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The Latin American Revolution (Part 10): Peruvian Election Win Latest Triumph for Left-Wing Reformers

By Asad Ismi

Ollanta Humala’s victory in the Peruvian election held on June 5 is the latest triumph for the Latin American Revolution. Humala, a progressive ex-army officer, was elected President as leader of the Nationalist Party. This brings to eleven the number of left-wing governments now ruling in Latin America.

The President-elect is a former protégé of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela (a main leader of the Latin American Revolution) and, like him, is part indigenous and from the army. Like Chavez, Humala also led an unsuccessful military coup — in his case, in 2000.

“You cannot speak of Peru advancing,” Humala declared in his victory speech, “when so many Peruvians live in poverty… It’s not possible to say that the country is progressing when 12 million people [out of a population of 29 million] are living in extreme poverty, without electricity or running water.” Humala pledged his government’s efforts “above all for the poorest people in the country,” and promised a “great transformation” that would redistribute Peru’s wealth more equitably.

Thirty-five percent of Peruvians are poor, and in rural areas two-thirds of the people live under the poverty line. It was the poor rural areas that predominantly voted for Humala over his rival, Kieko Fujimori, ensuring him a narrow victory over her. Sixty-two percent of Peruvians live on less than $3 a day. Peru’s economy has grown at an average annual rate of 5.7% since 2000, the highest in the region, and is expected to grow by 7% this year, one of the highest growth rates in the world. Mining provides 65% of the country’s export revenue. Peru is the world’s leading silver producer, the second largest zinc and copper producer, and the fifth largest producer of gold.

Many Peruvians, however, have been excluded from this wealth due to the refusal of previous right-wing, neoliberal governments to redistribute income. Humala won on the promise to do precisely that — by increasing taxes on mining companies, expanding access to health care and pensions for the poor, as well as by increasing public access to water, electricity, and homes, and providing free school lunches and pre-school care.

The other 10 left-wing governments in Latin America have carried out these widely beneficial policies, and more far-reaching ones, creating a climate in which people expect political parties to redistribute income and implement additional progressive changes if they wish to be elected. Latin American parties now have to deliver significant economic and social advancement of this kind — a political situation not prevalent in Canada and the United States.

The other contrast with North America revealed by the Peruvian election (and which has become a feature of the Latin American Revolution as a whole) is “that those who control most of the income, resources, and means of communication in a country can be defeated in an election.” U.S. economic analyst Mark Weisbrot has called this “one of the great and almost unprecedented features of democracy in South America, which has recurred repeatedly in recent years.”

Peruvian big business and the country’s mainstream media backed Humala’s rival, Keiko Fujimori, in the election despite the fact that her father, former president Alberto Fujimori, has been jailed for 25 years for crimes against humanity (including death squad massacres) and corruption during his 1990-2000 tenure. In the campaign, Keiko repeatedly called her father “one of the best presidents that Peru ever had,” insisted that he was innocent, wanted him released from prison, and surrounded herself with his advisors. In fact, it was revealed that her father himself was advising Keiko from his jail cell.

As a result of the business élite’s support for Keiko Fujimori, the Peruvian stock exchange fell by 12% upon Humala’s victory, causing temporary suspension of trading and concerns about capital leaving Peru. Investors were afraid that Humala might adopt President Chavez’s radical economic policies. In order to attract centrist votes, Humala actually moved away from identifying with Chavez during the election and towards the social democratic position of Lula da Silva, former President of Brazil. Big business, however, was obviously not convinced. RBC Capital Markets explained: “We believe there is still a significant amount of uncertainty regarding who is the ‘real’ Humala.”

Alberto Fujimori’s crimes were committed during his prosecution of a war against the Shining Path, a Maoist insurgent group. Seventy thousand people were killed during this “dirty war,” most of them by state security forces. Though defeated at the time, the Shining Path is now once more active in Peru. In 2009, Peru’s Supreme Court convicted Fujimori of several crimes, including his formation of a death squad that massacred 25 people, among them an eight-year old boy.

Fujimori’s administration was so violent and corrupt that his own wife accused him of having her tortured. Susana Higuchi, Alberto’s former wife and Keiko’s mother, shows scars on her neck that she says are due to torture by Alberto’s intelligence agents after she accused him “of tolerating corruption in his midst.” A former Peruvian intelligence agent has corroborated Higuchi’s claims. The female agent said she saw Higuchi in 1995, “naked and cowering in an army intelligence cell.”

In 2002, a Peruvian Congressional inquiry — the Townsend Commission — found Fujimori and his intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, to be involved in “electoral fraud, illicit bank accounts, corrupt arms purchasing and trafficking, bribery of government officials, congressmen and journalists, narcotics trafficking, and money laundering.”

Under Fujimori, the Peruvian army was heavily involved in drug trafficking. General Manuel Ortiz Lucero, the operations chief of the army’s anti-drug team, was revealed to be a narco-trafficker by the diary of a drug cartel leader who was captured in February 1995. In November 1995, Brigadier-Generals David Jaime Sobrevilla and Carlos Perez Silva and nine other officers were arrested on corruption and drug trafficking charges. The military received payments from drug traffickers and blocked drug enforcement efforts.

