Peruvian President Alan García repeatedly tells the nation that he is grateful for being given a second chance to redeem his soiled name, which grievously suffered during his first term in office. When García first became president in 1985, he entered the political scene as a charismatic and attractive figure which gained him the nickname, “Peru’s JFK.” His height and ebullience projected him as a leader that many expected to brilliantly succeed. However, glamour and image were not enough, as García discovered in his first term in office. To the contrary, he soon was facing a slew of economic problems related to hyperinflation and a collapse in Peru’s relationship with international lending agencies, in addition to having to cope with continuing outbreaks of guerrilla violence. To his good fortune and some political skullduggery, García is back with a second chance as being the country’s president, albeit 16 years later. In order to reestablish himself as a credible politician, and not just as a manipulative demagogue, he must prove that beneath the automatic charm and considerable wit, exists a capacity for sound judgment for all of Peru’s political seasons as well as an ability to resist his yen for opportunism and an inclination to sell out his country to achieve his personal political and economic goals.
Some Things Are Better Left In The Past
García first served as president from 1985-1990. During that period, Peru faced an astronomical inflation rate of over 7500 percent and a spurt in poverty statistics resulting from price increases and huge jobless rates, which skewered his reputation. Additionally, widespread violence initiated by the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) guerrillas and a sister group, Movimiento Revoluncionario Tupac Amaru unhinged any hopes of peace in the nation. Amid the upheaval, García faced accusations of corruption, as well as the sanctioning of a paramilitary group known as Rodrigo Franco Command, which purportedly carried out a number of political murders. These charges had a profound impact on García’s reputation and two years after his first term expired, he fled his homeland in shame and to avoid possible persecution, taking with him his image as the Sir Galahad who would rescue Peru.
García’s Political Resurgence
When García left office in 1990, his successor, Alberto Fujimori, vowed to fix Peru’s many problems. In some ways, Fujimori was actually able to do so by improving the economy which had all but unraveled under García and to a significant extent, diminish the tempo of guerrilla violence. Yet throughout his entire time in office, he remained a controversial figure and was condemned by many for his increasingly authoritarian style.
In the controversial 2000 race, Fujimori eked out a narrow victory in an indisputably fraudulent election and prepared to serve his third term in office. His plan, however, was disrupted when a spate of scandals began to surface including human rights derelictions, bribery, blackmail and extortion. Fujimori then fled the country for his ancestral Japan (and now is currently in Chile), whereby a new election was to be held in 2001 for the Peruvian presidency. García, who now no longer feared prosecution for his own corruption charges, saw Fujimori’s exit from the presidency as a window of opportunity for his return.
No opportunity was missed for García to apologize for his past errors and excesses, amid his claims that he now had the necessary experience to succeed. His claims helped him gain 47 percent of the vote against Alejandro Toledo (a rags to riches candidate) from the Peru Posíble party—the eventual victor. His strong second place finish was a testament that García’s political career had been revived.
If At First You Don’t Succeed…Try Again In 16 Years
In 2006, García once again ran for president and won—reclaiming the position he held 16 years before. However, many viewed both candidates with dismay and stated that the winner of the 2006 race would be the “lesser of the two evils.”
A big reason for García’s success was the public’s wavering feeling about his populist opponent, Ollanta Humala, an unorthodox candidate. Additionally, García played the dirty card of repeatedly insinuating that Humala’s ties with Hugo Chávez were far more intimate than in fact was the case, which may have cost Humala the election. The strategy effectively provided García with the approval of Peruvian businessmen who encouraged foreign investment and distrusted García somewhat less than they did Ollanta.
On July 28, 2006, García again took office as the nation’s president receiving roughly 53 percent of the vote and a chance at redemption.
The Coca Dilemma
Now in office, García has diplomatically tried to strengthen Peru’s relationship with the U.S. to assure passage of a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) as a signature of Lima’s goodwill towards Washington in its standoff with Hugo Chávez. García has gone as far as pushing for the eradication of coca, a key component for making cocaine, in an effort to appease America’s interests.
Many have scoffed at Washington’s anti-drug crusade and have sought an end to eradication of the coca leaf, cultivated since the time of the Incas. This opposition is mainly attributed to the many jobs linked to its farming. In fact, Peru is one of the three biggest coca leaf cultivators in the world. Additionally, coca has historic ties to Peruvian culture and is used in many peoples’ diets, particularly in tea. When one takes these facts into account, it becomes clear that banishing coca would be as impractical as the U.S.-implemented 18th Amendment which prohibited alcohol. Nevertheless, the prospect for Lima to have a strong relationship with Washington depends heavily on García’s coca-elimination campaign. The U.S. is staunchly bolstering his uphill struggle because it hopes to reduce the exportation of cocaine into America.
