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Peruvians vote for a change of direction

This article is over 17 years, 10 months old
As Ollanta Humala tops the poll in the first round of Peru’s presidential election last weekend, Mike Gonzalez looks at the rise of this radical figure
Issue 1996

When Washington looks at Latin America these days, the alarm bells must be ringing. In Bolivia, a vibrant mass movement brought Evo Morales to the presidency in December.

The movement’s demands were simple—the nationalisation of the nation’s oil and gas, and the calling of an assembly to rewrite the constitution. Morales has promised both, though there are worrying ambiguities in many of his statements.

In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez remains in power and his popular base of support seems to be developing its own forms of organisation, such as the new UNT trade union federation.

In Ecuador, where presidential elections take place in October this year, the alliance of indigenous organisations, trade unions and social movements which has brought down three presidents in the last six years, is active again.

When Lucio Gutierrez assumed the presidency three and a half years ago, it was because he had promised to confront global capital and the neo-liberal policies that had impoverished millions.

When he turned against the mass movement that carried him into the presidential palace, that movement took to the streets again, driving him from office last April.

In Brazil, president Lula—the candidate of the Workers Party elected in 2002—has become increasingly discredited. Once in office he rapidly turned against his natural supporters, refusing demands from trade unionists and the landless workers’ movement. But he did not hesitate to negotiate with the institutions of global capitalism.

More recent allegations of corruption have exposed his willingness to forge alliances with business and its political representatives in order to stay in power.

The growth of the new P-Sol Freedom and Socialism party is testimony to growing popular disillusionment.

That is the context in which Peru went to the polls to elect a new president. There were three candidates. Lourdes Flores is the candidate of the right. If elected she will continue to support neo?liberal strategies.

Alan Garcia, a former president and representative of the populist party APRA, would also do little to challenge the status quo. When he was president in the 1980s, he was an enthusiastic advocate of the capitalist market—as well as becoming embroiled in a major corruption scandal.

It is the third candidate on whom attention is focused. Ollanta Humala came from nowhere to win the first round of the presidential elections. With votes still being counted, he was expected to poll over 30 percent as Socialist Worker went to press.

He will face a run-off, scheduled for 7 May, against whichever candidate finishes second.

Humala’s Peruvian Nationalist Party has won support from important sections of the poor. It is particularly popular among indigenous people—those descended from the original inhabitants of the region.

In fact, it is his brother Antaro who is better known, having led a failed indigenous rising in 2005. Antaro worked in the past with the MIR, a guerrilla organisation with roots in some of the indigenous communities in the 1970s. Ollanta, however, has a much more obscure past.

A military officer, he too led a short-lived military uprising in 2001. Dismissed from the army, he was reinstated in 2003 and was sent as a military attache to France and Korea before returning to Peru.

On the election trail, Ollanta managed to present himself as the voice of the poor, the indigenous and the working class. His party slogan, “Love Peru”, however, gives little sense that he has a real political perspective to offer.

His speeches are nationalistic, recalling military victories over Chile in the past and issuing vague promises that he will restore human rights.

Yet here his own record is very murky. Ollanta was almost certainly involved in the violent repression of the Shining Path guerrillas in the 1990s, and has not rejected the present ­government’s call for amnesty for the military officers involved in repression under the disgraced former president Alberto Fujimori.

In a sense, Ollanta stands in a long Latin American tradition of strong leaders who are happy to act in the name of the people, but who are much less happy to act under their control.

Ollanta is not Evo Morales. He does not have the Bolivian president’s history of leading or participating in struggles, nor is he the representative of organised social forces.

But Ollanta has successfully presented himself to a population suffering the impact of globalisation as a people’s champion.

He symbolises the level of popular anger with the current Peruvian government, which has enthusiastically implemented neo-liberal policies. But so did Gutierrez, the fugitive president of Ecuador, who betrayed his supporters at the first opportunity.

If Ollanta wins the second round of the presidential election there will be no popular movement to hold him to his promises—or take its own independent action to fulfil them.

And without that organised movement that can hold him to account, Peru’s own history suggests he will end up going his own way in pursuit of power.

On the other hand, his election will express the levels of discontent among working people and will lay down a gauntlet for the left.

The Peruvian left, which in the late 1980s did achieve some impressive election results, is today divided and fragmented. Its two presidential candidates had little impact on last Saturday’s poll.

Ollanta is benefiting from the anger of the masses—but he is also a symptom of the failure of the left to channel that action into a project to build a new and different kind of society.

Mike Gonzalez is the author of Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution, and A Rebel’s Guide to Marx, both available from Bookmarks. Phone 020 7637 1848

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