, López Aliaga said he hoped to use Peru’s largely untapped lithium deposits to attract investment from big names like carmaker Tesla, including with a “high-tech free zone” in Puno, near the border with Bolivia.

In line with front-runner Lescano, he said he would also look to bring down domestic gas prices by renegotiating a contract with Argentina’s Pluspetrol and would promote talks with Bolivia over a gas pipeline to import cheaper gas.

Almost half of Peru’s energy consumption is from natural gas, including a major reserve in the Andean region of Camisea, operated by Pluspetrol.

“It cannot be that Camisea sells us the LPG (liquefied gas) at international prices, if it is Peruvian raw material. With Camisea, yes we are going to review it,” he said.

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