issue 197 - July 1989
and the Little Bean
Three personalities dominate the political stage
in Peru, each in their way quite spectacular.
Alán García (APRA)
Like Humpty' Dumpty, President Alán García, 39, has had a great fall. His popularity ratings have collapsed from 96 per cent in Lima in November 1985 shortly after he took office to an unmentionable nine per cent today. He too, made the mistake of sitting on a wall, undecided on the rather significant issue of going for a revolution or pleasing all Peruvians.
In the end incompetence and corruption emerged as the most consistent factors determining the drift of events. Morally, not all the king's horses nor all the king's men can put Mr García together again in the eyes of impoverished Peruvians.
Today Mr García is largely ostracized by his American Popular Revolutionary Alliance party. The youthful smiling 'President of all Peruvians' of the 1985 election campaign has become petulant, manic - depressive, conceited and domineering - his manners occasionally matching those of a thwarted Roman emperor.
Images and comebacks aside, Peru's President remains responsible for the nation's worst ever home-made recession. Factories are producing 38 per cent less than two years ago. Average wages, already low, have seen a 30-50 per cent drop, while inflation has skyrocketed.
Why, Peruvians ask, did not President García carry out the devaluations and subsidy-pruning needed to control the economy back in 1987? He might then have become the young hero-President of Latin America, presiding over a four or five per cent annual growth. And he could have championed a new international economic order in which debt payments by Third World governments shouldn't, for the sake of justice and world stability, exceed their revenue.
Unfortunately García suffered something like a mid-life or mid-term crisis - the need to do something historically grand. The President decided to grab all Peru's private banks, finance houses and insurance companies. The unpreparedness and unreality of the gesture left Peruvians aghast. Few saw the purpose of it. Fewer still ever went anywhere near a bank. What they did see was newspaper photographs and TV footage of an armored car and police thugs breaking into bank buildings.
Almost overnight, President García had unwittingly resucitated the Right - reduced to electoral ashes with a mere seven per cent of the vote in 1985. His attempt to polarize society around an issue which only the rich could care about backfired. Novelist Mario Vargas Llosa stepped onto the stage, crowned by bourgeois confetti at a mass demonstration in Lima's main square, the Plaza San Martin.
What will happen now? Well, according to García's public relations man Hugo Otero, it is too soon to write the President's political obituary. The Peruvian Constitution does not allow for a second successive term so, even if the electorate wanted it, he could not be given another term at next year's elections. But Mr Otero thinks he can still salvage a Third World statesperson-like image for his youthful client for the elections of 1995, 2005 and, perhaps even 2015 .
Mario Vargas Llosa (Fredemo)
Mario Vargas Llosa is Peru's best-known novelist, the author of such works as the 'War of the End of the World' and 'Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter'. He is one of the hottest properties on the international publishing circuit.
He is also attempting to become Peru's next president on a platform that promises wholesale privatization of State companies, the lifting of State controls on the economy and the creation of 'a country of property owners'. He repeats, to anyone who asks, his admiration for the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the economic policies (through not the dictatorial policies) of Pinochet's Chile.
Vargas Llosa plunged into active politics in August 1987, placing himself at the head of resistance to President García's attempt to nationalize private banks. With half a dozen friends and relations, he formed an ad-hoc group called Libertad (Freedom) and proceeded to fill Lima's central Plaza San Martin for a protest rally. Interviewed at the time he said, 'I have no interest whatsoever in making a political career. I am a writer. I want to be a writer, and nothing but a writer'.
Few believed this. Libertad constituted itself as a political party a year ago, forming an alliance called the Democratic Front (Fredemo) with two traditional right-of-centre parties, Popular Action and the Popular Christian Party.
Vargas Llosa's message is that individual freedom and private enterprise are indivisible and that both are essential to lift Peru out of its chronic and growing poverty. 'The State is the foremost exploiter and source of discrimination in the country,' he has said. For the 52-year-old novelist, all this is a world away from the ideas he once espoused. As a student at Lima's San Marcos University he joined the Communist Party in 1953. He left after a year because he disagreed with the Stalinist cultural theory of socialist realism. But, heavily influenced by the French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, he remained on the Left for almost two decades. In 1965, when living in Paris, he even co-drafted a communique supporting unreservedly the action of a small group of Che Guevara-style guerillas in Peru, saying there was 'no other way than the armed struggle'.
