LIMA, Peru — Dissatisfied and dispirited, most Peruvians think that the country's recent economic boom has passed them by.
That should make Peru fertile territory for the populist message that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been attempting to spread to the downtrodden in the rest of Central and South America.
"Without a doubt, Chavez wants to gain a foothold here," said Pedro-Pablo Kuczynski, who served as Peru's prime minister in 2005-06. "He needs to expand his network. The one Indian country (in South America) where he doesn't have control is Peru."
However, Chavez has little to show for his efforts in Peru after his disciple, Ollanta Humala, nearly won an insurgent campaign for president in 2006 by appealing to the disaffected. Venezuela financed Humala's campaign with suitcases full of cash, according to Kuczynski and two former Humala confidants. A Peruvian newspaper earlier this year exposed secret payments to Humala's wife by a Venezuelan newspaper that's allied with Chavez.
About half of the 45 congressmen elected under Humala's Peruvian Nationalist Party banner in 2006 have broken ranks with him, and a majority of Peruvians now have negative images of Chavez and Humala, polls indicate.
"I believe that, yes, my closeness to Chavez hurt me" in 2006," Humala recently told a Spanish newspaper, Latino Madrid. "There were errors like him being overexposed during the campaign."
Chavez's difficulties in Peru indicate the limits to achieving his ambition of a Latin America-wide union with himself as its leader, which would fulfill the failed dream of Simon Bolivar, the Venezuelan 19th-century independence fighter who Chavez says is his guiding star.
Since Chavez ally Manuel Zelaya was ousted as the president of Honduras, Chavez's anti-U.S. alliance consists of Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador. Chavez also maintains good ties with Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. He calls it the "Bolivarian Alternative for the People of our Americas," or ALBA.
The fall of oil prices from their peak a year ago means that Chavez has less money to spend abroad, at least in the short term.
To be sure, President Alan Garcia and his ministers regularly evoke Chavez and his close ally, Bolivian President Evo Morales, as bogeymen who're whipping up street protests against the unpopular government throughout Peru.
That was on display in June after Indians blocked a highway in the Peruvian jungle town of Bagua to protest oil drilling on their ancestral lands. A police offensive to dislodge them sparked a battle that left 34 people dead, including 24 police officers.
Morales, the first self-proclaimed indigenous president in Bolivia's history, criticized the Garcia government's tactics and expressed his solidarity with the Bagua Indians.
The Garcia government didn't hesitate to respond.
"I don't have any doubt that he (Morales) was inciting this violence, definitely. I don't have the slightest doubt," Foreign Minister Jose Antonio Garcia Belaunde said.
Independent analysts say, however, that the government is trying to shift the blame to others.
"It was a movement by natives who took advantage of the government's errors," said Fernando Rospigliosi, a former minister of internal security. "There's no evidence of Venezuelan or Bolivian money in Bagua."
A special congressional investigative committee also found no clear evidence that Chavez was responsible for the creation of "friendship houses" throughout the country that expressed their admiration for the Venezuelan leader.
The committee concluded in its May report that the so-called "Casas del ALBA" served Chavez's political interests, even though it couldn't find proof that Venezuela financed them, said Congressman Walter Menchola, the committee's chairman.
He said the Casas del ALBA had mostly disbanded.
Menchola said the committee did find extensive evidence that Chavez had tried to win support in Peru by sending poor Peruvians to Venezuela for simple eye operations. The committee found that the Venezuelan government had flown 1,620 Peruvians to Venezuela for operations under the "Mision Milagro," or Miracle Mission program.
Venezuela stopped the program late in 2008 after two years rather than agree to Peru's demands that Venezuelan doctors do the operations at Peruvian hospitals. This approach would be far cheaper, Peruvian officials said.
"The goal of Chavez, Evo Morales and Humala is to undermine or topple our government," Menchola said. "They'll use all means possible to achieve their goal."
A spokeswoman at the Venezuelan Embassy in Lima, Elsa Martes, said that no one would be available to comment for this article because Chavez had withdrawn his ambassador to Peru. She said, however, that the ambassador regularly had denied that Chavez wanted to destabilize the Garcia government.
All discussion about Chavez in Peru begins and ends with Humala.
Chavez must have had high hopes when Humala surged from nowhere during the 2006 presidential election to lead the first round of voting. Like Chavez, Humala was a retired army colonel who said that he'd help the poor by having the government take over strategic private businesses. Humala also said that he'd apply Chavez's 21st-century socialism model.
Facing off against Garcia, then an unpopular former president, Humala invited two Chavez political consultants to run his advertising campaign. Venezuelans delivered suitcases full of cash on at least four occasions to finance the TV ads, Alvaro Gutierrez and Gustavo Espinoza said in interviews with McClatchy. Both were Humala confidants who were elected to Congress in 2006 as allies but soon broke with him over Chavez's influence.
In separate interviews, each man described seeing cash in suitcases destined for the Humala campaign on two separate occasions.
"It's the same thing that happened in Argentina," said Kuczynski, the former prime minister.
"Humala is Chavez's puppet in Peru," Gutierrez said. "As president, he'd follow Chavez's line."
Speaking with Latino Madrid, Humala confirmed his kinship with Chavez, noting that the Venezuelan leader blessed his candidacy with a public greeting in Caracas in 2006. However, Humala denied receiving any money from Chavez.
His wife, Nadine Heredia, also denied wrongdoing in May after the newspaper Correo leaked bank transfer records showing that The Daily Journal, an English-language newspaper in Caracas owned by a Chavez ally, had been paying her $4,000 a month. Heredia doesn't speak English.
The associations with Chavez have taken their toll on Humala's popularity.
A poll by Ipsos Apoyo in mid-July among likely 2011 presidential candidates found that Humala remains popular among poor Indians in the jungle and the Andes. Overall, however, he placed third, with 14 percent. His negative rating, above 50 percent, limits his chances of being elected president.
"Humala needs to create distance between himself and Chavez because of Chavez's unpopularity," said Giovanna Penaflor, a Lima-based pollster for Imasen.
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