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WikiLeaks Peru: The Great Equalizer

To read my article on the Peruvian presidential election, click here.

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WikiLeaks and the Peruvian Presidential Election

Despite soaring rhetoric about the need for an equal partnership in U.S.-Latin American relations, the Obama White House is still intent on halting the leftist contagion spreading throughout the wider region. Over the past few years, a more radical bloc of countries including Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador have emerged to contest U.S. hegemony. In response, Washington has cultivated the support of wavering Brazil and Chile as well as the more rightist Colombia. Yet another country that hangs in the political balance, Peru, holds the first round of its presidential election on Sunday and the U.S. surely wants the keep the country in the ideological fold.

Under the outgoing Alan García regime, which originally took power in 2006, Washington had little to fear. A political scoundrel and opportunist, the formerly leftist García morphed into a great supporter of U.S. corporatism and free trade. Peru’s raw resources were thrown up to the highest bidder and the country witnessed polarizing social and environmental conflict. In 2009, for instance, the police killed at least 25 civilians in the Amazonian town of Bagua when several thousand indigenous peoples protested the president’s free trade policies and land law allowing for corporate access to communal territories.

Judging from cables recently released by the whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks, the U.S. may fear that Amazonian Indians are becoming radicalized by the likes of Hugo Chávez. In one memo, U.S. embassy staff in Lima remarked that “While a series of government miscalculations and missteps was largely to blame [for the violence in Bagua] radical and possibly foreign interference also played a role.”

Read further in the cable, and U.S. priorities become clear. “We have built a strong bilateral relationship with Peru in recent years, partly embodied in the Peru Trade Promotion Agreement (PTPA),” wrote one diplomat. “We also share a similar strategic vision, namely that the region's foremost security threats originate from transnational and non-state criminal actors such as narco-traffickers and terrorists, as well as resurgent populism and the meddling of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and his allies.”

While one might expect such combative commentary from the likes of diplomats in the Bush era, bear in mind that this particular cable was sent in the first year of the Obama administration, thus refuting the notion that Washington had somehow turned a new leaf in its hemispheric attitudes. Indeed, diplomats noted with approval how García had “played a constructive role in the region and sees challenges and opportunities through a similar policy prism.”

The Americans could not have been happier about Peru’s willingness to play a key geopolitical role. “Under Garcia,” diplomats declared, “Peru has helped to counter Bolivia and Venezuela's efforts to blame the U.S. for rising regional tensions. Relations with Bolivia have also been strained over alleged Bolivian political meddling, and personal insults between Presidents Garcia and Morales. The government of Peru remains concerned that Venezuela is trying to sow instability in the region through its covert support of radical and indigenous groups in Peru and elsewhere.”

Sunday’s Election

Now that the García era is coming to an end, Washington may fear that Peru might waver in its political allegiances. Yet, judging from the lackluster roster of candidates, the Obama administration doesn’t have much to fear. Take, for example, Alejandro Toledo, who preceded García as president from 2001 to 2005. An academic free market economist who had a stint working at the World Bank, Toledo has been a long-time darling of international capital. Under his “neo-liberal” presidency, Peru negotiated a free trade agreement with the United States which gave American corporations expanded access to the Andean nation’s raw resources.

The other three conservative candidates offer little substantive difference to Toledo. Former Lima mayor Luis Castañeda, who has met with the Americans behind closed doors to discuss politics [see below] is one contender. Then there’s Pedro Pablo Kucyzynski, a former World Bank official and lobbyist for mining and oil companies who served as prime minister under Toledo.

Lastly, in a bizarre blast from the past we get Keiko Fujimori, daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori. At 35 she is the youngest candidate in the field and is running on experience --- that is to say, the experience of her father. Keiko says that if is she is elected president she will seek to secure Alberto’s release from prison. Currently, disgraced Fujimori Sr. is serving a 25-year sentence for embezzlement and directing death squads.

