On June 4, Peru had its second and final round of presidential elections. They pitted former president Alan Garcia Perez against a recurring character in the Andean region -- a "populist" (read: a racist demagogue of the Left) former coup maker, Ollanta Humala Tasso. Although Garcia won with 55 percent of the vote, many questions about the course of Latin American politics remain unresolved.
For the significant minority of urban Peruvians who appreciate both democracy and rational economic policies, the choice was unpleasant but obvious. The difference between the two was, to paraphrase Disraeli, the difference between a disaster and a catastrophe. The Peruvians elected (it helped that voting is compulsory) the known disaster against the likely catastrophe.
Alan Garcia, the educated leader of Peru's only real party (the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance-APRA) and a member of the International Socialists, is a charismatic orator in control of a party with a long history and strong base in Northern Peru. That said, his previous administration (1985-90) almost brought the country to its knees with rampant inflation (3,000 percent by 1990) and rampant corruption matched by the spectacular advance of South America's bloodthirsty Maoist insurgency in the form of the Communist Party of Peru (wrongly but melodiously known as Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path).
None of this, however, prevented many Peruvians from admiring Garcia. After a decade in the wilderness and accusations of corruption by the highly effective and economically successful, if less than democratic Fujimori administrations (1990-2000), Garcia made a comeback in 2001, becoming a second-round candidate and edging out the hapless Lourdes Flores, a conservative (by Peruvian standards) but inept candidate. He barely lost in 2001 to incumbent Alejandro Toledo, and barely made it to the second round (24 percent against Flores's 23 percent) this year.
Today, Garcia is a new man. He admits his past mistakes, supports a free-trade treaty with the United States, and claims a newfound respect for both private property and free markets -- an apology which, despite past policies, has to be taken seriously now, if for no other reason because APRA now controls only some 35 seats in the 120-seat Congress (in 1985 it controlled Congress, as well as the Presidential Palace).
What changed since 2001 and what finally returned Garcia to the presidency were his opponents. He successfully and accurately presented himself as the Peruvian opponent of the alliance between Humala and Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. As he said in claiming victory, "The only one defeated does not have Peruvian identity papers. It is the one who wanted to lead us by the nose with his black money. Here is the democracy of Peru which told him NO!” He was clearly talking about Chavez, who not only openly and vocally supported Humala, but likely subsidized his campaign. Before the election, Chavez threatened that if Garcia--whom he repeatedly described as a "bandit," "corrupt traitor" and, naturally, an "American puppet"--won, Venezuela would break off diplomatic relations with Peru.
All of these considerations were obviously in the minds of urban Peruvian voters, which explains their choice on Sunday. But some other concerns may explain the vote against Humala. Born in 1963, Humala, now a retired army lieutenant colonel, was the candidate of the Nationalist Peruvian Party Union for Peru, another of those personality-driven parties that appear in Latin politics whenever a charismatic caudillo, or would be caudillo, presents himself as the "savior of the nation" -- or, lately, as the savior of the "indigenous race."
Humala neither admitted nor denied receiving substantial help from Caracas during his electoral campaign. He consistently repeated his support for Chavez's ideology of "Bolivarianismo," for Chavez’s protégé, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and ultimately, as demonstrated by his meetings and travels, for the old man of Latin America's Left, Fidel Castro.
Humala's program, if there was one, was clearly racist and socialist, a copy of the similar racial programs that brought Evo Morales to power in La Paz: nationalization of companies, whether local or foreign owned, higher royalties, and "renegotiation" of existing arrangements -- all amounting to confiscation and wild anti-capitalism.
Humala, who was educated in an elite French-language prep academy and the military academy, is not and does not look Indian, despite contrary claims by his family. But that did not stop him from trying to make Peruvian politics racial, in the vain hope of imitating what Evo Morales did successfully in Bolivia, and what Toledo had tried to do briefly and indirectly in 2001. True, some racial incidents did occur during the weak Toledo administration, albeit limited to the Titicaca area and likely influenced by events in close by Bolivia, but the kind of racial animosities found in that country or in Ecuador are simply not common to Peru. Humala's anti-white racism, which he shares with Morales, has a natural corollary: anti-Americanism, a sentiment encouraged by his amigo in Caracas but not widespread in Peru.
Humala's defeat can be traced to two principal causes. It was not Garcia's oratorical talents or his own socialist ideas, but Humala’s lack of credibility as a "nationalist" undermined by his obvious dependence on Chavez that doomed his candidacy. More than elite and middle-class fears of socialism, and even more than non-Indian fears of racial repression, it was Peruvian nationalism itself that led most people to vote against an individual claiming to embody that very sentiment but perceived, correctly, as subservient to foreign interests. Second, widespread fears of a renewed insurgency were reawakened when Humala's father, a lawyer and former member of the Communist Party of Peru, advocated the release of Abimael Guzman, the founder of the terrorist Shining Path who is widely seen as the country's main public enemy.
Humala’s loss likely spells the end of his party and his political career. But the fact remains that the election was lost by Humala far more than it was won by Garcia, who is still widely mistrusted by most of Peru's educated elites and, historically, by the military. Second, the very fact that almost half of the valid votes expressed went to a radical like Humala is disturbing in itself. Third, the fact that no party has a congressional majority limits Garcia's ability to apply his policy program. In light of his political track record, this may not be a bad thing.
On the positive side, the defeat of Chavez's candidate in a major country, and the likelihood that Garcia will not forget or forgive the caudillo of Caracas his insults, may signal that oil money and incendiary rhetoric can only buy so many votes, even in Latin America.
Combined with the massive reelection of conservative and pro-U.S. president Alvaro Uribe in Colombia only a few days ago, it may well be that Latin American governments are finally rejecting Chavismo themselves, rather than waiting for a distracted Washington to do it for them (and then accusing it of "imperialism").
Whether that will happen is still unclear. Chavismo is not dead yet. Indeed, sitting at one of Hugo Chavez’s recent anti-Garcia rants in Caracas was none other than a smiling Daniel Ortega, the former Sandinista leader and present frontrunner in Nicaragua's upcoming presidential race.
As for Peru itself, the incoming Garcia administration inherits a competently run and growing economy, but also widespread discontent with the political status quo. Garcia’s challenge will be to form alliances in Congress and manage the reinvigorated forces of the former president, Alberto Fujimori. His party has 13 seats in the Congress, and Keiko Fujimori, the former president's daughter, received the highest number of votes of any newly elected member. Now under legal limbo in Chile, Fujimori himself may well make a comeback. Certainly he is having an impact on politics at home right now.
For Washington, the results in Lima produced a sigh of relief -- largely undeserved, considering the Bush Administration's ineffective Latin American policy. Colombia’s Uribe won because of his own success (albeit massive U.S. aid helped), but Garcia won largely because Humala lost. Washington still has to take a serious look at Latin America. Good news from Lima is no excuse for continuing a feckless American policy.
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