By Marcelo Rochabrun
PUNA, Peru (Reuters) - When Luceli Banda Medina, 21, the first woman in her family to read and write, left the poor, isolated northern Peruvian village of Puna to study nursing, she always dreamed what her life would have been like had she been born in a city.
"Why do the people of the countryside not have the same ability to study as people in the cities, who have practically everything they need?," Banda Medina, her father and mother's family names, told Reuters from her adobe house in Puna.
Three generations of the Medina family - daughter, mother and grandfather - live together in the house without running water, plumbing or a hard floor. Outside low clouds hug the dark-green hills dotted with roaming chickens and horses.
Family elder, grandfather Segundo Medina, has been a subsistence farmer all his life and wears a broad-rimmed chotano hat, just like another local son, socialist presidential candidate Pedro Castillo who is now stirring up the Andean country's politics.
Outside the yellow-bricked house hangs a banner for Castillo, who taught at the nearby primary school and tutored Banda Medina to read. He is now neck-and-neck with conservative opponent Keiko Fujimori ahead of Sunday's election run-off, his abrupt and unexpected rise driven by poor, rural voters angry at being left behind.
Win or lose, Castillo has galvanized the rural vote like never before, raising a challenge to any new government as it tries to unify a nation that has been roiled by political scandals and five presidents in the last five years.
Fujimori has already moved to address concerns of poverty, including pledging to distribute some mining profits straight to local communities and offering payouts for families who have lost members to COVID-19.
The coronavirus pandemic, which has left Peru with the world's highest death toll per capita, forced Banda Medina to move back to Puna last year, where she now struggles to keep up with her classes due to spotty internet service.
Similar concerns about inequality and a rural-urban divide have struck a chord with many Peruvians who are supporting leftist Castillo, who is running on a radical platform to redistribute wealth while keeping traditional family values.
While rural voters have flocked in droves to back Castillo's cry of, "No more poor in a rich country," right-winger Fujimori has garnered support in big cites by pledging to maintain stability, lambasting her rival for fueling "class struggle."
The race is too close to call, but the fault lines are clear. In the metropolitan area of capital Lima, Fujimori has almost twice the level of support as Castillo. This is almost exactly the reverse in rural Peru, an IEP poll shows.
Among the capital's small wealthy elite, three-quarters support Fujimori, another poll from Ipsos shows, fearful of Castillo's plans to redistribute mineral wealth and tear up the country's decades-old constitution.
Fueling support for Castillo is the feeling that there is just no future in Peru's forgotten rural villages like Puna, as youths leave in droves to study in urban centers.
"Puna is emptying out, only the elders stay," said Maria Dorlisa Medina, Banda's mother who is illiterate and works every morning producing cheese in her kitchen that she can sell for about 70 soles (around $18) a week.
Over the past century, Peru has transformed from predominantly rural into a largely urban country amid a population boom. As part of that shift, however, Puna and other countryside communities have suffered population loss.
The result is a highly centralized country, where economic opportunities and social mobility go mainly to residents of its largest cities, even in regions like Cajamarca, where Puna is located, that have significant mineral wealth.
Since 1913, Cajamarca's share of Peru's economy has shrunk by half, while Lima's has more than tripled to over 65% of the country's GDP, according to data compiled by Bruno Seminario, a prominent economic historian who died last month.
That divide is reflected in the polls. In some surveys, Castillo wins every region of the country except for the region of Lima, which alone holds a third of Peru's population.
"Castillo is carrying with him all the social inequality and the frustration of our people," said Alvaro Galvez, 33, a historian in Tacabamba, near Puna, who supports him. "The elites, they tell us we are free, but we have no economic freedom, and we are forced to migrate for professional opportunities."
As many as 70% of Puna's residents live in poverty, or on less than $100 in monthly income per household resident, a far higher rate than in Peru overall, according to government estimates.
The village is perched on hillsides a six-hour drive from the nearest big city, Cajamarca. About half the journey is on narrow dirt roads that skirt striking but deadly cliffs. It has no main square, just a collection of scattered adobe homes.
While Peru has been hailed as a model of success for reducing poverty rates from around 50% in the 1990s to 20% before the pandemic, those strides have been unequal, fueling discontent. The pandemic has seen poverty rebound to some 30%.
As of last year, 26% of Peru's urban population is poor, but that number climbs to 46% in rural communities, the government's statistics bureau INEI said in May.
"Poverty reduction has been formidable but what happens is that families could escape poverty but remain very vulnerable," said Oswaldo Molina, who heads an NGO focused on development.
In Puna, residents say they have never felt the improvements in quality of life that the statistics suggest.
"We are illiterate, we are poor, although we are always working," Medina, the mother, said.
"I would get so frustrated," she added of not being able to read and write. She enrolled in a literacy school after her first son was born, but all she learned was how to write her name and remember her Peruvian identify card number.
To be sure, complaints about inequality also translate to urban poverty in the outskirts of Lima and other cities, where the poor live in slums on sandy hills, many of whom are recent arrivals from communities in rural Peru.
Castillo comes from poverty and still keeps his home in Chugur, a similarly impoverished village about 20 minutes from Puna, an identity that resonates with many Peruvians who live very far from wealth.
He has pledged to help level inequalities, though critics say he has no clear plan yet of how to do it and may do more harm than good.
Back in Puna, Medina, Luceli's mother, said she wished had been able to leave her village as a young woman to improve her lot in life.
"If only I had thought earlier to travel far and work, and get educated," she said. "But I had my husband, my kids, and then we had no escape."
(Reporting by Marcelo Rochabrun in Puna, Peru; Additional reporting by Herbert Villarraga and Reuters TV in Lima; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Alistair Bell)