García’s the Winner, but Who’s the Big Loser?

A few days ago, a group of late-twentysomething limeños regaled me with stories about how Alan García’s first presidential term, between 1985 and 1990, had shaped their childhoods. The hyperinflation and Shining Path guerrillas touched their lives only glancingly: The inti, the unit of currency introduced in 1985 to replace the inflation-clobbered sol, became so worthless that the kids literally converted the bills into Monopoly money, shortages meant nonpowdered milk was an inconceivable luxury, and hours-long lines for food were a weekly occurrence. But sometimes their country’s crisis destroyed people close to them. One woman described how her next-door neighbor was gunned down by Shining Path guerrillas; her friend talked about an uncle who was unjustly imprisoned as a Maoist sympathizer. These young professionals were spared the most horrific experiences of the 1980s—like mass executions in the countryside or outright hunger. Still, even as 10-year-olds they knew Peru’s chief executive was grossly incompetent. And yet on Sunday each of them voted for Alan García to be returned to the presidential mansion 16 years after he left in disgrace. Compared with his opponent—former army officer Ollanta Humala, who first tried to come to power through a military coup—García was deemed el mal menor, the lesser of two evils.

The stop-Humala vote provided García with a solid 53.5 percent to 46.5 percent victory over his opponent. He did particularly well in the voter-rich city of Lima (where he bested Humala by a 2-to-1 margin), and it was at his party headquarters there that he made his first public remarks as president-elect. While García tried to strike a sober tone (declaring several times that the vote was not yet final), he was obviously elated by his “Icarus gets another shot at flying” political victory. The decade and a half after he led Peru into ruin were not kind to García: He lived in exile in France and Colombia to avoid corruption charges at home, and a 2001 presidential bid ended in defeat. García obviously sees his victory as a way to expunge the years of ignominy. “I thank God the almighty for this win,” he shouted into the microphone, raising his right hand for emphasis.

García must have been pretty lonely in his prayers, because as far as I could tell, there were few Peruvians going down on their knees to give thanks yesterday. Voting is compulsory in Peru—you have to pay the equivalent of a $40 fine if you don’t cast a ballot—and people’s moods seemed to match the fog that hung over Lima as they trooped to the polls. It wasn’t just García supporters who professed to be casting ballots against the alternative; several Humala supporters I spoke with explained that they just couldn’t fathom voting for the former president. Marino Ramos, a 52-year-old lawyer, described how much he disliked Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez (who was an active Humala supporter) and professed his support for free-market policies. Nevertheless, he had voted for Humala, who championed greater government control over the economy. “Think of it as anti-García,” Ramos said, explaining that the inflation of the 1980s had pushed him out of the middle class. “Imagine that you work very hard for years, saving up little by little. And then you lose almost everything. Yes, I did heal, but it left a scar that will never go away.”

It’s a testament to García’s gifts as a politician and orator that he was able to shift at least some—apparently most—voters’ focus from the past to the future. He frequently evoked Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva—a progressive, leftist politician who nonetheless has championed free markets—as a model for a second García administration. At his press conference, he declared that he hoped to continue Peru’s recent economic growth and simultaneously implement policies that will give succor to the half of the Peruvian population that lives in abject poverty. It’s unclear whether he’ll deliver on either promise. García has not shed his populism: He’s hinted he would revise contracts with foreign mining companies and promised goodies ranging from scholarships to cut-rate fuel without explaining how he would pay for those programs. As far as redistributing wealth goes, García’s political party could impede his ability to provide services like potable water and decent primary schools to Peru’s neediest citizens. The party’s base is in the more affluent north, while the truly impoverished reside in the south. Party bosses will no doubt demand an outsized share of government funding, which might not leave much for Peruvians who don’t feed at the patronage trough.

If García does end up neglecting the more impoverished part of the country (a time-honored tradition in these parts), it could provide an opening for Humala. While Humala squandered an early lead (he was the top vote-getter in April’s first round) just reaching the runoff was arguably an achievement for a neophyte politician best known for staging an unsuccessful coup. Humala could look to Bolivian President Evo Morales’ career as an inspiration: After the coca grower/activist lost the 2002 election, he built up his grass-roots network and scored a landslide victory last December. To be sure, a man who first attempted to seize power by force and then commenced his political career by running for his country’s top office probably isn’t predisposed to paying his dues, but if Humala starts organizing indigenous communities around issues like land rights and basic health services, he could emerge as a powerful political operator.

That could put pressure on García, because while Peru’s president-elect insisted throughout the campaign that he intends to focus all his energies on the home front, he is obviously eager to play a prominent regional role. A cherished dream seems to be besting Peru’s rival, Chile (against which it fought an extended—and bitter—war in the late 1800s); last night García promised that Peru would “overtake its neighbors” and emerge as the most important country in the southern Pacific region of Latin America.

In a shorter time frame, García has already assumed the role as Chávez’s principal antagonist in Latin America. Here he may have the stage essentially to himself. The Venezuelan president isn’t a particularly popular figure among Latin American leaders, but few have publicly opposed him, in part because his fiery anti-American oratory and oil-funded generosity have won admirers in poor communities across the continent. Politicians like Brazil’s Lula are loath to alienate those voters, who form an important part of their base. García is in a completely different position: Many Peruvians supported him at least in part because they were offended by Chávez’s interference in their election. Yesterday García went so far as to say that Chávez, rather than Humala, was the true loser. “He thought he could dominate us,” he said at his press event. “Instead, we have ensured the independence of Peru.”

While it might be a stretch to say that a man who wasn’t even on the ballot was the big loser, it is true that yesterday’s election was a setback for Chávez. He makes little secret of his hopes of extending his influence throughout the Andes, and a Humala victory would have made Peru a stalwart ally. Humala supported a regional alliance with Chávez and Morales, and many of his proposals—like rewriting the constitution—were lifted straight from Caracas. On his weekly TV show Alo Presidente, Chávez publicly prayed for a Humala triumph, and earlier he swore that Venezuela would have no relations with Peru if García—whom he labeled a “demagogue” and a “thief”—won the presidency. That aggressive strategy appears to have backfired. Chávez’s ubiquitous presence in the Peruvian election didn’t just diminish the chances of his protégé; he also aided the resurrection of a silver-tongued, ambitious politician. García is going to be in office for the next half decade, and Chávez is almost certain to win another six-year term in December. The closing weeks of this campaign could be a taste of the war of words that will be a constant of Latin American politics for a long time to come.