Peru’s Election: Scapegoating Venezuela

At least as García would tell it, Humala didn’t lose on his own record, but rather on that of Chávez. It’s a tried and true strategy. García may be evil, but at least he’s Peruvian evil. Humala may have only been potentially evil, but he was the foreign, Venezuelan potential evil.

Peruvians have very little to hope for from this weekend’s election. Alan Garcia was elected over Ollanta Humala by an obscene margin—11 percentage points, with over 77 percent of the vote counted.

This is the same Alan Garcia who, as president of the country from 1985 to 1990, presided over a seven percent drop in GDP growth and consumer hyperinflation which, in 1990, reached 7,482 percent.

The same Alan Garcia who failed to bring the military and guerilla groups under control, despite implementing constant states of emergency across the country.

The same one whose presidency exacerbated the economic and social conditions that led to the election of Alberto Fujimori, who was responsible for infamous human rights violations in the country.

Peruvians seem to have no misconceptions about who they just put back into power. So strong was the disillusionment, that, even with the striking win, García was forced to defend himself as not being merely the “lesser of two evils.”

Small comfort for Peruvians who disagree. “It is sad, but what can we do?” Víctor Rondoy told the New York Times, immediately after voting for Garcia, echoing the sentiments shared by much of the country. “At least García will be more democratic.”

By what standards García is judged to be likely to be more democratic that Humala is unclear. In response to the terror attacks of the Shining Path and other insurgent groups, García, extended the state of emergency which previously existed throughout much of the country, even into its capital. Curfews were put into effect; Habeas Corpus was suspended. Scary stuff in a country where the military is suspected of all manner of human rights abuses.

Of course, the implementation of martial law in the midst of a real and vile insurgency is not necessarily undemocratic if it’s constitutionally provided for. But when the state of emergency drags on and the government has had a large hand in creating the conditions which have allowed the insurgency to take hold, whether people have lost their rights because of a leaders lack of commitment to democratic principals, or general incompetence becomes and academic question. It amounts to the same thing.

So who, exactly, is the greater evil which Peruvians were willing to bring back García in order to shun?

Ollanta Humala was likely no angel. Unconfirmed allegations that he was involved in—or at least aware of—human rights abuses when he was an intelligence officer in Madre Mía in 1992 have followed him through his campaign for presidency. He also led a short-lived unsuccessful revolt against Fujimori in 2000.

But in the months leading up to the election this shady history was overshadowed by allegations of Humala’s ties to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. A tit for tat battle between Chávez and García left many wondering if the discourse would degenerate into “yo’ mama” style insults, unsubstantiated allegations that Chávez was funding Humala dominated the news, and Chávez seemed unable to censor his pro-Humala rhetoric.

Even upon winning, García gleefully took the opportunity to attack Chávez. “Here, the only loser doesn’t have a national Peruvian identity document,” he said, referring to Chávez. “He’s the one who wanted to pull us around by the nose with is black [oil] money, who wanted to extend his domination and dictatorship, who wanted to bring to our country, and others, yesterday’s repulsive form of militarism.”

To some, it remains a mystery how anyone can seriously consider Venezuela a dictatorship. Sure, there are complaints, but these are often tinged with unwitting irony. Small groups of opposition block off major thoroughfares in Caracas with the help of the police, lamenting that they have no right to protest. The National Electoral Council bends over backwards to concede to opposition demands, and those opposed to the government still pull out of elections. Newspapers print articles about how they are being censored.

But whether or not Peruvians have bought into the notion that the current government rule in Venezuela is evil for Venezuelans, any Peruvian who believes in sovereignty would be hard pressed to argue that Peru should be governed from Caracas.

So, at least as García would tell it, Humala didn’t lose on his own record, but rather on that of Chávez. It’s a tried and true strategy. García may be evil, but at least he’s Peruvian evil. Humala may have only been potentially evil, but he was the foreign, Venezuelan potential evil. Peruvians, unsurprisingly, put their bet on the evil they knew.

But García’s strategy was hardly unique. It is a time tested way of propping up the powerful at the expense of the population.

In Venezuela, spurred on by the government’s constant anti-US government rhetoric, the pro-government march on Women’s Day went to the US embassy to protest imperialism, rather than deal with any of the copious internal issues that effect women that the government has been lackadaisical about dealing with.

And Chávez has already begun to frame the real threat in December’s presidential elections not to be Venezuelans against the administration, but rather the US empire. “The presidential elections are coming,” he said last February. “The opposition is all discombobulated, divided, diminished. But we’re not fighting against the Venezuelan opposition, but rather against the empire, its lackeys and its peons.”

Of course, Caracas has cause to worry about Washington interventions. The US is the most powerful state in the world, and initially applauded an ephemeral coup against the democratically elected government, a coup of which, documents later show, it had prior knowledge.

But even governments as powerful as that of the US regularly and shamelessly use this tactic of fear of outside forces to prop itself up. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, US citizens gave up countless civil liberties to the Patriot Act, leaving themselves at the mercy of the US government, in the hopes they’d be protected from an outside menace.

The Bush administration’s demonization of dissent by linking it to an outside threat has reached to point of absurdity. Hunger strikes—a form of protest effectively used by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and US suffragist Alice Paul—are “consistent with Al-Qaeda practice,” Navy Cmdr. Robert Durand told The Associated Press from the Guantanamo Bay base, where men held in indefinite detention were refusing food. “You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror,” US President George Bush infamously told the nations of the world in the wake of the September 11 attacks. No country, he implied, could both object to Al Qaeda and the US response to its attacks—a response which involved invading an uninvolved nation and bureaucratic delays in providing domestic first response funding.

Bush, like García, received more votes than his opponent, in part because he effectively capitalized on the foreign control issue. “I will never hand over America’s national security decisions to foreign leaders or international bodies,” said Bush criticizing Democratic Presidential contender John Kerry’s calls for increased multilateralism.

But this strategy, in Peru at least, has a limit. Peru’s most recent election comes after four years of solid economic growth, leaving Peruvians about as well off as they were 20 years ago. After years of decline through Garcia’s first term, 15 years later they may feel that they have the breathing room to reject candidates based on ties, real or imaginary, to outside countries.

But so disastrous was Garcia’s first term that it was followed by the election of Fujimori, whose campaign was based on his being from outside Peru. At the time, it was hoped that the Peruvian son of Japanese immigrants would bring Japanese efficiency and economic success to the South American country.

But after another few years of García, Peruvians may well be ready to try something else. Chávez’s inappropriate comments about who he thinks should bring the second independence to Peru may not prove so much of a liability. This time, they may be less likely to confuse a campaign based on the concepts of social inclusion with a foreign evil.