Keiko’s political story is probably the most surreal of all the candidates. In 1994, Alberto named Keiko first lady after fighting with his wife Susana Higuchi. When the details of the acrimonious divorce were publicized, including inflammatory accusations that Alberto had even tortured Higuchi, Keiko sided with her Dad. Perhaps justifiably, many Peruvians view Keiko’s relentless pursuit of politics at all costs as shameless and crass.

Countering the Humala Threat

Most likely, any of these questionable candidates would suit the United States. There is one contender, however, who may have raised some eyebrows within the Obama White House. Ollanta Humala has said he would rewrite Peru’s constitution and retool the economy in favor of the poor who have been left out of the recent economic boom promoted by Alan García. A nationalist and former lieutenant colonel, Humala led a failed revolt against Fujimori’s electoral fraud in 2000 and even kidnapped a general [he later received a congressional pardon]. Humala would renegotiate contracts with foreign oil and mining companies and, according to the Financial Times, investors are nervous about the emerging candidate. Indeed, Peru’s markets have taken a hit as the brash Humala rises in the polls.

It’s not the first time that Humala has stoked concern amongst the Peruvian elite. In the 2006 presidential election, Humala ran against García on a nationalist platform. After meeting with Chávez and Morales, Humala declared himself part of “a Latin America with new leaders, in which the perception is that the neo-liberal economic model is exhausted.” In an incendiary move, Humala pledged to nationalize Peru's hydrocarbons industry and declared his strong opposition to the free trade agreement which his country had signed with Washington.

WikiLeaks cables reveal the Bush administration’s concern over Humala and diplomatic currying of favor with up and coming conservative luminaries. In the midst of the 2006 election cycle, U.S. ambassador Curt Struble met with Lima mayor [and current presidential contender] Luis Castañeda. Struble characterized Castañeda as “a driven man…who certainly aspires for the top office.” Speaking privately with the ambassador, Castañeda told Struble that he expected to be “the rallying point for the opposition if Humala wins the Presidency.”

On another occasion, Castañeda elaborated at greater length with the Americans about the Humala threat. A shrewd player who was apparently willing to play dirty, Castañeda believed that a useful tactic “would be to create confusion regarding the four Humalas currently involved in politics: Ollanta…his imprisoned brother Antauro (charged with responsibility for the death of five people in the January 2005 Andahuaylas uprising) and his father Isaac (most
recently talking favorably about the possibility of war with Chile).” Apparently, the Americans saw Castañeda as a useful asset: the Lima mayor’s “views on the basis for Humala’s popularity,” remarked ambassador Struble, “and on the ways to undermine it [my italics] are worth paying attention to.”

Fear of Venezuelan Contagion

Judging from the cables, the 2006 election in Peru had taken on wider geopolitical implications. In Venezuela, Chávez was already taking notice of events on the ground and came out strongly for Humala. For his part, García countered that Morales and Chávez were spoiled children and “historical losers” for criticizing Peru’s free-trade agreement with the United States. Chávez shot back that García, whose previous presidency had been marred by hyperinflation, food shortages and guerrilla violence, was a “thief” and a “crook.” “I hope that Ollanta Humala becomes president of Peru,” Chávez declared. “To Ollanta Humala, go comrade! Long live Ollanta Humala! Long live Peru!” the Venezuelan leader added.

Chávez’s comments prompted Peru to recall its ambassador from Venezuela in protest. The Venezuelan leader, Peruvian authorities charged, was persistently and flagrantly intervening in their country’s internal affairs. García, who had languished behind Humala by more than ten points in opinion polls, exploited the diplomatic spat by accusing Chávez of political interference. When García painted his opponent as a puppet of Chávez and Morales, Humala was unable to launch an articulate counteroffensive.

When the votes were finally counted, García edged out Humala, 53% to 47%. The vote, García remarked, was a blow to Chávez. “Today, the majority of the country has delivered a message in favor of national independence, of national sovereignty,” García said. “They have defeated the efforts by Mr. Hugo Chávez to integrate us into his militaristic and backwards expansion project he intends to impose over South America. Today, Peru has said no,” García added proudly. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick was also pleased with the result, proclaiming that “the best response is that of the Peruvian people (who) decided to vote for President Garcia and not for [Hugo] Chávez's candidate.”

