Peru victory further consolidates continent’s left shift

Supporters of Ollanta Humala

By Stephen MacAvoy

The victory of Ollanta Humala in Peru’s presidential election on Sunday (5 June) marks a further consolidation of the left in South America, a defeat for the right-wing current cited as the alternative by those opposed to the continent’s leftwards shift and a further weakening of the United States’ influence in the region.

Humala’s victory follows a pattern of left victories in elections across Latin America since Hugo Chávez was elected president of Venezuela in 1998. Subsequently progressive governments have been elected and then re-elected in Brazil (2003), Argentina (2003), Ecuador (2006), Bolivia (2006), Honduras (2006, later overthrown by a military coup), Nicaragua (2007), Guatemala (2007), Paraguay (2008), Uruguay (2009) and El Salvador (2009). Victory for the left in Peru now leaves only Colombia and Chile with governments of the right in South America.

Humala won the second round election on 5 June with 51.5% of the vote, against 48.6% for Keiko Fujimori, the candidate backed by the right and daughter of the country’s former dictator. Humala had stood on a platform promising Peru’s poor, who make up over one-third of the nation despite the strong growth of recent years, a greater share of the country’s vast mineral wealth and backed a greater role for the state in the economy. In the run-up to the election he called for a tax on windfall profits, asking “Why can’t the state take a cut? It has to.”

There has been rapid economic growth in Peru of over 60% in the past decade as the price of commodities has soared, benefitting the mineral-rich nation overall, but leaving behind its poor. Humala told a victory rally that “it’s not possible to say that the country is progressing when 12 million people are living in extreme poverty,” adding “we’ve been waiting a long time for a government that really cares about the poor.” To combat this Humala has talked about introducing social programmes to “fight against poverty and inequality, improve education and health, and give more work to the youth.” Similar programmes in Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Bolivia have transformed people’s living standards.

In his victory speech on Sunday to more than 10,000 supporters in Lima, Humala told supporters, “We want economic growth with social inclusion,” and promised jobs, homes, running water and electricity to long-neglected poor areas, free child care and increases in the minimum wage, pensions and public sector pay. (See this Spanish language video for scenes of his rally.)

Reflecting the increased co-operation amongst Latin American nations as a bulwark against the region’s historical domination by the United States, Humala also told his victory rally: “We will work in foreign relations to seek to affirm that Peru is a country that seeks Latin American unity, we will seek relations based on brotherhood with each people in the region.”

In contrast to this progressive agenda, his opponent in the run-off, Keiko Fujimori, backed more free-market policies and a tough security agenda. The latter gave grave cause for concern, given her close links to many tied up with the former dictatorial regime of her father that ruled Peru from 1990-2000 and whose policies involved murder, torture, rape, the disappearance of thousands of Peruvians and the forced sterilisation of hundreds of thousands predominantly from the indigenous and rural women’s movements. Amnesty International has said of her father’s rule: “the widespread and systematic nature of human rights violations committed during the government of former head of state Alberto Fujimori in Peru constitutes crimes against humanity under international law.” In 2009, Fujimori was convicted of human rights violations and sentenced to 25 years in prison for his role in killings and kidnappings and concerns were expressed that he would have been pardoned had his daughter won.

However, this election was not just a defeat for the extreme  forces on the right but for mainstream right in Peru that has been lauded in the Western media as an alternative to the more socialist orientation of some Latin American governments, in particular Venezuela and Bolivia. Despite the economic growth of the past decade in Peru, none of the candidates of the centre right made it into the second round and the candidate of the party of current President Alan Garcia withdrew in the run-up to the first round. Garcia’s presidency had been badly damaged by the exposure of his government’s corruption in contracts with multi-nationals, with the whole cabinet being forced to resign in a 2009 scandal, and by increasing opposition from Peru’s rural and indigenous communities who make up a third of the population.

After the first-round of this year’s election, the remaining candidates were Humala and Fujimori. Many on the right threw their weight behind the latter, once again exposing a blatant lack of concern for violations of human rights, justice and democracy, despite this being the basis on which they attack the left governments in the region.

In part the failure of Alan Garcia’s party or other mainstream right wing forces to advance lies in their inability to sufficiently advance people’s living standards, especially in rural areas, from where Humala drew most of his support – reports indicate that he won over 70 percent of the vote in four poor highland states. In contrast Fujimori had a strong lead in Lima and other major cities.

Whilst 35% of Peruvians still live in poverty, there is a great discrepancy between the urban population and the country’s eight million rural inhabitants. Rural poverty remains at 60% compared with only 21% of the urban population. Moreover the UN figures show 28% of the rural population is in extreme poverty, which it defines as those families who could not meet their families nutritional needs even if they spent all of their income on food. Moreover, whilst poverty has reduced substantially as the economy has grown, this has benefitted urban areas, where poverty fell from by 37% to 21%. The rate of decline in poverty was much slower in rural areas, from 70% to only 60%. A 2010 report from the United Nations Development Program found access to water in Peru is the most unequal in the region and regarding access to electricity Peru is the third most unequal country in the region.

As the US-based Latin American commentator Mark Weisbrot has pointed out, “Peru’s growth did reduce poverty significantly”, “but the government didn’t deliver the kinds of gains that were seen in other countries in health care, education, minimum wages, public pensions, or social spending, as happened in Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, and Venezuela.”

Undoubtedly motivated by the inspiring struggles of indigenous people for justice in Bolivia and elsewhere on the continent, Peru’s rural population has engaged in widespread mobilisations against the Garcia government in recent years. As the BBC has explained: “authorities have faced opposition in rural areas to the extractive projects that local residents say will cause pollution, use up scarce water supplies and fail to lift them from poverty… Indigenous groups in the Amazon and Andean mountains… have become more assertive in demanding greater recognition and protection.”

Such struggles have especially followed measures enacted under the US-Peru Free Trade Agreement that led to an unprecedented wave of logging, oil drilling, mining and agriculture in indigenous habitats, coming to a head in 2008 when Peruvian riot police and helicopters killed dozens and left hundreds injured, detained and missing civilians following violent and racist massacres against a peaceful protest as this video  and photo report shows.

Humala’s victory should be welcomed by all who support an end to the past’s brutalities and injustices. The new focus on social inclusion in Peru is the most recent demonstration that the peoples of Latin America are increasingly asserting their right to self-determination and rejecting US domination of their region.