This week, I am returning to Peru, more specifically on a retired politician who is wielding remarkable influence over that country’s presidential elections.
No, I am not talking about Alberto Fujimori, the country’s controversial former president, who from 1990 to 2000 led successful campaigns against terrorism and economic instability but whose legacy was ultimately tainted by corruption and human rights scandals. To be sure, “El Chino” remains influential. In recent polls, roughly half of Peruvians said they approved of his leadership. Without her father’s supporters, Keiko Fujimori, an incompetent Congresswoman with an unconvincing political platform, would not have made it to the second round of voting in June, when she will face off against left-leaning populist Ollanta Humala.
But by far the most influential former politician in Peru’s presidential race has been Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, who stepped down in Brazil earlier this year boasting approval ratings around eighty percent. Widely hailed as the architect of Brazil’s emergence on the world stage, Lula has been competing for regional influence with the much louder and more radical Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela. In 2006, Humala was faced with a choice that seemingly every Latin American leftist now has to make: to align himself with either Lula, a moderate pragmatist, or Chavez, a self-proclaimed socialist revolutionary.
Humala chose wrong and ended up losing the election. His proximity to Chavez – as well as his family relations with communists and indigenous ethnic nationalists – cost him the votes of mainstream Peruvians. This year, Humala was given a second chance. Despite Peru’s remarkable economic growth under current president Alan Garcia, voters are hungry for change. 77% of them want to modify the country’s the country’s’ development model, which has focused on growth and liberalization at the expense of social programs.
Faced with such an opportunity, Humala knows he cannot afford to make the same mistake again. Moreover, in the years since his failed run at the presidency, Chavez’s model has lost whatever was left of its credibility. The strongman remains firmly in power, but his mismanagement of the economy has made life in Venezuela more unbearable than ever . Crime rates have soared and supermarket shelves are often empty. In the meantime, Brazil has accomplished what many of Latin America’s booming economies dream of: inclusive growth and global political relevance.
So Humala has rebranded himself as a Lulista and distanced himself from Chavez’s confrontational rhetoric. In interviews, he points out that he hasn’t visited Venezuela in quite some time, and has instead made frequent trips to Brazil. He has also promised to keep the basic macroeconomic approach of Peru’s outgoing President, the conservative Alan Garcia.
By moderating his populist message, Humala seems to be mimicking Lula’s own political evolution. After several failed runs at the presidency, the former Sao Paulo union leader finally won in 2002 with the support of a broad political base. While in office, he refrained from altering the sound economic policies of his unpopular predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and instead focused on expanding and deepening the country’s social programs. These programs have made him the most popular politician in Brazil’s recent history, and across Latin America only Barack Obama comes close to rivaling Lula’s appeal.
It is therefore unsurprising that Humala has tried to follow in the Brazilian’s footsteps. But he has gone much farther than that. He recently hired two leaders of Lula’s 2002 campaign to join his team. Trying to counter her Humala’s strategy, Keiko Fujimori is now saying that she would run Peru as a combination of Lula and Colombia’s Uribe, who himself is fairly popular in the region. At first glance, this makes very little sense, given fundamental differences in both style and substance between Lula, a poor leftist who left school to start work in the fourth grade, and Uribe, a wealthy conservative. I suppose she simply means that she would fight terrorism and crime (as Uribe is famous for doing) and at the same time reduce poverty and inequality (as Lula has done).
Ms. Fujimori’s message may ultimately backfire, not just because it is an obvious attempt to steal Humala’s Lulista appeal. Just as more than half of Peruvians disapprove of her father’s administration, many Latin Americans are similarly waking up to the shortcomings and excesses of Uribe’s war on terrorism. Most of the recent press about the former Colombian president has been negative. He was subpoenaed in a U.S. case related to links between an American mining company and paramilitary death squads in Colombia. More recently, he has been involved in a somewhat immature and partly Twitter-based exchange of jibes with current president Juan Manuel Santos, an Uribista who has reversed course on many of his predecessor’s policies, but is just as popular.
In any case, if Humala wins, as is expected, his election will mark a turning point for politics in the region. He will be the first leader of a Latin American country to have such an explicitly Lulista political platform, except – of course – Dilma Rouseff, Lula’s successor in Brazil, and Jose Mujica, president of tiny Uruguay. This, in turn, is just one manifestation of a broader transformation in the region. As Latin America has grown richer and more self-assured, it has also started to look inward for trade opportunities, diplomatic partnerships and lessons in policymaking. Inevitably, many eyes are on Brazil, by far the region’s largest economy.
But Brazil’s political influence in Latin America has been hampered by, among other things, its geographic, economic and cultural distance from the rest of the region. The country’s major population centers are separated from Lima, Bogota and Caracas by millions of acres of sparsely populated rainforest. Both Brazil and Peru trade much more with countries like the U.S., China, and several members of the E.U. than with one another.
And many, including plenty of Brazilians, remain perplexed by the notion that the country is part of something called Latin America. Indeed, for much of its history Brazil has grown up almost entirely independently of its neighbors. While most Spanish-speaking Latin American countries became independent republics almost simultaneously in the early 19th century, Brazil was ruled by a branch of the Portuguese monarchy until 1889. Even today, wealthy Brazilians are more likely to vacation in Miami than in Buenos Aires, and know very little about more far-off places like Colombia and Ecuador.
But Brazil’s rise to regional leadership is inevitable given the size of its economy, its cultural influence, and the appeal of its development model. Indeed, Humala’s likely election may be only the first of many such victories for Lula. After all, Peruvians are not the only people in Latin America eager for inclusive growth and center-left pragmatism. Last year, a vaguely left-leaning movement promising transparent government and robust social programs came out of nowhere to pose a real challenge to Colombia’s Uribistas. Given a second or third chance, such a coalition may well take the presidency.