What’s next in Humala’s Peru?

June 9, 2011

Sarah Wolf analyzes the social crisis that led to the election of Ollanta Humala in Peru.

DESPITE BEING maligned by racist, neoliberal and elite forces in Peru and internationally, Ollanta Humala won the June 5 presidential election. He is set to govern the country until 2016, after defeating Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of ex-dictator and convicted human rights violator Alberto Fujimori, in a run-off vote.

Although the outcome was close--51-48 percent--Ollanta won over 70 percent of the vote in highland districts, where the vast majority of people are poor and where indigenous communities in many areas are battling mining companies' attempts to steal and pollute their land.

In what U.S. residents might recognize from Barack Obama's 2008 election, news of the Ollanta victory sparked celebrations across the country. The progressive newspaper La Primera hailed the result as "an historic victory" over fear, a media smear campaign and documented attempts at fraud. One supporter in the capital of Lima interviewed by La República expressed the sentiments of many in Peru:

This vote is the result of resentment...How can you talk about this being a democracy when, say, the kids of those with money go to study abroad, while our children go to schools without roofs, bathrooms, or even first aid? This is the resentment that is felt right now in the street.

Supporters celebrate the victory of Ollanta Humala in Peru's presidential election
Supporters celebrate the victory of Ollanta Humala in Peru's presidential election (Paolo Aguilar)

The Spanish daily El País summarized another key dynamic of the campaign, headlining its election-day article "Memory won out over fear." This was a reference to the sense that a Keiko victory would have brought back the corruption and repressive tactics of her father's years. Servindi, the indigenous struggle online newswire, wrote, "Today, peasants and native people celebrate. Tomorrow, we will take up new tasks and struggles."

Others were not so happy. Local election observers documented attempted fraud throughout the process, including "fujicalls" from a Mexican call center warning voters not to vote for Humala, findings of pre-marked pro-Keiko ballots and ballots in one province marked with wax so that votes would not register.

Unsurprisingly, the country's stock market fell 9 percent in the wake of the election. Meanwhile, as the Miami Herald wrote, paraphrasing a former U.S. ambassador, "Foreign investors--particularly those in the mining sector, where Humala has said he will pursue a windfall tax--want to know their money is safe, and the United States government will need reassurance that it still has a solid partner in the counter-narcotics program." As though a government daring to raise taxes not on all profits, but simply on extraordinary super-profits constituted some sort of socialist measure!

Yet even the Herald--not exactly the home of the U.S. media's best analytical minds--recognized that Ollanta is not Hugo Chávez. He isn't expected to try to nationalize anything or rewrite the constitution.

And now that he has been elected, the pro-neoliberal foreign press, from MSNBC to the Christian Science Monitor, emphasized Ollanta's status as a "Lula-like" moderate who will respect trade agreements and "financial obligations"--a reference to the former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose reign from 2003 to 2010 was a grave disappointment to those who expected him to live up to the record of his left-wing past.

In other words, those invested in "the stability of the current model" seem just as willing to give Humala a chance, as do his critics on the left.

HUMALA INHERITS a country that is extremely polarized. The vast majority of the population struggles just to survive, sometimes literally. Accoring to Peruvian sociologist Jorge Lora Cam, only 20 percent of the country's gross domestic product comes from wages, and the informal sector has mushroomed. This year, the poverty rate "went down" to 36 percent.

In Lima, over 1 million people lived without running water as of 2008. In the city of Ayacucho, 25 percent of the population faces the same lack.

The signing of bilateral free trade agreements, not only with the U.S. but also with China, has lead to increased sweatshop exploitation in the cities and to an exponential rise in multinational and foreign investment in metal and fuel mining, which in turn displaces peasant and indigenous communities and pollutes the ecosystem, whose land the government now claims the right to sell off.

Those fighting the conglomerates have been at the forefront of struggle in recent years. As the elections took place, the border between Peru and Bolivia was being blocked by indigenous people taking on mining companies. In Cocachacra, Arequipa and the area around these two southern towns, protesters against the Tía María mining project have been shot and killed, but have refused to accept a truce until after the elections take place.

In June 2009, the killing of 100 or more in the Amazonian city of Bagua became a focal point for resistance. A cross-border indigenous land rights movement, represented by AIDESEP, led by Alberto Pizango, came together, and an anti-neoliberal opposition coalesced throughout the country, with thousands of people marching in solidarity in Lima and elsewhere.

On the other hand, tens of thousands of workers in the cities participated in a strike movement in 2008, focused particularly around opposition to free trade agreements. Movements by other sectors demanding their rights, such as gays, lesbians and transpeople and women protesting the criminalization of abortion), have also grown in recent years.

Adding to popular frustration was the outgoing President Alan García's dismissive and openly racist responses to the current situation. García, whose motto is "El Peru Avanza" (Peru is progressing), routinely discussed the economy in purely positive terms, hailing growth and increased investment as though those not profiting from the neoliberal, credit-fueled boom simply did not exist.

In 2010, García infuriated city- and country-dwellers alike--and ignited massive protests in the Cuzco region--by allowing new mining of gas at the central Peruvian Camisea project, displacing a number of people, as well as setting up plans for the gas to be sold to Brazil and other countries for less than it will be sold for on the internal market.