Humala Round Two

Despite the rhetorical triumphalism, however, WikiLeaks cables reveal that the Americans continued to monitor Chávez’s influence in Peru. In 2007, for example, Struble declared that Venezuelan agents might have been involved in stoking unrest in the largely indigenous department of Puno. In light of Washington’s previous concern, it is not a stretch to imagine that the Obama administration may be slightly concerned about a Humala upset on Sunday.

Yet, peer a little deeper and it would seem that the U.S. has little to fear. Indeed, the Humala of 2011 bears little resemblance to the military man’s previous political incarnation. The brash candidate no longer sports red campaign shirts, instead opting for grey suits and dark blue ties. What is more, Humala speaks warmly of free markets, has pledged to support investors’ rights and cites World Bank reports when making his points. In addition, even if he did win the presidency, it’s doubtful that Humala would have enough support in Congress to inaugurate momentous change.

Moreover, any lingering threat of Venezuelan contagion can probably discounted as Humala has done his utmost to distance himself from the more radical crowd including Chávez, Morales and Rafael Correa of Ecuador. Determined to avoid the red baiting pitfall, Humala has bent over backward to prove that he is a responsible statesman. When Chávez described Humala as a “good soldier,” one of Humala’s own congressional candidates even threatened to launch a lawsuit against the Venezuelan president. Humala chimed in for good measure, telling Chávez to butt out of Peruvian affairs. “The Venezuelan model is not applicable in Peru,” commented a tamer Humala.

Humala is the only leftist candidate in the field, but he lacks something to be desired. In a disappointing development, the Peruvian has turned to strategists linked to former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, a political centrist. There may be other reasons to believe that Humala is not an ideal standard bearer for the left: for years, he has been dogged by allegations of human rights abuses. The charges, none of which have ever been formally proven, stem from Humala’s stint as a commander in a remote army post during Peru’s civil war. In a wry but macabre aside, novelist Mario Vargas Llosa has remarked that choosing between candidates like Keiko and Humala is like opting between cancer and AIDS.

Not to worry, though, as some observers are predicting that even though Humala may very well pass through the first round that he has little chance of ultimately prevailing. Though the former army man is surging in the polls, surveys suggest that Humala would not fare well in a second presidential runoff to be held on June 5th. That is certainly an electoral outcome that would satisfy Washington, since Keiko, Toledo and Kuczynski are all tied for second and none of them pose an ideological challenge to the U.S. (Castañeda is trailing but not fully out of the running yet).

The Leftist Quandary

Given the great likelihood that Peru’s next president will continue Alan García’s investor-friendly policies, we can surely anticipate more social conflict in troubled Peru. What is more, this campaign has been quite short on environmental debate centering on such vital issues as melting glaciers in the Andes [for more on this, be sure to check out my recent book]. There is some danger, too, that Peru will become something of a Brazilian satellite and subject to boondoggle development projects slashing through the Amazon rainforest. In recent years, green parties have emerged in other parts of South America and in some cases have even fared relatively well, though so far the Peruvian left has failed to launch a serious environmental candidate.

In a wider geopolitical sense, the election in Peru is likely to enhance the notion that the region’s “Pink Tide” to the left may be running out of steam. Much like the Middle East right now, South America seemed to be headed toward revolutionary ferment just a few years ago. While the unrest is likely to continue in North Africa and the vicinity, the South American left is now facing a dilemma. With Chávez and his allies looking like something of a spent force, Brazil is fast emerging as the principal power in the neighborhood. Politically crass and lacking a compelling progressive vision of the future, Brazil is mostly interested in promoting stability and its own business investments [for anyone who would doubt such an interpretation, see my detailed articles since late November 2010 on the WikiLeaks cables]. In the coming months and years, we’ll see whether the Pink Tide has any staying power or will simply cave in to U.S. pressure, corporate interests and a politically bankrupt Brazilian juggernaut.

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