Does U.S. Have a Candidate in Peru?

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, April 12, 2011


Political developments in Latin America have made evident the attenuating role of the United States in the region. As democracy has consolidated in some countries, and deteriorated in others, the traditional involvement by American officials in quietly campaigning against certain candidates has all but vanished. It might be that the U.S. government truly believes in the democratic processes, that Washington no longer cares or simply lacks the necessary power and resources to intervene. In the recent presidential election in Peru, the U.S. would have obviously preferred any of the centrist candidates to win. However, it is anyone’s guess which candidate in the runoff is Washington’s favorite. Curiously, that apparent American neutrality might become the reason why both candidates seek proximity to the U.S. as a sign of their newly adopted moderation.


The presidential election produced the worst possible scenario for moderate Peruvians. The three moderate candidates split the support of the largest share of the electorate, allowing rightwing populist Keiko Fujimori and leftwing populist Ollanta Humala to clinch the two spots for the runoff election to be held on June 5.


Most moderate voters in Peru would be contempt to vote for the lesser of two evils. In 2006, when compared to Humala, who threatened with reversing the market-friendly economic policies that produced rapid growth (but failed to reduce poverty and exclusion), Alan Garcia was a better choice.  A former President, García’s rule in the 1980s had been disastrous. Lack of fiscal discipline led to hyperinflation and economic stagnation, social and political discontent fueled guerrilla activity, and corruption scandals delegitimized the government and the party system. However, after an 11-year controversial rule by Alberto Fujimori, whose market-friendly economic reforms set the basis for Peru’s prosperity, but corruption scandals further weakened institutions and human rights violations undermined democracy and the rule of law, García emerged as a less worse alternative that Humala in 2006.


This year, moderate voters will find it more difficult to identify the lesser of two evils. Keiko Fujimori is more market-friendly, but has promised to grant pardon to his father, presently serving sentences for human rights violations and corruption. Because she is young and inexperienced, some of the same people who ruled with her father will be back in power—and corruption scandals might ensue, weakening the rule of law and favoring populist social spending initiatives rather than sustainable social programs aimed at investing in health, education and infrastructure.


Humala has tried hard to distance himself from Chávez, seeking comparisons to Lula. Humala has said that he will promote a national social market economy. True, nobody knows what that really means, but for a populist to campaign on a market economy is a big chance from his fiery 2006 rhetoric. As a former military officer accused of human rights violations who staged a failed military coup (against Fujimori in 2000) and whose program calls for a constitutional assembly and a much larger role for the state in the national economy (with nationalist and anti-multinationals and anti-Chilean undertones), Humala understandably worries many people. His recent conversion to Lula-style social-democracy is decried by many as posturing. For many upper and middle class Peruvians, Humala is a fox with sheep clothing.


If Peruvian voters are confused, the U.S. government seems equally confused (or perhaps simply not interested). The U.S. and Peru signed a free trade agreement in 2007. Both countries cooperate on preventing drugs from being exported from Peru to the United States.  The U.S. would definitely prefer Peru to remain in the group of market-friendly democracies in the region than to have the fifth most populated country in Latin America to join Chávez’s Bolivarian alliance.  Thus, Humala would naturally raise concerns in Washington. On the other hand, the U.S. was also instrumental in helping Peru bring an end of the Fujimori authoritarian government in 2000.


The U.S. might feel further away from Humala than from Fujimori, but Fujimori has more pending issues with the U.S. than Humala. Provided that Humala puts to rest all doubts and concerns about his ideological proximity to Chávez—and convinces people of his closeness to Lula—he will make himself more appealing to the United States. Fujimori will need to talk about future much more than about the past if she wants the U.S. government to confirm its initial inclination towards her candidacy.


True, the U.S. might be less relevant than it used to in Latin American politics, but as Humala and Fujimori need to attract moderate voters to win the runoff on June 5, discussion on what kind of bilateral relations each candidate expects to have with the United States might become one of the many grounds where both candidates will struggle to present their new moderate credentials. Though it was probably unintended, the fact that the U.S. has so clearly stayed out of this political process might eventually end up producing positive results for American interests in Peru and might turn into a replicable model for the U.S. in future Latin American elections.