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Peru's Populist Gamble | The Nation

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Peru's Populist Gamble

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On April 9 Ollanta Humala, a stocky 43-year-old ex-military officer who exudes a plainspoken charisma, claimed victory in the first round of Peru's presidential elections. Campaigning on a left-leaning platform, he vowed to pull his country out of a pending free-trade agreement with the United States. Humala's campaign echoed criticisms of market-driven "neoliberal" globalization from reformers like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Néstor Kirchner in Argentina and Luis Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil. But Humala--a political figure with a dubious past and an uncertain ideology--does not fit easily into the political trend embodied by these leaders.

Research assistance provided by Kate Griffiths.

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Mark Engler
Mark Engler, a senior analyst with Foreign Policy in Focus, is the author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle...

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Garnering 31 percent of the vote, Humala bested a wide range of less striking opponents--although he did not win enough votes to avoid a runoff, expected to be held in late May or early June. In an unusually close battle for runner-up, centrist former president Alan Garcia, who governed Peru in the late 1980s, currently has a thin lead over conservative business candidate Lourdes Flores, who campaigned to be elected the country's first woman president. With just over 88 percent of votes counted, Garcia leads 24.42 percent to 23.34 percent in his bid to enter the runoff against Humala.

Relative to these two competitors, Humala has clearly positioned himself as the most progressive candidate in the running. Yet whether he genuinely belongs within the region's resurgent left is hotly debated.

Humala has a limited background in politics and social movement organization. He first gained notoriety as the leader of a failed coup in 2000 against President Alberto Fujimori. He remains a political novice, and his distance from traditional parties is part of his appeal--Peruvians have a penchant for electing outsiders, having picked both Fujimori and Alejandro Toledo as relative unknowns. But with no institutional foundation, Humala's political program, which he describes as "nationalist," often sounds vague.

"He is going to be a wildcard if he's elected," says Larry Birns, longtime observer of Latin America and director of the Washington, DC-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs. "He very late in the game became an aspirant member of the Latin American 'Pink Tide.' His language has been quite radical. The question is whether his stances will erode once he's in office."

Humala is campaigning as a law-and-order candidate who can effectively battle crime and corruption. His past performance as a strongman has suggested some authoritarian tendencies. Perhaps most seriously, Humala stands accused of committing human rights abuses when he served as a military commander in the early 1990s. At that time the Peruvian government's zealous counterinsurgency against the Maoist Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, turned the military into a second force terrorizing the country's Andean villages.

The charges against Humala, says Coletta Youngers, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, "are very well-founded allegations based on testimony that was collected at the time by the Red Cross. The accusations go beyond implicating Humala in crimes committed under his command and finger him directly for cases of torture, extra-juridical execution and disappearances."

Allegations have also surfaced that link Humala and several people in his campaign with Vladimiro Montesinos, the notorious intelligence chief who served in the Fujimori dictatorship of the 1990s. Videotapes showing Montesinos paying bribes and coordinating a vast network of corruption during the past regime helped to land him in jail; he is charged with further crimes including murder and drug trafficking. While the government has established no wrongdoing on the part of Humala, suggested connections with the shadowy Montesinos continue to generate controversy.

Finally, Humala has struggled to distance himself from his eccentric family. His father founded the ultranationalist etnocacerismo movement, which continues to be championed by his brothers. The movement takes extreme stands on halting immigration and expanding capital punishment. It promotes the racial superiority of indigenous Peruvians, approximately 40 percent of the population, over those of European, Asian or African ancestry.

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