Commentary: Peru's poor presidential options

It’s hard to tell which of the presidential candidates running in Peru’s runoff elections Sunday — right-of-center Keiko Fujimori and left-of-center Ollanta Humana — would be worse for their country’s democratic institutions. Both have strong authoritarian backgrounds.

Fujimori is the daughter of former President Alberto Fujimori, who during his term staged a self-coup to close down Congress in 1992, and would have stayed in power forever if it weren’t for regional sanctions to restore democracy. He is now in jail, serving a 25-year sentence on charges of human rights violations and corruption.

Fujimori says that children should not be blamed for the sins of their parents, and that she was a teenager in 1992. But the fact is that a few years later she replaced her mother as Peru’s first lady, and that she has recently claimed that Fujimori’s government was “the best in Peru’s history.”

Humala, a former army officer, was involved in two military coup attempts, and ran for president in 2006 as a Venezuela-backed leftist revolutionary. His father Isaac Humala is a former communist leader and founder of the Etnocacerist Movement, which advocates an Indian race-based regime for Peru, and his brother Antauro is in jail for the 2005 coup attempt against a democratically elected government.

Humala now denies that he participated in these coup attempts, and says that he is no longer a follower of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. But the fact is that Humala was widely quoted as enthusiastically supporting the coup attempts, and that his party’s campaign platform, until a few months ago, advocated Venezuelan-styled constitutional changes that could allow indefinite re-elections.

So who would be the lesser evil?

Alvaro Vargas Llosa, the writer and Independent Institute fellow — who like his father, Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa, is supporting Humala — told me that Humala would not be a Chávez pawn if elected.

“There isn’t the most remote possibility that Humala would remain in power one minute longer than his five-year term,” Alvaro Vargas Llosa told me. “All of that changed in 2007, when he broke with Chávez and got closer to (Brazil’s ex presiden Luiz Inácio) Lula da Silva.”

How can you be so sure? I asked Vargas Llosa. He cited the fact that Humala would have a small minority in Congress, that there is a wide pro-democracy and pro-free-market consensus in Peruvian society after two decades of steady economic growth, and that Peru’s business establishment and most of the media are opposing him.

“In Venezuela’s case, there weren’t any counterweights to Chávez,” Vargas Llosa said. “If Humala decided to turn against the establishment, he wouldn’t last five minutes.”

Hernando de Soto, a world-known economist who is mentioned as Fujimori’s likely choice for prime minister if she is elected, told me in a separate interview that Fujimori’s democratic credentials are far superior toHumala’s.

“Unlike her contender, she has never done a coup attempt,” De Soto said. “On the contrary, she fought for democracy on two occasions when she was first lady. The first time, to get rid of (former intelligence chief) Vladimiro Montesinos when he was dominating her father’s government, and secondly, she was one of the leaders against her father being re-elected for the third time.”

How can you be so sure that her government won’t be run by her father? I asked. “Because she has clearly stated that she wants to clear her name of any previous wrongdoings by her father,” De Soto said.

My opinion: I know I’m going to disappoint many of you by saying this, but I’m skeptical about both candidates’ claims that they will respect Peru’s democratic institutions. I feel like Fernando de Szyslo, Peru’s best-known living artist and one of Mario Vargas Llosa’s best friends, who said in an interview with the daily El Comercio: “I’m sorry, but I can’t vote for any of them.”

I guess that many Peruvians feel the same way, and will vote exclusively on pocketbook issues. The poorest of the poor will vote for Humala, and the emerging middle classes for Fujimori.

On Sunday, we will find out whether, after two decades of growth in which poverty rates dropped from 54 percent to 31 percent of the population, Peru has already become a middle-class country, or whether a majority of Peruvians feel they have been bypassed by their country’s prosperity.


Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com. Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.