Add Peru to the list of Latin American countries that have turned left. On Sunday, Peruvians voted in a second-round run-off ballot and elected Ollanta Humala, a 48-year-old former army officer, president. This is Humala’s second try for the office. In 2006, he came close to winning, but Wikileaks cables reveal that Peru’s establishment politicians put aside their differences and beat a path to the US embassy, asking for help smearing Humala as a Peruvian Hugo Chávez.
Wikileaks also reveals that that same year the Mexican right and the US State Department worked together to defeat the populist presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, leading many in the United States to gloat that the “left turn” in Latin America had run its course.
Humala’s victory suggests otherwise. Here’s just some of what has happened since 2006: In Bolivia, Evo Morales presided over the ratification of a new social-democratic constitution and was re-elected as president in 2009 with 64 percent of the vote. In Ecuador, Rafael Correa also easily won reelection and ratified a new constitution that guarantees social rights and puts tight limits on privatization. Recently, Ecuadorians likewise voted on ten progressive ballot initiatives, passing them all. They included the strict regulation of two blood sports: banks are now banned from speculation and bulls can no longer be killed in bull fights.
And last year in Brazil, the trade unionist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva left office the most popular politician on the planet, handing over the presidency of one of the world’s largest economies to Dilma Rousseff, a former urban guerrilla and economist who vows to continue to try to make Brazil a more humane and equal nation.
All of these national left political projects—from Venezuela to Uruguay—have their problems and shortcomings, and are open to criticism on any number of issues by progressive folk. But combined, the Latin American left can claim a remarkable achievement: It has snatched the concept of democracy away from neoliberals and the corporate privateers who came close to convincing the world that democracy equals deregulated capitalism and returned the term to its more humane, sustainable definition. In Latin America, democracy means social democracy. So considering the otherwise bleak global landscape, the return of the Latin American left, now well into its second decade, is cause for great cheer.
What does Humala’s victory mean for Peru? Most importantly in the short run, it has halted the return of Alberto Fujimori’s style of death-squad neoliberalism. Humala’s opponent was Fujimori’s daughter, Keiko, who pledged to free her jailed father, who was convicted of murder, kidnapping and corruption.
In the long run, many Peruvians, particularly those outside of Lima, voted for Humala because they have seen little benefits from the country’s celebrated macroeconomic performance over the last decade, driven by the high price of silver, zinc, copper, tin, lead and gold—which comprise 60 percent of the country's exports.
Over 30 percent of Peru's 30 million people live in poverty and 8 percent in extreme poverty. In rural areas, particularly in indigenous communities, more than half of all families are poor, many desperately so. Humala has promised to address this inequity with a series of pragmatic measures—a guaranteed pension to people over 65; expanding healthcare in rural areas, including the construction of more provincial hospitals; an increase in public sector salaries, to be paid for with a windfall profit tax on the mining sector.
In terms of foreign policy, Humala’s election is another victory for Brazil in its contest with Washington for regional influence. If Fujimori had won, she would have aligned Peru politically with Washington and economically with US and Canadian corporations.
Humala, in contrast, will tilt toward Brazilian economic interests. Indeed, the Peruvian historian Gerardo Rénique said that the election, while representing an important victory for democratic forces, could also be understood in part as a contest between Brazil and the US over Peruvian energy and mineral resources. In this perspective, one could say that it didn’t matter who won the Peruvian election: the Amazon lost.
Here then might be the question that determines the success of Humala’s presidency: As he tries to put into place his “growth with social inclusion” agenda, will he be able to balance the conflicting interests of his Brazilian allies and the social movements that elected him, many of which are fighting for sustainable development and local control of resources?
In addition to reviving social democracy, the other major accomplishment of the renewed Latin American left has been to dilute the entrenched racism that has defined the continent for centuries. In Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, Brazil, Venezuela and other countries, Native Americans and peoples of African descent have led a remarkable, if still incomplete, democratization of politics and culture. Peru, with its 45 percent Amerindian population, has largely been left out of this process. In fact, some say that racism has deepened over the last decade, with the mining boom wreaking havoc on the dark-skinned Andean countryside and Amazonian lowlands while financing the rise of luxury condos and malls in white, middle-class Lima.
So however hard it might be for Humala to take on international capital—Peru’s stock market plunged 12 percent the day after his election—an equally difficult challenge will be to tackle Peruvian racism. “El Indio Humala” lost Lima by a wide margin, driven mostly not by fears he would turn Peru into Chávez’s Venezuela but into neighboring Indian-governed Bolivia. Candidate Humala did his best to deflect these concerns.
President Humala, however, will have to confront this racism directly if he is to succeed in democratizing Peru. After all, even before all the votes where in, tens of thousands of his supporters began to fill the country’s plazas, including Lima’s. They raised high the rainbow wiphala flag that became ubiquitous in Bolivia, during the rise of the social movements that brought Evo Morales to power. Today, it is waved throughout the Andes as a symbol of indigenous pride and sovereignty.