The novelist's gradual break with the Left was triggered mainly by questions of freedom of expression. First the trial of dissident writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuri Daniel in the Soviet Union in 1965; then the crushing of the Prague Spring.
Back in Peru, Vargas Llosa supported the social and economic reforms of the left-wing military Government of General Juan Velasco in the early 1970s - including the formation of many of the State companies he now seeks to dismantle. But he became disillusioned when the Government took over the Lima press and television in 1974.
As a successful novelist he has lived as much in Europe as in Peru during the past two decades. He has a flat in London's Kensington. The transition from writer to politician has not been easy for him. On his occasional sorties into Peru's interior, he has preferred to speak in Chambers of Commerce or cinemas rather than in public squares. Confronted with peasant farmers and shanty-town dwellers, whose chief experience of the State has been its absence from their lives, he has had to change his message a little. Now he stresses that he wants a 'smaller State so that it does more efficiently do the little it should do'.
Whatever his deficiencies on the campaign stump, Vargas Llosa has powerful allies in the media, with all Peru's private TV channels backing him. 'If he becomes President, it will be because of Channel 5, not because of Mario Vargas Llosa,' according to Nick Vaisman, Finance Director of the country's most powerful TV station.
Alfonso Barrantes (United Left)
They call him 'frejolito' - the pinto bean. This refers partly to Alfonso Barrantes' physique - rounded and just a fraction over five feet tall - but also to his avuncular, self-contained public image.
The 61-year-old lawyer and ex-Mayor of Lima will become Peru's first Marxist president if he wins next year's elections. He is a quiet man with a passion for cultivating roses. But he combines a measured, soft-spoken style with a reputation on the political scene for being a shrewd and wily strategist - some say, a trickster.
His latest tour de force has been to clinch a deal with the far-Left so that it now joins the rest of the Left in backing him as presidential candidate for the United Left party (Izquierda Unida).
Barrantes first tasted political power as a student leader in Lima's San Marcos University, where he enrolled to study law in 1947. He became so embroiled in campus politics that it took him 22 years to graduate.
In 1957 he began a short spell in the centre-left APRA party, making a political splash the following year at the head of a rowdy pack of students protesting the visit to Lima of Richard Nixon, then Vice-President of the United States.
He moved further left after visiting China and the Soviet Union. He returned to join the Communist Party in 1959, using a pen given to him by China's Prime Minister Zhou Enlai to sign the request. In the Sino-Soviet split Barrantes sided with China and in 1966 left the Communist Party to spend the next decade on the fringes of Maoism.
In 1977 the half-dozen or so parties on the Left called on Barrantes to consolidate them into a single front. In August 1980 the United Left (Izquierda Unida) was launched with Barrantes as its leader.
But his individualism and moderation put him on a collision course with the radicals. Things came to a head in 1987, when he resigned after being jeered for not supporting the first national strike against García.
The recent rapprochement involves the radicals agreeing to back Barrantes in exchange for key government posts should he win the 1990 elections. It certainly helps the United Left to have him as leader. During his three years as Mayor of Lima - from 1983-1986 - he earned a wide popular appeal. His best known political achievement is the 'Glass of Milk' programme, which still ladles out free milk for youngsters in Lima's shanty towns.
But he will face some stiff competition in 1990. The polls are giving novelist Vargas Llosa of the rightist Fredemo party a clear lead over the United Left, with or without Barrantes at the helm.
Barrantes has one important advantage over the other candidates, however: his background. He was 19 years old before he left Cajamarca, his birthplace in the northern Andes, to visit the capital for the first time. He has clung publicly to his northern customs which makes him widely considered as 'one of us' not only by provincial voters but also by the two or three million migrants from the provinces living in Lima.
Barrantes' task over the next few months will be to convince the electorate that the Left is flexible, mature and ready to govern.