With ‘Chavez factor’ in play, Peru’s vote likely to have impact on South America politics

n With ‘Chavez factor’ in play, Peru’s vote likely to have impact on South America politics

By MONTE HAYES

The Associated Press

LIMA, Peru – When Peruvians elect a new president Sunday, they won’t just be deciding their own fate for the next five years. Their choice could have far-reaching consequences for Latin America and its leftward surge of recent years.

It will also test the prestige of a highly visible noncandidate – Hugo Chavez.

The Venezuelan president’s intervention has been a highlight of the race between former President Alan Garcia, a center-leftist who favors free markets, and Ollanta Humala, an antiestablishment nationalist tapping into discontent among the poor. Garcia’s lead over Chavez-backed Humala, while shrinking in some polls, remains strong.

The runoff vote in South America’s third largest country comes amid a contest for ideological pre-eminence on the continent – between moderate-left, market-friendly governments such as those in Brazil and Chile, and anti-American, populist ones with authoritarian tendencies such as Venezuela’s and Bolivia’s.

The leftist trend largely grew out of disenchantment with the capitalist “neoliberal” doctrine that failed to reduce poverty in the region, but lately it has shown signs of slowing. Colombia’s re-election a week ago of Alvaro Uribe was a big win for conservatism, while Mexico’s leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, formerly the favorite in next month’s presidential vote, is now running neck-and-neck with a conservative.

Humala opposes U.S.-backed eradication of coca leaf, the raw material for Peru’s thriving cocaine industry. Garcia supports eliminating the crop. Humala is against establishing a U.S.-Peruvian free trade deal, and has pledged to increase taxes on foreign mining companies and spend the money on the poor. Garcia supports the trade pact and, although critical of the Iraq war, says Peru needs good relations with Washington.

“In my memory, this is the Peruvian election that has the most importance internationally,” said Diego Garcia Sayan, a former foreign minister of Peru and a sitting magistrate on the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Humala has pledged heavy state intervention in Peru’s free-market economy, which has averaged 5.5 percent annual growth in the past four years but is viewed by most Peruvians as benefiting only the rich.

Garcia, whose disastrous 1985-90 administration left Peru in economic ruin, paints himself as a reformed leftist. Now 57, he says he has learned from his mistakes and has become pro-business.

Humala, 43, a retired army lieutenant colonel, aligned himself for a time with Chavez, but it clearly backfired. Chavez thrust himself into the race by vociferously endorsing Humala and trading insults with Garcia, calling him “a thief for real, a demagogue, a liar.”

Finally Humala sought to distance himself by endorsing his spokesman’s judgment that Chavez “can go to hell.” But by then Garcia had adroitly turned the race into a referendum on the Chavez factor, depicting Humala as an aspiring authoritarian who would fall into lockstep with the Venezuelan’s populist economics and Cuba-friendly anti-Americanism.

“The choice is between Hugo Chavez and Peru,” Garcia said last week.

In the first round of voting April 9, Garcia made the runoff by a paper-thin margin. But since he began labeling Humala a Chavez pawn, he has held a lead of at least 10 percentage points in most surveys.

“Peruvians are disgusted that a foreign president is intervening so shamelessly in Peru’s internal affairs,” said Fernando Rospigliosi, a former interior minister.

At a rally last week, Humala tried to blame the whole affair on Garcia, accusing him of provoking Chavez and serving as an American puppet.

“They need a servile president who can be the roadblock against Latin America’s projects of integration,” he said, to thunderous applause from tens of thousands of supporters in a Lima shantytown.

Experts on Latin America say Peru’s election is key to Chavez’s goal of spreading his influence in South America with oil money and populism. He already has become a mentor and financial benefactor to Evo Morales, the Indian leader elected president of Peru’s neighbor, Bolivia, in December.

“Certainly an Humala victory would reinforce this dynamic of relationships between Venezuela, Bolivia and, then, Peru, and also reinforce a deep wave of antipathy toward the neoliberal economic model,” said David Scott Palmer, a Boston University professor of Latin American studies and an authority on Peruvian politics.

Peruvian political analyst Gustavo Gorriti sees Garcia – eloquent, charismatic and strong-willed – as the leader most likely to resist Chavez and inspire other Latin American politicians to do likewise.

“He is the only one in the Andean area who could confront Chavez effectively and successfully,” he said Gustavo Gorriti. “His victory would have a very favorable repercussion on the political balance in South America.”

Analysts agree that nightmarish memories of Garcia’s first administration, with its raging inflation, political violence and long lines for food, will give many Peruvians pause before voting for him.

“A lot of people are going to hold their noses and vote for Garcia, or not vote at all,” Palmer said.

Humala has spooked middle-class Peruvians with his attacks on the established parties as corrupt and unresponsive to the needs of the poor, and his vow to write a new constitution stripping them of power.

Garcia has tapped into those fears, saying his role models are socialist presidents such as Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Chile’s Michelle Bachelet who “guarantee democracy, respect for institutions and tolerance.”