Big sighs of relief could be heard in Peru today. The Peruvian people have voted ‘yes’ to change, and ‘no’ to dictatorship and corruption. But only just…
Fujimori – the daughter and former sidekick of ex-dictator and current jailbird Alberto –seemed the most likely to win for much of the campaign. The $6 billion her father stole from the Peruvian people helped fund a slick, populist campaign full of cleverly simple messaging. She also had the backing of the incumbent President, Alan García (who has his own human rights and corruption issues).
But in the end, at least half of the population saw through the spin, and the deeper unease about Keiko’s motives won out in the end. These include wanting to free her father, who is currently serving a 25-year sentence for murder and corruption, and wanting to bring back ‘Fujimorismo’ – authoritarianism, press censorship and savage repression of unions and civil society movements.
Keiko Fujimori’s gender credentials – she made much of being a woman and a mother – were dealt a blow in the final days of the campaign when the issue of her father’s programme of forced sterilizations of mainly poor women – and her failure to condemn it – reemerged.
Moreover, her claims to be independent of her father were further compromised by election posters which showed her with papa in the background, looking on approvingly. Mind you, she also had the Virgin Mary doing much the same thing on another poster…
So, what now? Peru’s new president Humala used the first hours of his victory to announce that he would create a government of unity to fight corruption and punish ‘corrupt people’. He will have his hands full on that score. The outgoing president Alan García is a prime candidate for further investigation.
Humala also said that he would maintain economic growth (which is currently at around six per cent) but would distribute the benefits more evenly.
But what he did not say, as anti-mining activist Pablo Salas points out, is how he is going to maintain that growth. By continuing a policy of hyper-extraction of natural resources? If so, Peru’s already high level of social conflicts can only increase, as people living in some of the poorest areas fight desperately to defend their sources of water, their land and natural environments from the toxic activities of mining and oil companies.
In Puno, where I am at the moment, there is a temporary lull after weeks of strikes, protests and blockades, as thousands of local people reject the planned opening of yet another mine in the region. The Canadian company Bear Creek has been given permission to mine for silver in an agricultural region close to the Bolivian border. By law, local communities should be consulted before any such permission is given and there should also be a full environmental impact assessment. In practice it rarely happens, which provokes local people to take increasingly drastic measures to make themselves heard.
President-elect Humala may be left-leaning politically, and far closer to his South American counterparts Evo Morales and Hugo Chávez than his predecessor was. He will almost certainly be more open to listening to the people than Keiko Fujimori would have been. But how he will deal with the civil unrest produced by a decade of handing out mining and petrol concessions like sweeties, may be the making or breaking of him.
The many groups that have been formed to defend natural resources are demanding that those concessions are now cancelled. They are organized and they are determined. They have already sustained hundreds of casualties and many deaths. If they are not heard they will carry on protesting, blocking roads and bringing cities to standstill. How will the ex-army captain deal with that? Will he fulfill his democratic promises or revert to military type to assert control?
More on this and related themes will appear in the October issue of New Internationalist.