Peru’s Bad Boy

29 May 2006

Peru’s Bad Boy

By Gwynne Dyer

Ollanta Humala is plotting “a coup d’etat with a democratic face,” warned the president of Peru’s Congress, Marcial Ayaipoma. “Maintain democracy or go to dictatorship: that is what is at stake in these elections,” declared Mario Vargas Llosa, Peru’s most famous writer and a former presidential candidate. “[Humala] is going to govern with the military, close Congress, have a confrontation with Washington, permit free cultivation of coca, and he won’t sign the free trade pact. He’ll persecute the press….It’ll be a dictatorship, there’s no doubt about it,” predicted former Foreign Minister Fernando Rospigliosi.

How fortunate, then, that Ollanta Humala is not going to win the run-off vote for the Peruvian presidency on 4 June. Humala came in ahead of everybody else in the first round of voting in April, but the most recent large opinion poll, conducted on 24-26 May by Apoyo, showed former president Alan Garcia leading Humala by 55 percent of decided voters to 45 percent. So that’s all right, then. Only….

Only the voters may be lying to the opinion pollsters. When Apoyo let the people it interviewed fill in their voting preferences on a secret ballot, the numbers changed, and Garcia led Humala by only 52 percent to 48 percent. Then there’s the one-fifth of all voters who say they’re “undecided”: are they all truly undecided, or are a lot of them just embarrassed to say that they’re going to vote for Humala? This race is not over yet.

But why would anybody in their right mind vote for Ollanta Humala? He is a 42-year-old ex-army officer, suspected of human rights abuses when he commanded counter-insurgency forces in the highlands in the 1990s, whose only claim to fame is that he and his brother led a failed military coup in 2000. At least that coup attempt was against former president Alberto Fujimori, not a man noted for his love of democracy, but Humala’s younger brother Antauro is now in jail for having led a bloody uprising against the democratically elected government of President Alejandro Toledo last year.

The whole Humala family is noted mainly for its extremism. Although the family is both white and very well off, Humala’s father Isaac founded an ultra-nationalist, authoritarian movement called “etnocacerismo” that proclaimed the ethnic superiority of Peru’s Indian and mixed-race majority over the white descendants of Spanish immigrants who still dominate both business and politics. Ollanta Humala’s pitch is basically the same, appealing to the economic and ethnic resentments of Peru’s mostly Indian and mixed-race poor.

Peru’s economy has grown at a strong 4.5 percent during the past five years under President Toledo’s administration, and last year it reached 7 percent. So why is Toledo the least popular leader in the Americas, with less than 10 percent popular support, and why is an untried, unstable, eccentric dark horse like Ollanta Humala within a few percentage points of winning the Peruvian presidency?

Because “trickle-down” doesn’t work in Peru: all that economic growth raises the living standards of the rich and middle-class minority, and almost none of it gets to the half of the population who live on less than $1.25 a day. A majority of Peruvians feel that the democratic system has failed them utterly: a poll conducted by the University of Lima found that 92.2 percent of people do not trust political parties, 89.4 percent do not trust Congress, and 83.1 percent don’t trust the judiciary.

The popular belief is that everything is corrupt, the game is always fixed, and the poor never win. The popular belief is not all that far wrong, either, so voters are willing to take a leap in the dark and choose someone from outside “the system”, whether it’s Alberto Fujimori in 1990 or, perhaps, Ollanta Humala this month. Will he be authoritarian? Who cares? According to a recent United Nations study, more than 70 percent of Peruvians favour a more authoritarian government.

Could an Humala presidency actually do some good for Peru’s poor? Probably not, because he doesn’t have a political programme at all, not even a real political party behind him. Like presidents Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia, he prefers populism to the hard slog of traditional left-wing politics. Both men warmly back him, of course, in Chavez’s case going so far as to say that he will break diplomatic relations with Peru if Humala doesn’t win, but they are not serious left-wingers themselves either.

There is much loose talk these days about how South America has “slid to the left” while the US government, preoccupied with the Middle East, took its eye off its own “back yard,” but it’s more complicated than that. Politically sophisticated countries with fairly developed economies like Brazil, Argentina and Chile have elected genuine left-wing governments (or, in Argentina’s case, a Peronist government that shares many of their concerns), and serious changes are occurring. Their economies are growing, and some of the changes are clearly positive.

In Venezuela and Bolivia the process is crudely populist and “long-term” means next year. Alan Garcia hold little attraction for most Peruvians — the last time he was president, in 1985-90, inflation hit 7,000 percent — but if he doesn’t make it, Peru will join the “awkward squad.”


To reduce to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“The whole…poor”; and “The popular…government”)