Humala’s Triumph in Peru: America’s Defeat (revised)

Commentary No. 308, July 1, 2011

Ollanta Humala was elected President of Peru on June 5, 2011. The one sure loser in this election was the United States, whose ambassador, Rose Likins, scarcely hid her open campaigning for Humala’s opponent in the second round, Keiko Fujimori. What was at stake in this crucial election in Latin America?

Peru is a key country in the geopolitics of South America for a number of reasons: its size, its heritage as the locus of the Inca empire, its locus as a fount of the Amazonia River, its ports on the Pacific, and its recent history as the site of a major struggle between nationalist forces and pro-American elites.

In 1924, Victor Raúl Haya de la Torre, a Peruvian intellectual and Marxist – a quite unorthodox Marxist – founded the Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (APRA), which was intended to be a pan-American anti-imperialist organization. APRA flourished in Peru, although it was severely repressed. What was original about APRA, unlike most left movements in the Americas, was its understanding that the majority of Peru’s peasantry were indigenous Quechua-speaking peoples who had been systematically excluded from political participation and cultural rights. After 1945, APRA began to lose some of its radical edge but still had a strong popular base. Only the death of Haya de la Torre prevented his election as President in 1980.

Peru’s governments remained in conservative hands until 1968, when scandals over oil leases were the spark for a military coup by nationalist officers led by Gen. Juan Velasco Alvarado. They seized power and established a Revolutionary Government of the Armed Forces.

The Velasco government nationalized the oil fields, and then multiple other sectors of the economy. It invested heavily in education. More than that, it made it bilingual education, elevating Quechua to co-equal status with Spanish. The government launched programs of agrarian reform and import-substitution industrialization.

Its foreign policy moved sharply to the left. Peru cultivated good relations with Cuba, and purchased military equipment from the Soviet Union. After Pinochet’s overthrow of the Allende government in Chile in 1973, relations between Peru and Chile became tense. There was even talk of war when finally in 1975 Velasco was deposed by conservative military forces. And Peru thus ended its seven-year period of military-led nationalism with a left socio-economic program.

When Alan García, as leader of APRA, was elected President in 1985, he briefly renewed the left tradition by proposing a moratorium on external debt. But he was soon blocked in this effort, and then moved rightward to embrace neo-liberalism. Peru at this time faced several insurrections, the most famous of which was the Sendero Luminoso, which based its activity in the Andean regions of Quechua and Aymara peasantries.

In the 1990 elections, a now quite unpopular García faced the famous novelist and noted Conservative thinker and aristocrat, Mario Vargas Llosa, who ran on a purely neo-liberal economic platform. Unexpectedly, a little-known Peruvian of Japanese extraction, Alberto Fujimori, won in the three-way split. Fujimori’s voting strength derived largely from voter rejection of the aristocratic style of Vargas Llosa.

Fujimori turned out to be a tough dictatorial type who successfully used the army to crush Sendero Luminoso as well as urban insurrectionary groups. To ensure his power, Fujimori did not hesitate to close down Congress, interfere with the judiciary, and extend his second term. But the high degree of corruption and harsh rule led to his overthrow. He fled to Japan. He was later extradited from Chile, tried for his crimes in a Peruvian court, and sentenced to a long prison term.

His successor in 2001, Alejandro Toledo, continued the neoliberal program. And in 2006, Alan García again ran for president. He faced a former military officer, Ollanta Humala, who was openly supported by Hugo Chavez, support that hurt his prospects, as did attacks on his human rights record as an army officer. García won and continued and amplified the neoliberal path. The economy flourished because of the world boom in mineral and energy exports. But the mass of the population was left out of the benefits. Typically, the government allowed transnational corporations to seize land in the Amazonian region to exploit its mineral resources. The indigenous movements resisted, leading to a massacre in June 2009, called the Baguazo.

It is in this last period that Peru became the focal point of two geopolitical struggles. One was between Brazil and the United States. Under Lula’s presidency, Brazil had been struggling with considerable success to achieve South American autonomy through the construction of regional structures like UNASUR and Mercosur. The United States sought to counter Brazil’s program by creating a Pacific Alliance of Mexico, Colombia, Chile, and Peru based on free trade agreements with the United States. In addition, Colombia, Peru, and Chile launched a project for an integrated stock exchange, whose Spanish acronym is MILA. And Peru’s armed forces actively linked up with the U.S. military’s Southern Command.

The second geopolitical struggle was between China and the United States in the search for privileged access to South America’s mineral and energy resources. Peru once again was a key site.

What allowed Humala to win the election this time was three things. On the one hand, Humala turned openly and publicly to a Brazilian social-democratic path. No longer any mention of Chavez. Humala met often with Lula and talked of Peru’s becoming a “strategic partner” of Mercosur.

The second critical element was the very strong endorsement he received from Vargas Llosa. Vargas Llosa, the conservative aristocrat, said it would be a catastrophe for Peru to elect Fujimori’s daughter, who would release her father from prison, and continue his disreputable ways. Vargas Llosa caused a serious split in conservative forces.

The third critical element was the attitude of the Peruvian left, which had long had its reservations about Humala. As Oscar Ugarteche, a leading left intellectual, wrote for the Latin American press service, Alai-AmLatina, “for all of us Humala is a question mark but Fujimori is a certainty.”

Ugarteche summed up the election by saying that “What is most significant about it, however, is the return of Peru to South America.” We shall see how much Humala will be able to achieve internally in terms of redistribution and restoring the rights of the indigenous majority. But the U.S. geopolitical counteroffensive, the Pacific Alliance, is undone.

(Revised on July 5, 2011)