Alan García Prays for Forgiveness—or Forgetfulness

Alan García

LIMA, Peru—In the heady days of Alan García’s presidency in the mid-1980s—before inflation soared into the quadruple digits and the Shining Path terrorist group brought swaths of the country under its control—the head of state would periodically appear on the balcony of his palace, and crowds would gather to hear his extemporaneous thoughts. After seeing García give the closing speech of his latest bid for the presidency last night, I understand why. The rally itself was an impressively boisterous affair: Tens of thousands of people waved long, thin red-and-white balloons against the smoky Lima sky; a folkloric band provided a nonstop soundtrack from the stage; and the crowd lustily chanted A-L-A-N (with the master of ceremonies urging them to belt out the letters “louder … for Peru!”) as the candidate approached the dais.

But the real standout was García. He spoke an hour and 15 minutes, with a forcefulness and charisma that I’ve rarely witnessed before (and I covered a U.S. presidential election and umpteen Senate races, so I’ve seen my share of stemwinders). Watching García pontificate on subjects ranging from to the putschist past of his opponent, Ollanta Humala, to how Peru will eventually eclipse archrival Chile brought to mind newsreel clips of the late Louisiana Gov. Huey Long. With the possible exception of Jesse Jackson, I can’t think of a U.S. politician who could give a speech for 75 minutes—only occasionally glancing at notes—and hold the rapt attention of the crowd.

Without his oratory, there’s no way García would be poised to head Peru again. Only a silver tongue could lull people into forgiving his 1985-to-1990 tenure in office, which, by any measure, was a catastrophe. What made that period particularly painful was that Peruvians had harbored high hopes for García. Ridiculously young—just 36—when he was inaugurated, García had earned a doctorate in political science and went on to publish several books. His wife cut a glamorous figure (she made an appearance on stage last night; with her platinum blond hair and oversized diamond earrings, she seemed to be channeling Eva Perón). Perhaps inevitably, they were dubbed the “Kennedys of Latin America.”

The idea of Camelot-in-Lima didn’t last long. García never managed to subdue the guerrillas, who wreaked havoc in the countryside, assassinated politicians, and attacked electric towers, regularly plunging the capital city into darkness. Early in his tenure, García unilaterally announced that he would reimburse Peru’s debt to the International Monetary Fund and international lenders only up to 10 percent of the country’s export revenue. That understandably annoyed his international creditors, and they cut off the spigot of additional funding. When the economy went into a tailspin in the late 1980s, García’s isolation from the international financial community proved disastrous: By the time he left office, the federal coffers were $900 million in the red. Cumulative inflation during the five years of García’s presidency was more than 2 million percent. There were shortages of basic provisions like rice and milk, and the ranks of the poor swelled by 5 million. In 1988—depressed and brooding—Peru’s erstwhile wunderkind tried to resign twice. Rumors of a military coup were pervasive, although the generals ultimately decided not to take up arms. U.S. and European mandarins spoke up in favor of democracy, but apparently the biggest factor dissuading the generals was the disastrous condition of the country. Who wanted to inherit that mess?

Obviously, García can’t point to his first term as a reason to return him to power. In fact, a big part of his strategy is appealing to Peruvians who are too young to remember the 1980s. A García radio ad that seems to run on the hour promises financing for young entrepreneurs and scholarships to college students. Last night, he encouraged young Peruvians to look at him as a “father figure or big brother”; he even proclaimed his affection for reggaeton. To those who remember the food shortages and terrorist bombings all too well, García swears that a second chance will not be squandered. “We are a party that has learned painfully from its mistakes,” he intoned. “I tell you I will not let you down.”

Still, García’s real ace in the hole is his opponent, Ollanta Humala. The fact that the 43-year-old former army colonel first tried to come to power through a military coup has allowed García to frame this race as a choice between “liberty versus militarism.” The slogan’s implicit argument has won over some reluctant supporters. “At least we know that with García, he’ll be in office for just five years,” reasoned Adán Lora, a fiftysomething limeño who bitterly recalls that he couldn’t get basic materials to complete construction of his apartment during the politician’s first term in office.

While Peruvians seem less than thrilled with the unexpected resurrection of García, his comeback could be a boon for President Bush. To be sure, a man who praised the virtues of price controls and happily told off the IMF might seem an unlikely ally for the current administration. But Bush and García share a common enemy: Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who has been an enthusiastic booster of Humala’s candidacy. Latin American leaders have for the most part refused to publicly rebuke Chávez, a silence that is driving the Bushies to distraction. García has demonstrated no such reticence: After Chávez labeled him a “thief” and a “demagogue,” the candidate lashed out against the Venezuelan for using his “black gold” (oil money) to foster “autocratic chavista republics” in the region. If he does make it to the presidency, U.S. policy-makers will no doubt be overjoyed if García’s grandiloquent fusillades against the Venezuelan leader continue.

Peruvians, meanwhile, seem to be hoping that a second García presidency doesn’t run the country into the ground. The choice between Humala and García is not a happy one for voters: Writer Alfredo Bryce Echenique likened it to a choice between “AIDS and terminal cancer.”

An odd moment last night seemed to acknowledge some Peruvians’ anxieties: Before launching into his speech, García bowed his head and clasped his hands in front of his chest. “Is he praying?” the reporter standing next to me asked, incredulous. Apparently he was. A second later, the presidential candidate crossed himself and then extended his arms to the audience. “Oh well,” my companion chuckled. “A lot of people are doing that these days.”