- - Wednesday, April 24, 2019


Former Peruvian President Alan Garcia’s ignominious end last week — he committed suicide just as police arrived to take him into custody for bribery charges — was a sad ending for a controversial and complicated figure in Peru’s history.

Garcia served as president of Peru twice: the first from 1985-1990, a tenure that proved to be a complete and utter disaster that nearly destroyed the country. He returned to office two decades later, winning a tight election as the flawed alternative to Ollanta Humara, a populist-socialist disciple of Hugo Chavez, thereby saving the country from a potential descent into collectivism.

I lived in Peru early in his first term, not realizing until my arrival — in those blissful pre-Internet days — that the country was dealing with two different violent insurgencies at the time. One was the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, with the other — and much larger — threat being the Sendero Luminoso (the “Shining Path”), a Maoist movement whose ruthlessness resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Peruvian citizens and a decade of terror across the country.

When I arrived, Lima had a nightly curfew with a dozen bombs detonating on an average day. People attending a movie checked under their seats to make sure there were no bombs in the theater.

Arequipa, where I lived, was safer but not perfect: I once witnessed a Sendero Luminoso bank robber get gunned down while robbing a bank, and one evening terrorists blew up the Soviet Union consulate across the street from where I happened to be dining. (It also taught me that a brush with danger greatly enlivens any date, although I never managed to exploit that again.)

Rampant terrorism wasn’t all that was wrong with Peru — its economy was cratering, poverty was endemic and it was on the cusp of a hyperinflation. In the midst of this chaos, Garcia proved to be an ineffectual leader. He blamed the banks for inflation, greedy foreign-owned multinationals for the moribund economy, and he did everything in his power to make it difficult for anyone to do business in the country.

He also lacked the fortitude to take on the insurgencies head-on, and the violence didn’t recede until his successor, Alberto Fujimori, took office, although his brutality and unabashed corruption all but erased any respect due him for that achievement.

Two observations from that epoch have stuck with me. The first came from one of my Arequipan professors, who remarked that the country should have expected just such an impetuous, failed leader when it elected a president who was just 35 years old, which he opined was too young to have absorbed political realities. It is a remark that I recall each time I must endure someone swooning over Indiana’s South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

The second came from the authors of The Economist Intelligence Unit, which was how I followed the country after I returned to the United States. In 1988, the publication concluded — with numerous caveats and throat clearing — that the only explanation for Garcia’s governance it could conceive of was that he actually wanted the country to fail, as he might see such an outcome as a possible way to regain office much later. It might be hard to top such prescience.

Garcia may have stumbled his way into saving the country from the ruins of socialism in 2006, but he did little else to repair his reputation. He did put the finishing touches on a free trade agreement with the United States, which helped to cement in a modicum of pro-market policies as well as stronger economic ties to the United States, but he left the second term almost as widely disliked as in his first term and regarded just as ineffectual and corrupt as in his first term.

That Peru managed to grow and prosper despite his ineffectual leadership says something about the strength of the country’s political system as well as the industrious, entrepreneurial spirit of its people. We can only hope its future leaders can do more to help them than did Alan Garcia.

• Ike Brannon is a senior fellow with the Jack Kemp Foundation.

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