By Joe Armenta
If you’re a follower of Andean politics—and, really, who isn’t these days—you should be well aware of the ambassadorial battle waging between Peru and Venezuela.
On May 8, the Peruvian ambassador to Venezuela, Luis Raygada, was forced to resign five days after he posted a tweet criticizing members of congress for meeting with representatives of the Venezuelan opposition party. His abrupt resignation is a result of an ongoing crisis of political legitimacy in Venezuela bought about by former President Hugo Chavez’s death in March. Today, Latin American countries are facing the predicament of choosing between Chavez’s handpicked successor, Nicolas Maduro, and the disgruntled opposition claiming electoral fraud.
The Raygada debacle demonstrates something more than simple political theatrics. Rather, it illuminates a growing disconnect in Peru between traditional populist ideology and new economic realities. Today, while politicians win elections by promoting largely leftist platforms, maintaining one of the fastest growing economies in the region changes the way these same politicians act once in office.
After a decade-long war against the communist Shining Path insurgency during the 1980s, populism continues to thrive in Peruvian politics. Perhaps the most telling sign is of this in recent years is the 2011 election, whereby President Ollanta Humala won a narrow electoral victory over his opponent.
During the campaign, Humala promised to lower the cost of gas and raise national pension rates. He repeatedly stated that he wanted to better the quality of life among everyday citizens by increasing wages and taxing foreign mining industries. Most of all, he pledged to ensure that the development of the country was equally distributed to the poor rural countryside.
Many western observers at the time, including myself, felt that Humala’s victory would lead to a radical transformation of the Peruvian economy. Markets plunged after the election with the fear that greater government oversight would dismantle the liberalization policies that Alberto Fujimori began in the 1990s.
To our surprise, Humala has largely maintained the status quo.
While the administration introduced a new minimum wage and pension system during the past year, it is clear that the Peruvian government focuses much of its attention on expanding its export market. Since 2011, Peru has signed free trade agreements with Japan, Mexico, South Korea and the European Union. Currently, the country is hoping to expand such treaties with Guatemala, Nicaragua and Venezuela.
Export oriented growth is credited with improving the quality of life among many Peruvians. A recent report shows that the country’s national poverty rate is at 25.8 percent, down from 27.8 percent in 2011. That said, the same report shows that 53 percent of Peruvians living in rural areas, which often lack adequate public services, are impoverished.
The discontent with the direction taken by the Peruvian government is apparent throughout the country. During my time in Peru last year, I witnessed a 3-month long national teacher strike along with the city of Lima being shut down by transportation walkouts. Public doctors marched through the streets demanding higher pay while mine workers in the peripheral zones were tear gassed when protesting for better working conditions. I saw an upscale commercial center burn after riots erupted, and also watched countless public displays of dissatisfaction erupt in city centers.
But with all this being said, I also saw the signs of an emerging middle-class fully embracing the benefits of integrating into an international economy. People now have access to cell phones, computers and flat screen televisions. Families celebrate birthdays by buying cake at fully stocked, air-conditioned grocery stores while teenagers smoke cigarettes and dance to bad American pop music.
Peru is a complicated country. On one hand, economic liberalization is largely responsible for developing modern skyscrapers that dot the horizons of Lima and house countless middle-class individuals. On the other hand, some parts of the country have trouble accessing clean water and electricity. While it is not hard to find men in business suits scurrying out of American fast-food chains in the metropolitan centers, it is just as easy to find an indigenous woman carrying corn on her back up a mountainside.
It is in this complexity that Peruvian politicians find themselves amid a quagmire of political demands. The country possesses an incredibly large poverty-stricken population, yet it is also growing at an expected rate of 6.3 percent due to economic liberalization. While voters may demand social programs, the risk of harming the explosion of economic development largely discourages attempts to institute sweeping populist reforms.
Hence, Peru is Left only in rhetoric. Fully embracing populist figures, as former-Ambassador Raygada did, only results in political suicide.
Photo by Presidencia Peru