Who needs a friend in Peru?

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, June87, 2011


The United States government should actively seek to engage in building a strong relation with recently elected Peruvian President Ollanta Humala.  There is no reason to let the conservative anti-Chavez inquisition movement in the United States to preemptively caricature President Humala as an adversary of the United States and an ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.


A couple of days before the Peruvian runoff election, a Spanish language television network in the United States reported that former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs Roger Noriega accused Chávez of sending $12 million dollars of illegal campaign contributions to Humala. Noriega, who served under George W. Bush, is currently a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.


During the presidential campaign, Humala was repeatedly accused of being a soldier to Hugo Chávez’s Boliviarian Revolution. The former Peruvian military officer ran a campaign with a markedly pro-Chávez tone in his first presidential attempt in 2006. However, Humala had since distanced himself from Chávez. In the 2011 campaign, Humala showed proximity to former Brazilian President Lula’s moderate leftist platform. Since he only received 31.7% in the first round vote, for the runoff Humala needed to attract moderate voters who supported centrist candidates in the first round.  Humala’s runoff opponent was Congresswoman Keiko Fujimori, who received 23.6% of the vote in the first round and whose commitment to market-friendly policies gained her the support of the Peruvian business elite and mass media outlets. As Humala and Fujimori—the daughter of the former president-turned-dictator who first implemented market-friendly policies in the 1990s—sought to attract moderate voters, their contentious past political and personal backgrounds turned the election into a lesser of the two evils contest. Humala was accused of human rights violations when he was in the army and was blasted for his past links with Chávez. Fujimori was accused of being close to many of her father’s associates who were involved in human rights violations and corruption scandals.


During the runoff campaign, political operations were launched to convince moderate voters who were uneasy about both candidates.  The unproven accusation by Noriega failed to dissuade undecided voters. Comparable operations by the Humala camp, reminding voters of human rights violations committed during the Fujimori government were more effective, as the Keiko Fujimori camp failed to appropriately distance the daughter from her father’s associates who have failed to appropriately condemn those violations. In addition, the swift denial of Noriega’s allegations by credible and committed democrats, like Nobel Literature Prize winner Mario Vargas-Llosa and his public intellectual son Álvaro Vargas-Llosa, both well-known and respected Chávez foes among conservative circles in Washington, also helped controlled the damage.  


The past associations of Humala with Chávez and Humala’s ambiguous populist positions are themselves circumstantial evidence of links between the Peruvian newly elected president and the Bolivarian camp. However, the absence of appropriate campaign finance legislation raises legitimate questions about where all the campaigns funds came from, including Fujimori’s.  Past links between Humala and Chávez have also fueled suspicions about Humala’s alleged conversion to more moderate and Lula-style social democratic policies. Precisely for those reasons, moderate leaders who supported Humala in the runoff warned the candidate against abandoning his market-friendly campaign promises. Mario Vargas-Llosa and former president Alejandro Toledo—whose market-friendly policies and democratic credentials make him highly regarded in the United States—conditioned their support on Humala’s commitment to the market-friendly economic model that turned Peru into the fastest growing Latin American country in the last decade.


Surprisingly, the effort to bring Humala into the moderate leftist camp has only been championed by Latin American political and intellectual leaders. The U.S. government has remained mostly absent from the effort. Though Washington sent no signals in favor of Keiko Fujimori, it made no effort to reach out to Ollanta Humala either. Rather than actively seeking to engage in a dialogue that could strengthen Keiko Fujimori camp’s wavering commitment to respect for human rights and for combating corruption and Ollanta Humala’s recent embrace of social market economic policies, the U.S. remained silent. The only voices from the U.S. that were loudly heard were those from the one-sided and counter-productive anti-Chávez inquisition movement. Leaders have the right to repent and disavow their past embrace of populist policies. In failing to realize that, Washington has not reached out to Humala to help him complete the transition away from Chávez into the Lula camp.


There are still doubts as to whether President Humala will in fact govern with market-friendly policies. His populist past might still tempt him to implement state expansionist policies. However, precisely because his conversion is not fully complete, the U.S. is missing a great opportunity to engage with a potential friend and ally. Now that Humala has won the election, Washington should no longer stay on the sidelines. Instead, the U.S. government should actively reach out to Humala to build a relationship that can both secure his conversion into market-friendly policies and make him a strong ally in South America.