HAVANA TIMES, June 6 (IPS) — The United States should seek cooperative relations with Peruvian President-elect Ollanta Humala, a number of Andean specialists urged here Monday.
“Humala all along has said he wants to maintain good relations with the U.S. government, and he sent nothing but positive signals to Washington during the campaign,” said Coletta Youngers, a Peru expert at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
“I think he’ll seek to adopt policies that are more independent of Washington, but there’s no indication that he will be at all antagonistic toward the U.S. government a la (Venezuelan President) Hugo Chavez.
“So now I think it would behoove the U.S. government to ensure that relations get off to a good start, rather than ending up in yet another situation of very tense bilateral relations,” she told IPS in a reference to the deterioration in ties between Washington and progressive governments in neighboring Ecuador and Bolivia.
Initial indications suggested that the administration of President Barack Obama was open to constructive relations with Humala, who has been depicted by right-wing and neo-conservative sectors here as a pawn of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
“We are very willing to continue to work with him, just as we worked with the (current) Peruvian authorities,” said the outgoing assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Arturo Valenzuela, during the annual general meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS), which this year is taking place in El Salvador.
Humala, who narrowly defeated Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of former President Alberto Fujimori, in Sunday’s elections, will be inaugurated Jul. 28. He will succeed President Alan Garcia, who is widely considered among Washington’s closest allies in South America.
Garcia gained praised among virtually all sectors here for his strict adherence to the investment-friendly macro-economic policies associated with the so-called “Washington Consensus”, his close cooperation with the U.S. “war on drugs”, and his rejection of various initiatives sponsored by Chavez, such as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA).
Whether and to what extent Humala pursues similar policies once he takes office will likely determine Washington’s attitude toward his administration, according to experts here who noted that the former military officer had significantly moderated his rhetoric and positions during this year’s presidential campaign compared to five years ago when he first ran for president.
Humala’s outspoken populism and explicit support for Chavez during that campaign, as well as his leadership role in an aborted military coup in 2000, have worried policy-makers and other analysts here.
Indeed, the current U.S. ambassador to Peru, Rose Likins, is reported to have openly backed Fujimori’s candidacy in private meetings with civil society groups and others leading up to the election, although the Obama administration itself remained publicly neutral throughout the campaign.
Right-wing sectors here spoke out strongly against Humala. The Americas columnist for the influential Wall Street Journal, Maria Anastasia O’Grady, warned that the regional implications of his victory were “alarming” and blamed Brazil’s Workers’ Party (PT) for crafting an “image makeover” designed to persuade Humala’s critics that he was not as radical as she thinks he really is.
The American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI) Roger Noriega, who served as the George W. Bush administration’s top Latin America aide from 2003 to 2005, also campaigned against Humala, warning a Miami audience last month that he could turn out to be “the most radical of all” the South American progressive leaders, including Chavez himself.
“Do not fall for the Castro-Chavez scam named Humala,” he told his audience.
And in the days leading up to the election, Noriega, citing unnamed sources, also charged publicly that Venezuelan military officers had delivered cash to the Humala campaign.
“The fear in some quarters is that he’s going to join the Chavez camp and strengthen the challenge to the U.S.,” said Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue (IAD), a Washington-based think tank.
“But these fears are exaggerated,” he told IPS. “(Humala) is a smart guy, smart enough to know that he can’t go down the same road as Chavez. He knows he has to go slow and build confidence.”
Shifter noted that Sunday’s election showed that it may have to adjust its own understanding of Latin America, particularly on the economic front.
The fact that candidates backed either implicitly or explicitly by Garcia, whose investor-friendly policies helped propel the Peruvian economy to nine percent annual growth last year, fared so poorly and that the final run-off featured two candidates on the far ends of the left-right spectrum sent an important message.
“Sometimes there’s an assumption in Washington that good economic decisions result in stable, moderate politics, and Peru has defied that dramatically,” Shifter said.
“It should make policy-makers rethink some of the premises that good economics is somehow enough. It’s no accident that Humala got most of his support from the poorest part of the country, and that’s the message: countries can’t afford to leave aside a significant part of the population. Not everything is solved by the magic of the marketplace.”
Youngers agreed, noting that, despite its record economic growth over the period of Garcia’s tenure, there was little evidence that the new wealth was trickling down to the poorest sectors in the population.
“Unlike elsewhere in South America, inequality has remained stagnant over the last five years,” she told IPS.
“Peru desperately needs to pay attention to the kinds of issues Humala talked about in terms of really improving the quality of life for the poorest sectors in Peruvian society,” she noted, adding that he will likely be “caught between popular demands for far-reaching change and those recognize the need to address poverty but want to do that without changing the basic rules of the game.”
*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.