On the Campaign Trail in Peru

Ollanta Humala, Man of the People
Notes from different corners of the world.
June 1 2006 7:21 PM

On the Campaign Trail in Peru

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Peruvian presidential candidate Ollanta Humala 
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Peruvian presidential candidate Ollanta Humala

LIMA, Peru—When I phoned Lima-based journalists to find out where Peruvian presidential candidate Ollanta Humala would be giving his final campaign address, they doled out the information with dollops of caution. First, under no circumstances was I to go alone. My wallet shouldn't contain more money than would cover a round-trip cab fare. And my dress was to be as inconspicuous as possible. "Don't even think about wearing a skirt," one female reporter cautioned. "And stay away from groups of men there," she added. "They might try to meterte la mano." (Cop a feel.) I began to have visions of a dystopian mix of Animal House and a Bronx neighborhood circa 1980.

To be sure, Peruvian politics can be a contact sport—in the literal sense of the term. On May 25, for example, a clash between supporters of Humala and his rival Alan García in Cuzco ended in gunfire (both campaigns accused the other camp of instigating the violence that left five people injured). But the well-meaning warnings from my fellow journalists weren't just about the possible danger of venturing into a marginal part of town. Rather, it was about class: My acquaintances are upper-middle class, while Humala's base is poor and indigenous. That divide tends to be significant in any part of the world, but in Latin America, it is a veritable chasm. And the gross inequity goes a long way to explaining why Humala's maiden political run has attracted such fervent support.

On paper, Peru is doing quite well. Its economy grew a robust 6.7 percent last year, fueled by high prices for minerals. (Peru is the world's third-largest copper producer and fifth-largest gold producer.) But the influx of cash hasn't trickled down to the half of the population that lives a hand-to-mouth existence. Humala's populist promise to address "savage inequality" resonates with this group. So do his politics, which are heavily inspired by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Bolivian President Evo Morales. Humala has firmly planted himself in the anti-U.S. camp. (He's said one of his first acts as president would be to torch the free-trade agreement Peru recently inked with the United States.) He has also promised to emulate Chávez's governance in Venezuela and rewrite the Peruvian constitution to realize "a new distribution of power." Last night, he also proposed that Peru form an alliance with Ecuador, Bolivia, and Venezuela—a position that must have cheered Chávez. One of the Venezuelan's prized dreams is to lead an integrated Andean bloc. It's his updated take on his idol Simón Bolivar's Gran Colombia, a short-lived government that united the countries of Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, and Panama in the 1800s.

Humala has also taken a page from Morales, arguing that coca cultivation should be legal and promising to renegotiate contracts with multinational companies that operate in Peru. Like Morales, Humala also enjoys strong support from his country's Amerindians, who make up about 45 percent of the population. Unlike the Bolivian president, however, Humala's following in that community doesn't stem from shared indigenous roots: Humala's mother is white, and he doesn't speak Quechua (although, thanks to his years at a private French lycee, Humala is fluent in francais). Some of his legitimacy in the Indian community can be traced to his father, Isaac, a man who is literally a character out of a Mario Vargas Llosa novel: He served as the inspiration for a Communist leader in Conversations in the Cathedral. Isaac Humala subsequently renounced Marxism and developed a racial theory he dubbed "etnocacerismo," which exalts the superiority of the "copper race." Convinced his sons might be the vehicle for the rise of Indian power, Isaac gave two of his three sons Quechua names. He also sent Ollanta (which means "all-seeing warrior") and his brother Antauro to an eminent military academy in the hopes that they would follow in the footsteps of Gen. Andrés Avelino Cáceres, who refused to accept Peru's surrender in the 19th century War of the Pacific and resisted the Chilean occupation forces with a small guerrilla army.

The Humala brothers obviously absorbed their ambitious father's aspirations. Ollanta wasn't the only Humala son to launch a political bid this year: His older brother Ulises also ran for the presidency (and was slaughtered in the first round). Before resorting to the ballot box, the Humalas attempted to seize power in a less democratic fashion. In 2000, Ollanta and Antauro attempted a coup against the waning government of Alberto Fujimori. Antauro staged another violent uprising last year and is serving time for the deaths of four police officers. The putsches aren't the only questionable part of the Humalas' military record: Ollanta has also been accused of ordering the torture and killing of suspected Shining Path guerrilla sympathizers when he commanded a jungle base in the early 1990s. Questions have also emerged about the real intent of the 2000 coup. The day the Humala boys took up arms, Vladimiro Montesinos—Fujimori's spy chief, who allegedly operated a paramilitary death squad, funneled arms to Colombian guerrillas, and regularly doled out bribes to politicians and members of the press—escaped on a yacht to the Galapagos Islands. Montesinos, who is currently standing trial for corruption, announced from jail late last month that the Humalas' bloodless coup was designed as a diversion for his getaway. The presidential candidate angrily denied the charges, arguing that Montesinos was collaborating with his opponent Alan García to keep him from rising to power.

Humala's rebuttal speaks to the broader message of his campaign—namely, that he's not a member of the established Peruvian political establishment. Highlighting his outsider status is a smart strategy, because Peruvian voters are often receptive to a new face. In 1990, Fujimori, then a little-known university rector, beat the establishment candidate and celebrated novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. Eleven years later, current President Alejandro Toledo landed in the presidential mansion despite the fact that the then-business-administration professor had no governing experience. If Humala defies the polls that put him 10 points behind García and wins on Sunday, it won't be because of his parents. (He's tried to distance himself from both, particularly after his mother argued that homosexuals should be shot.) Rather, it will be because Peru's dispossessed see him as an alternative to the status quo.

The fact that Humala closed his Lima campaign in a shanty-town rather than the tonier districts candidates generally favor only emphasized his links to the Peruvians who have enjoyed little of the country's recent economic growth. I didn't get to see the rally in person (the journalist who had offered to give me a ride had car trouble, and by the time she got in touch with me, I couldn't make it to the event in time to catch Humala). But even on television you sense that Humala's supporters (many of whom, granted, were bused in from outside Lima) are ebullient about a potential Humala presidency. Occasionally enveloped in the white smoke that emanated from the stage, the attendees danced, waved balloons, and screamed their approval every time Humala spoke about how he would change their lives. "We need a national government that solves problems," he declared, promising to provide education, health, and security to the country's poor. It was a catalog of what millions of Peruvians lack. Unfortunately, despite the promises, if Ollanta Humala is anything like the populist Peruvian leaders who have preceded him, a Humala administration won't do much to change their deprivation.

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