- The Washington Times - Monday, March 27, 2006

LIMA, Peru

A s presidential candidates go, Susana Villaran of Peru would seem to have just what it takes to join the rising tide of leftist leaders in South America. She’s a grass-roots organizer and human rights activist with experience as a former gov-ernment minister.

Yet Miss Villaran and other leftist candidates in Peru’s April 9 presidential election have barely 3 percent support among them. The leading female contender is Lourdes Flores Nano, a fiscally conservative, pro-business former congresswoman.

She is now running almost neck-and-neck with retired army Lt. Col. Ollanta Humala, whose voter appeal seems to have less to do with his ideology than his image as a tough military man who preaches a hard-fisted nationalism reminiscent of Gen. Juan Velasco’s 1968-1975 leftist military dictatorship.

While leftists across Latin America have tapped into a powerful vein of discontent with U.S.-backed free-trade and pro-business policies, Peru’s left remains in disarray, still reeling from a savage Maoist insurgency that bloodied the nation for two decades and gave “the left” a bad name.

Two political trends are battling for dominance in Latin America, analysts say: One is pragmatic, even market-friendly, including such leftists as Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Argentina’s Nestor Kirchner and Chile’s new president, Michelle Bachelet.

The other is old-style populist and anti-establishment, a role played to the hilt by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez — a former paratrooper who attempted a failed coup in 1992 before his election six years later.

Humala edges up

Miss Flores Nano, who is a single 46-year-old, falls into the first camp. Mr. Humala — who in the latest national poll surpassed Miss Flores Nano, leading her 32 percent to 28 percent — would likely fit into the second category.

Does that make the retired army officer a leftist? Yes, if his close ties to Mr. Chavez are an indicator. No, judging by how much the established leftist parties dislike him.

That’s why it’s risky to attach political labels in today’s democratic, economically vibrant Peru.

The survey by the Apoyo polling firm, taken March 15-17, gave a margin of error of 2.2 percentage points, meaning the two candidates are in a statistical tie.

Latin America’s leftward shift is a response to a growing sense that “neoliberalism” has only fed centuries-old corruption while failing on its promise to lift millions of out of poverty, according to Ken Roberts, a professor of Latin American studies at Cornell University. There is a fundamental backlash in Latin America against an economic model pushed by Washington.

That is true also in Peru, where President Alejandro Toledo, a political moderate and strong U.S. ally, has plummeted in popularity since his historic 2001 election, hurt by a public sense that ordinary Peruvians aren’t benefiting from the country’s solid economic growth.

“What is clear is that the ‘Washington consensus,’ as an ideological and programmatic consensus, has broken down. It’s gone,” Mr. Roberts said. “I think what we’re going to see is an interesting struggle within this leftist trend to define what are the alternatives.”

Shining Path killings

Peru’s left splintered after a strong showing in 1985. At the time, community organizers and union leaders were being systematically slain by Shining Path assassins to eliminate ideological competition.

Average Peruvians made little distinction between the old Cuba-influenced left and the Shining Path, which preached bloodshed to “irrigate” the revolution.

“During 15 or 16 years, the entire nation was convulsed by armed terrorist attacks, 70,000 people died, peasant women were raped and it stuck in the popular imagination that the left had something to do with it,” said Carlos Tapia, a former Marxist and a member of Peru’s Truth Commission, which determined in 2003 that the Shining Path was responsible for more than half of the deaths, but also blamed Peru’s security forces for massacres, torture and disappearances.

Mr. Humala, 43, has also had to answer for human rights violations said to have been carried out during his 1992 command of a jungle counterinsurgency base. He denies any wrongdoing and says he is the victim of a smear campaign.

Nevertheless, Mr. Humala’s support is growing. In a hypothetical two-candidate runoff, the Apoyo poll showed Mr. Humala and Miss Flores Nano tied with 50 percent of the vote — the first time a poll has indicated Miss Flores Nano would not easily beat Mr. Humala in a second round.

Ivan Torribio, 55, a farmworker during Gen. Velasco’s regime, said he remembers how the dictator overthrew a corrupt political class and imposed land reform that freed rural workers from serflike conditions on large estates. He sees Mr. Humala in much the same light.

‘Outsiders are better’

“I am going to vote for Humala,” Mr. Torribio said. “The outsiders are always better than the political class’ candidates. Here, corruption rules and Humala says, ‘We’re going to do away with that.’”

Mr. Torribio is one of many Humala supporters who say they also voted for former President Alberto Fujimori, an authoritarian free-market believer who set Peru’s standard for anti-establishment political newcomers when he was elected in 1990.

Peru’s traditional leftist movements have rebuffed Mr. Humala’s call to unite behind his candidacy.

“He has labeled himself a nationalist, but his nationalism is an anachronism, not at all modern, democratic or open to the world,” said Miss Villaran, who is one of 18 other candidates for president. “He identifies greatly with Hugo Chavez because both of them come from the barracks.”

Another candidate in next month’s election who serves as evidence of the blurring of political labels is Alan Garcia, a pugnacious center-left politician whose 1985-1990 presidency left the economy in shambles. At 56, Mr. Garcia now casts himself as an elder statesman who has outgrown leftist ideas and speaks of free markets and even trickle-down economics, while still maintaining a measure of populist rhetoric.

He narrowly lost to Mr. Toledo in the 2001 and is now running third in the polls.

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