An attempt to force the total elimination of coca growth in one gesture would likely trigger a military-style offensive by the drug cartels, as well as widespread unrest on the part of small-scale farmers. According to LatinNews, “the president of the radical Central Nacional Agropecuaria Cocalera del Perú (Cenacop), Eduardo Ticerán Salazar, called a 72-hour strike in early May to demand that all eradication of coca stop.” Ticerán has gone as far as promoting the message “coca or death.” Additionally, the potential for the Shining Path to revive its operations and collaborate with the drug cartel remains another viable threat.
García’s Foreign Policy
García has been a very proactive factor regarding his foreign policy, particularly in pushing for a FTA with the U.S.—an action which may further harm the brittle relationship he has with Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. A trade deal is anticipated to be achieved by this August which is sooner than that of any other Andean country. García’s aggressive pro-free trade stance with the U.S. could dampen its relations with such left-leaning administrations as those of Ecuador and Bolivia, in addition to Venezuela.
García’s vigorous foreign policy has both external and internal components and has led him on a campaign to improve Peru’s relationship with Brazil and Chile, as well as with Bolivia. He has signed a dozen agreements with Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva geared towards better-serving Brazil’s energy goals and Peru’s economy. Another venturesome initiative was undertaken with Chilean president Michelle Bachelet. The two met in an effort to relieve ongoing tensions dating back to the War of the Pacific, more than a century ago, as well as entering into an economic agreement. Nevertheless, Lima resents the fact that Chile has not been more forthcoming regarding a dispute over the maritime border between the two countries. García has expressed his hope of settling the quarrel by taking it before the International Court, a move which Chile would consider an unfriendly act. Signs for a bilateral solution between Chile and Peru seem unlikely, especially if the Santiago court decides to extradite Fujimori to Peru—something García fears may further undermine his declining popularity. Currently, there is much speculation about Fujimori’s fate, whether he will be extradited to Peru or return to Japan to run for its senate.
In addition, on June 7, members of García’s cabinet recommended Peru’s withdrawal from the Andean Community (CAN), a South American trade bloc. Advocates of the recommendation claim that CAN has not been particularly beneficial to the nation, although Peru has been a member since its 1969 inception.
Undoubtedly, García has made considerable efforts to focus on foreign policy at the price of the country’s domestic economy. When he assumed the Peruvian presidency in 2006 he had a 63 percent approval rating. This popularity has skidded, with it now at 42 percent. The decline in approval is partly attributed to recent protests by coca farmers, the revival of Sendero violence, the lingering problems with the country’s poor educational system, and the mass protests of many miners.
Approximately 40,000 workers from the mining union, FNTMMSP, have gone on strike because of many work-related grievances. These have come to include the lack of benefits offered to many employees such as social security coverage, low wages, and the lack of other common employee perks that affect “80% of Peru’s 100,000 miners,” according to LatinNews. The problem must be addressed cautiously and with sound judgment, especially considering that Peru’s gold, zinc, and copper exports rank among the top five fields in the world. To Lima’s fortune, growth in the mineral market reached over 150 percent in 2006 and an additional 50 percent this year, which has helped public investment increase considerably.
García inherited the problem of Peru’s weak infrastructure and has faced with scanty results the challenge of confronting problems related to the inadequacy of healthcare, clean water, education, and housing. He has promised to address such pressing social conditions by undertaking a wave of improvements to Peru’s infrastructure. According to the Economist, “More than a thousand projects, worth a total of $475m, have been approved by the finance ministry in Lima.” García eventually plans to designate approximately one billion dollars of public funds towards education, improving roads, and other infrastructural initiatives. His major challenge, however, will be to fashion sustainable solutions while remaining fiscally responsible and making judicious investments.
Peru’s campaign to improve the enfeebled condition of its education system has taken a different route from that of García’s predecessors. Although Fujimori increased the number of schools and Toledo raised the salaries for teachers, profound problems with the system remain. The main reason is quite simple—the quality of the education the students receive is still very low. In order to confront this quandary, García announced the need for a proficiency test to root out the weaker teachers. The teacher’s union, inflamed by the measure, protested. Eventually, union offices agreed that the problem should be addressed, albeit with other methods such as providing the weakest teachers with additional schooling.
The Recipe of Success
When asked by the Washington Post if he believed he would be successful in his second term, García came up with this Delphic reply: “Those who had a lot of problems in their first government sometimes do very well in the second.” However, García’s political career may end up demonstrating that lightning can strike twice.
Ultimately, García’s improvement of public opinion will be profoundly based on the value of Peru’s extractive minerals, the counter-emergence of Sendero violence, García’s ability to appease interests of both the U.S. and local coca farmers, and finally his skill in closing the gap between the rich and the underprivileged. If he earnestly wishes to redefine his image and define his place in Peru’s history, President García must overcome the difficult circumstances faced daily by a large number of Peruvians, above all, providing them with the hope that the future will offer more than the past.