Leading Again, Peru President Still Unpopular
|President Alan García of Peru poses for a portrait in
his office at the presidential palace.
By SIMON ROMERO
PRESIDENT ALAN GARCÍA is certainly used to being unpopular.
During his first term as president about 20 years ago, when Peru was suffering from terrorist attacks by a Maoist insurgency, he was widely blamed for the hyperinflation that crippled the nation’s economy.
Now in what might be considered his comeback term, a chance to rehabilitate his place in history, the insurgency is a shadow of its former self, the economy is booming — and he is still battling low approval ratings and heated criticism from his constituents.
So perhaps it is not surprising that Mr. García has learned to respond to Bronx cheers with panache.
“We’re sort of still the kind of country that expects the son of the sun, the Inca, to do acts of magic,” he said in a interview this month. “I have tried it, but it is difficult, almost impossible.”
Few leaders in Latin America embody the rise and fall of political fortunes like Mr. García, educated in Paris at the Sorbonne, where he studied sociology, and elected president in 1985 for the first time at age 35.
Describing Mr. García in 1989, The New York Times Magazine said he was “lonely, depressed and brooding on the perfidy of a nation that once worshiped him,” rarely emerging from his ornate palace in the heart of Lima. “Twice last year, he tried to resign. Earlier this year, a military coup looked imminent. Several times he told friends that he hoped to be ousted.”
Then it got worse.
Mr. García, now 61, hobbled toward the end of his term. Officials accused him of taking kickbacks for purchases of jet fighters, among other corruption charges. Security forces raided his home. He went into exile in France and Colombia for nearly nine years, writing books with titles like “The World of Machiavelli” and “False Modernity.”
Then in 2001, things brightened up a bit for the man Peruvians called “Crazy Horse” during his first term. The Supreme Court here annulled corruption charges against him, opening the way for a return to Peru. He promptly did return, thrusting himself back into politics as a proponent of market-oriented policies, a far cry from his previous term when tried to nationalize the banking system. He ran for president in 2001 and lost.
He ran again in 2006, looking notably heavier than he was in his 30s and apologizing for the errors of his youth, and won against Ollanta Humala, a nationalist former military officer. While more than a few voters here described the choice as “Cancer versus AIDS,” they nevertheless put Mr. García back in the saddle.
Despite the mandate granted him by the electorate, and economic growth that is outstripping nearly all of Peru’s neighbors, foreign observers are still more likely to consider Mr. García a role model than Peruvians are.
Marcos Aguinis, a prominent Argentine writer, captured this sentiment in an essay in August titled “Envy of Peru.” In it, he lauded Peru’s strong economy, its irony-laced news media (which often lambastes Mr. García), and Mr. García himself for his capacity to discard archaic policies, use his exile to mature and engage in some self-criticism.
“An Argentine could not but be amazed by the absence of this in his own country,” Mr. Aguinis said.
BUT many Peruvians, tired of the stubbornly high levels of poverty and corruption that have endured throughout the boom overseen by Mr. García’s government, see things differently.
Along the roads that wind away from the coast to provinces in the highlands and the jungle, many of the wall paintings do not proclaim allegiance to Mr. García or his party, the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance. Instead, they herald insurgent candidates like Mr. Humala, the nationalist, or Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of the imprisoned former president, Alberto Fujimori.
“We need someone strong to remove the criminals who infiltrate our government, not someone like Alan who talks pretty and does little,” said Ernán Cóndor, 22, a miner in the mountains above Lima.
Mr. García, though, seems to take such comments in stride.
At the same ornate palace here that seemed more like a prison during his first term, he shrugged when asked how he dealt with his office’s burdens. “What I’d like them to think of me when I’m done,” he said, “is that he did his duty.”
Despite the knocks he has taken, Mr. García appears to have maintained his spirit. First, there is his stream-of-consciousness speaking style, laden with quotations from the French historian Fernand Braudel, the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant and the occasional recitation, in accented English, of lines from Shakespeare.
Beyond that, there is the prideful boasting about his youngest son, age 6, the product of an extramarital affair that he publicly admitted having with a woman he called a “high-quality person.” And there are the ruminations on world leaders like President Obama, whom Mr. García glowingly describes as “a diligent and studious young man.”
He said he tried to put into perspective the issues that still threatened Peru’s hard-fought stability, like the persistence of small factions of the Maoist Shining Path guerrillas that fed off Peru’s resurgent cocaine trade. He called their redoubt in the remote jungle of Vizcatán the equivalent of “Le Petit Vietnam.”
“They’re using geography as a weapon, making their absolute eradication more difficult, and the Americans have understanding of the value of this weapon, no?” he said, contending that the rebels did not number more than a few hundred in any case.
CHANGING subjects, Mr. García moved on to an issue that clearly humors him: President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, with whom he has traded barbs in the past. Peppering his comments with French, once again, he said he thought that countries in the region might do well to start ignoring Venezuela’s confrontational diplomatic style.
“When you have a neighbor who’s not good in the tête, why talk to him every day, what for?” Mr. García asked. “Proud indifference is a better choice.”
Peruvians are still not indifferent to the foibles of their own leader, but that does not seem to faze Mr. García much. He publicly addressed rumors here of marital problems in August by stating that he and his wife, Pilar Nores, have “a distant relationship at the moment.”
Indeed, while acknowledging his own shortcomings, Mr. García signaled that he might also be plotting yet another comeback, after his successor — whoever that might be — steps down in 2016. He said he disliked the idea of consecutive re-election, but explained that he thought he still had a lot to offer Peru. His supporters also point out that his approval ratings, while still low, have inched up.
“I’m an old leader,” he said, “who has governed twice in two different stages of human history, pre-globalization and post-globalization.” As for a third term, he said, “It’s possible,” and smiled.
Then he said that he considered himself a modest disciple of Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese Communist who mounted a remarkable comeback of his own after being purged as a “capitalist roader” during China’s Cultural Revolution, only to be resurrected as the patriarch of China’s economic reforms.
“Deng was a persecuted politician who said sensible things,” said Mr. García. “And who won in the end? His ideas.”
Andrea Zárate contributed reporting.