Peru’s Populist Gamble

Peru’s Populist Gamble

Can Peruvian presidential hopeful Ollanta Humala shed his authoritarian image and chart a new course for his country?


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.

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.

Complexity of Populism

Those in the United States who know anything about Humala probably have heard him likened to Chávez and Morales. Conservatives and progressives alike are prone to make such comparisons–some trying to paint a frightening picture of Humala as a follower of Washington’s fiery antagonist in Caracas, and others expressing hope that he could be another Evo, a voice of the region’s downtrodden.

For its part, the White House may have learned that it’s better off keeping quiet. The Bush Administration’s past denunciations of progressive candidates, like Morales, only boosted the popularity of those contenders among a Latin American electorate that views Washington with wary mistrust.

If it were to speak up, the Administration would no doubt group Humala under the rubric of “radical populism,” a framework it regularly uses to describe its Latin American opposition. Officials like Gen. James Hill, former head of the US Southern Command, and Donald Rumsfeld identify populism not merely as a notable political trend in Latin America. It is, they say, an “emerging threat” to US security. Allowing for little discrimination between political movements, the charge of radical populism serves as a blunt instrument for Washington–one that can be wielded against all those challenging neoliberal economics.

This willfully obscures the complexity of Latin American populism. On the one hand, the ideology has a history of demagoguery, nativism and false promises for reform. This negative brand of populism was traditionally cultivated by dictators who tried to garner support for their military rule by fanning nationalist sentiment and channeling money into networks of patronage.

Populism can also be a praiseworthy impulse. In a region with endemic poverty, where the economic gap separating hillside shantytowns and colonial-style mansions has widened through two decades of neoliberalism, concern for the well-being of a country’s impoverished majority is overdue. And in nations where small groups of elites work the levers of power, expanding access to the machinery of democracy is vital. Over half of Peru’s estimated 28 million residents live in poverty, and while GDP growth has exceeded 5 percent in recent years, little of the prosperity enjoyed by multinational mining and energy companies has trickled down to reach the Peruvian people.

Humala surely qualifies as a populist, and one can hope that he will turn out to be the positive kind. Unfortunately, at present, even those who applaud the progressive democratic revival in Latin America do well to view his rise critically.

Skeptics on the Left

That large segments of the Peruvian left are critical of Humala is a fact not often noted when comparisons are made to Chávez and Morales. “He bandies about socialist ideas in a highly improvised manner, but cannot explain how he plans to bring about change, nor with whom,” said Socialist Party leader Javier Diez Canseco of Humala in an interview with the Inter-Press Service. “There is a divorce between what he says and what he does.”

Diez Canseco, a steadfast activist and political organizer, would better fit the mold of Latin America’s new progressive leadership. He polled under 1 percent in this week’s elections, however. Since Izquierda Unida, Peru’s coalition of progressive parties, fell apart in the early 1990s, the left has been weak and divided. “This has allowed figures like Humala to fill the void,” says Youngers.

Skeptics of Humala’s ascendancy fear that the candidate could repeat the performance of Ecuador’s Lucio Gutiérrez, another ex-military officer and past coup leader. Gutiérrez was hailed in 2002 as a fresh addition to the New Left when he was elected president on a platform criticizing neoliberalism. Once in power, he quickly turned on his campaign promises, alienated his indigenous supporters, backed Washington’s conservative economic policies and tried to pack the Ecuadorian courts to forestall impeachment on corruption charges. With massive street protests demanding Gutiérrez’s resignation, a special session of Congress voted to remove him from office in April 2005. Well before then, Ecuador quietly disappeared from the list of countries whose leaders represent a leftist revitalization.

It is not clear what will happen in the second round of Peru’s presidential elections, nor what outcome would be best for those who have benefited least from Toledo’s neoliberal rule. Humala’s first-round win was not as decisive as some expected. The often-hostile Peruvian press declared it “a victory with the flavor of defeat.” Opinion polls suggest that Lourdes Flores could prevail over Humala in a runoff. Many analysts believe that Alan Garcia, a gifted orator, could prove to be both a better campaigner and more adept at cutting deals with voting blocs whose candidates have been eliminated.

Neither of these candidates, if elected, would go far toward reversing the policies that have regularly kept Toledo’s approval ratings below 15 percent. A large part of Humala’s draw, especially among the rural poor, is a legitimate frustration with an economic system that has provided them with little opportunity to overcome their hardships and with the political parties that have failed to instate significant reforms. This is what the Bush Administration consistently overlooks in its blanket condemnation of Latin American populism–and what makes it increasingly estranged from the region’s newly elected governments.

If Humala can overcome his authoritarian leanings and live up to his campaign pledges, he could chart a promising new course for his country. For the Peruvian people, believing that he can do so of his own volition, or that they will be able hold him accountable, would be a serious gamble. But absent a better option, it may be one they are willing to take.

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