Behind Fujimori’s extreme repression and corruption was the United States, which trained, armed, and financed Peru’s armed forces and, through the World Bank (which it dominates), imposed a draconian structural adjustment program (SAP) on the country. The SAP destroyed Peru’s largely agricultural economy and opened the country to massive pillage by foreign multinational mining companies. This had the triple negative effect of concentrating wealth, consigning most Peruvians to poverty, and increasing corruption in the country.

The SAP imposed on Peru by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (also U.S.-dominated) pushed four million people into extreme poverty, almost halved real wages, and reduced those with “adequate employment” to 15% of the workforce. Consequently, there was a forced migration of impoverished peasants and urban unemployed into coca-growing as an alternative to starvation. In 1991, in exchange for $100 million from the United States, Peru put in place an IMF “structural adjustment” clause opening its markets to U.S. corn. As a result, by 1995, corn cultivation had fallen ten-fold and coca production had grown by 50%.

Under these conditions, corruption flourished; indeed, almost an entire economy was criminalized. Increased coca production led to more cocaine trafficking, which led to deepening official corruption in Peru as the amount of money in the hands of drug lords proliferated. Drug corruption thus ensnared an increasing number of top military officers, as well as Montesinos and Fujimori himself.

Alberto Fujimori’s and the U.S.’s extreme measures extended even to a form of eugenics expressed in the forced sterilization of 300,000 women during 1996-98. All the women were destitute. The sterilizations were part of the World Bank-IMF structural adjustment program and have been termed “the darkest side of neoliberalism.” No official has been prosecuted for the sterilizations, and only one family has been compensated. Keiko Fujimori’s defence of her father’s forced sterilizations during her campaign was undoubtedly one of the main factors that contributed to her losing the election.

The first two governments that followed Fujimori’s were also neoliberal and similarly marked by repression and corruption, if to a lesser degree. The administrations of Alejandro Toledo (a former World Bank economist, 2001-2006) and Alan Garcia (2006-2011) accelerated the corporate ransacking of Peru by multinational mining companies, including several from Canada. This in turn has galvanized social movements opposed to the environmental devastation caused by these companies, as well as the damage they do to Peruvian communities.

In April 2011 alone, more than 230 strikes, protests, and road blockades occurred, mostly in poor areas in Peru’s countryside, stemming from social and environmental troubles. This Peruvian movement against corporate domination will only be encouraged by Humala’s election.

Canada and Peru have signed a free trade agreement, and Canadian investment in the extractive sector in Peru is worth $1.7 billion. The Vancouver-based Canadian Bear Creek Mining Corporation is developing the Santa Ana silver mine in Puno province in southern Peru, near the Bolivian border. Seventeen thousand protesters opposed to the mine, most of them native Aymara, blocked the Perú-Bolivia border at Desaguadero in mid-May and occupied the small town of Puno. All border activity was stopped. This has been called “one of the strongest protests against mining in Latin America during recent times.”

The protests continue as of this writing, and the Aymara have also taken control of highways in the area of the mine to oppose Bear Creek’s plans. The protesters want all mining halted because they believe that it will lead to the contamination of land and water, especially Lake Titicaca, South America’s largest lake.

“We are not afraid of the armed forces; we have come to defend our land and rivers, even with our lives,” Hermes Cauma, a protest leader, told the media. Paolo Castro, a local farmer and protester, said that she was upset because “the president has sold off our territory without consulting us.” Alejandro Tucuuhami, another farmer, said, “We know that in European countries, for example, mining contaminates a lot, so that’s why they want to send the mining companies to underdeveloped countries.”

With Humala’s victory, the United States has lost another major client state in Latin America, and with it almost all its influence on the continent. The right-wing government in Chile is the only one closer to Washington than to the 11 left-wing Latin American states. Even the right-wing Colombian regime appears to have become more partial to these 11 states than to the U.S. As Mark Weisbrot points out, “This means that regional political and economic integration will proceed more smoothly,” thus marginalizing the U.S. even more.

Heads of state from the entire hemisphere were scheduled to meet in Caracas, Venezuela, on July 5 to create the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), a regional organization that will include all countries in the hemisphere except the United States and Canada. CELAC is aimed at replacing the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States. Humala emphasizes his commitment to regional integration, saying, “We look to the Argentinean government and to the governments of Chávez (Venezuela), Evo Morales (Bolivia), and Tabaré Vázquez (Uruguay). “These are the progressive forces that are building a huge Latin American family. We want to belong to this family.”


Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, July-August 2011

Asad Ismi is the CCPA Monitor’s international affairs correspondent. He is author of the radio documentary The Latin American Revolution which has been aired on 40 radio stations in the U.S., Canada and Europe, reaching about 33 million people. The documentary can be heard on this website under the category “audio”. He is also author of the anthology with the same title which can be ordered from the CCPA. This article is the tenth in a series on the Latin American Revolution.