Plus, García will forever be remembered for his defense of Peruvian soldiers' actions in Bagua on the basis that those living in the jungle don't deserve land because they aren't willing to exploit it for profit, and that indigenous people in general "are not first-class citizens," as he put it to European reporters.

García is leaving office with a George Bush-level approval rating of 26 percent, and a corresponding 74 percent of people tell pollsters that they want to see significant change in society. Moreover, in a country where 72.3 percent of the population is urban and 52 percent is coastal (as opposed to living in the highlands or jungle), it can't be said that this polarization is simply a result of a split between "Lima" or "the coast" and "the rest of the country."

THE YEARS of growing resistance and discontent with García were reflected in the election, including the case made by some in the establishment that Humala's was preferable to Keiko's because another Fujimori government would spark even greater protest.

For example, columnist César Hildebrandt warned that electing a neoliberal candidate would incite "not one but many Baguas...a level of discontent that radicalizes the protests and leaves the country ungovernable." Writing for the progressive La Primera, César Lévano wrote, "Humala is not bringing a social revolution. For that very reason, it would be disastrous for the far-right opposition to attack his moderate reform progam. To do so would push the majority towards more radical positions."

Indeed, Humala is no socialist--he is not even an especially left-wing nationalist. He has repeatedly stated that he will "not change the economic structure of Peru" and has the support of well-known elite figures such as writer and politician Mario Vargas Llosa and the former President Alejandro Toledo. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appears to support him as well.

Humala's most "radical" concrete promises have been to increase taxes on, but not nationalize, gas companies, spend more money on education and reinforce regional agreements and trade blocs. He has promised to implement "consultation laws" that allow indigenous communities to vote on mining contracts, but such laws would likely have little serious effect as long as the free trade agreements remain in effect. As AmericaEconomica.com points out, "It is possible that the U.S. has seen in Humala a candidate who will represent its economic interests" in Peru.

In fact, because of the neoliberal policies of the past, Peru is more beholden to the interests of economically dominant countries than ever. In 2010, $10 billion more left the country as profits from foreign investment than returned to it from abroad, according to the journalist Hildebrandt.

That Peru's economic advance has been built on a return to the crudest forms of external dependence should be clear to any but the most ostrich-like elites. But Humala's solution to this problem is itself reminiscent of 1960s national development fantasies in Peru. Humala's economic adviser Félix Jiménez laid out his program:

Ollanta's policies will lead us from growth based on the high prices of raw materials and subject exclusively to the ups and downs of the international market to a different sort of growth based on the creation and expansion of internal markets and in productivity, which in turn will generate competitiveness both within the country and on the international market.

The wealth generated by this sort of economy would benefit everyone and would truly (unite Peru as) one integrated political and social community. The three axes around which this economy would be developed are infrastructure, competitive financing, and a revolution in education and the investment in science and technology.

The problem, as critics pointed out decades ago, is that such a vision imagines an alternate scenario--but without a way to get there. Now that Humala has won, there is no reason for the left to lose any time in pointing out that under capitalism, "education" will always mean that some study at foreign private schools and others in schools without roofs and bathrooms. By the same token, "development" will necessarily be distributed unequally within and between countries.

Specifically, the current "national" business elite has no interest in "national" development--unsurprisingly, since many of them live in Miami. The business elite within Peru is far more invested in the short-term profits rendered by foreign exchange and investment than in expanding the internal market through income redistribution.

IN ORDER to fulfill the agenda outlined by Jiménez, Humala would come into conflict with international capital--U.S., Canadian, Chinese, Mexican, and even Brazilian and Chilean--and its local investment partners.

The most effective way to carry out such a program would be to nationalize the mining sector. In order to accomplish this, Humala would have to draw on a popular base of support that, in the highlands, has already been training itself in independent struggle. The highland people expect far more radical change than anything Humala promised or wishes to deliver. And to make matters more complicated for Humala, those people are opposed to further mining projects--a contradiction that is in fact currently playing itself out in Ecuador and Bolivia.

So there simply is no such thing as a rational, harmonious path to a "national market economy" in which a benevolent state regulates the private sector in favor of national industry and a more equitable distribution of wealth.

Humula, for his part, seems likely to avoid even the most minor conflict with international capital than to decide to face it on head-on. His rhetoric suggests that his plan is simply to convince the world's ruling classes of the wisdom of his plan.

Popular expectations on the ground are high for Humala, if only in comparison to what came before and what threatened to come in his stead, via Keiko.

But will Ollanta's trajectory follow that of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela? Chávez was elected as a moderate, and was radicalized by movements from below and the need to rely on a popular base. But the possibility of Ollanta following this dynamic is low, if only because Chávez's "Bolivarian" project is itself facing a moment of crisis--in part around the issue of resources extraction.

In Peru, protesters around Puno, Cocachacra and elsewhere will surely be pressured by more moderate figures to give the new president a "chance." However, if the indigenous movements like AIDESEP do not succumb to such pressure, will Humala really refuse to send in troops to maintain business as usual? Will he provide support for land rights movements and prevent repression, or will he simply turn a blind eye to the army and do a better job of apologizing after protesters are shot?

The burning question is: How will both Ollanta and the most effected groups--organized labor, students, the marginalized informal sector, indigenous communities--react to a deepening of the economic crisis? This will depend on the movements' willingness to organize action independently and critically of the "nationalist" government in the years to come.

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