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Special Report
Last Updated: 09/16/2005
Five Sad Reasons to Worry about Peru
Rafael Velasquez

"There is something different about the way Peruvians do politics," writes Rafael Velasquez. "Something scary, it should be said." Politicians use everything from the powerful coca leaf influence to old resentment towards neighboring Chile to squeeze out a political advantage over their opponents. It is, says Velasquez, a dangerous recipe.

There is something different about the way Peruvians do politics. Something scary, it should be said. During the last month the internal squabbling between the ruling party Peru Posible (PP) and its close ally the Frente Independinete Moralizador (FIM) forced President Toledo to request the resignation of all of his ministers. Less than three weeks ago, the Peruvian congress succumbed to chaos as Congressman Jurado presented Premier Elect Pedro Kuczynski with a Chilean flag on his desk (apparently a form of protest to Kuczynski’s alleged pro-Chile behaviour). Now, these two incidents are not necessarily atypical to the scenarios we may find in a number of emerging democracies. What we should worry about is how and with which intensity politicians are mastering the craft of using controversial issues, past hatreds and current threats in their quest to attain or maintain power.


Coca Leaves


Andean countries in the world are renowned for the production of coca leaves (the main ingredient in the manufacture of cocaine). Not many people know that the consumption of coca leaves is in fact an intrinsic part of the Andean culture which maintained this practice hundreds of years before the US decided to solve their drug problems with a narrow-minded supply-oriented strategy (a.k.a. the War on Drugs). 


In the last decade, Peruvian cocaleros (growers of the coca leaves) have begun to put more pressure on provincial and federal government as they witness the accomplishments of their Bolivian colleagues. If coca-growers’ syndicates could be a determining factor in bringing two presidents to their knees in Bolivia, then it would only make sense that similar entities could organize themselves for better living conditions in Peru[1]. However, cocaleros are not the only ones that have taken note of this power relationship. Politicians, of course, are now fully conscious of the political capital in supporting or opposing the cocaleros movement.


The quarrels between the ruling PP and the FIM caused  irreversible damage when Fernando Olivera, leader of the FIM, expressed his support for Cuzco’s governor in his defiant policy to expand the land assigned for the growth of coca[2]. Olivera has in the past proven to be unpredictable, besides extremely unpopular, but for the PP this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. When Toledo decided to appoint Olivera as his new Foreign Affairs minister he found his party in profound disarray, along with the resignation letters of his most popular ministers. Hence, the president proceeded to gently request all of his cabinet to resign in order to regain a measure of stability.


Hate your neighbour


Political misdirection is not a new weapon in the arsenal of Peruvian politics. Nevertheless, politicians have reached absurd new levels when it comes to distracting the attention of an apprehensive civil society with threats from “the enemy of the south”. During this year alone we can identify four clear moments in which the media was saturated with stories on the worsening situation with Chile. In February an Ecuadorian military officer currently being prosecuted confirmed Chile’s participation in a weapons sale during Peru and Ecuador’s “War of the Cenepa” (1995)[3]. The Peruvian government quickly demanded a public apology and put a stop the 2x2 discussions (the apology never arrived but the 2x2 discussion have resumed)[4]. In April, the country was outraged when it was revealed that LAN (and Airline owned by Chilean capital) regularly presented its in-flight customers with a video which depicted Peru as a chaotic garbage dump. The governments, opposition and independents (along with religious personalities and many others) demanded the involvement of the Ministry of Transportation, Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to manage the expulsion of LAN from the country[5] (LAN apologized publicly, fired managers and is currently trying to “make up” with tourist promotion stratagems). In June, the news that Chile’s unexpected increase in copper-related revenues would be used to finance the upgrading of its military reached Lima as a series of cover stories on a imminent plan of invasion[6].


Should the media or political elite (which many argue to be the same) run out of scenarios such as the aforementioned, they may always rest on the unsettled dispute over the maritime limitations between both countries, and the numerous accusations of property rights infringement over Peruvian goods including its national drink (Pisco), fruits (Chirimoya) and even desserts (Suspiro a la Limeña). If the passion over these issues was not so dramatic the scenario would, indeed, be comic.


Resentments from both countries have been present throughout their history. The behaviour of both and their honest desire to maintain neighbourly relations can be more than questioned.  Nevertheless, the incidence of this situations and the manner in which politicians seem to work with them has reached unprecedented levels. The unaccounted variable in this equation is the consolidating predisposition of Peruvians to quickly direct themselves against Chile should problems arise. Instead of fomenting a political culture that questions and checks its government Peru is diverting for a fundamentalist nationalism incapable of seeing beyond the hatred.


The Humala Revolution


Antauro and Ollanta Humala are two brothers who served in the Peruvian military during the years of terrorism.  In October 2000 both brothers rose in arms against Fujimori’s autocratic regime gaining a considerable amount of popularity and support. Once Fujimori fled the country, amidst accusations of corruption, both rendered themselves to the law enforcement community and, later, were cleared of any wrongdoing becoming heroes of democracy. What must Peruvians did not know at that point is that more than a year before the 2000 insurgency Isaac Humala (the father) had founded the Ethnocacerista movement. The Ethnocaceristas are, in short, a militaristic nationalist movement that demands the re-organization of the Peruvian political system along ethnic lines, opposes any free trade negotiation and seeks to push forward the economic, social and political retribution of Peru’s indigenous population[7].


If it wasn’t the Nazi-like symbols that “throw people off their wagon” then it probably was the seizing of a remote police station in Andahuaylas in January of this year, where six people died[8]. Still, the Humalas have managed to retain a strong base in the Andes and have proven, twice now, to be very capable of mobilizing Peru’s indigenous population.


Precedence in the Region


The Humalas may have not had much luck starting a revolution but definitely have set their sight on the right subject to do so. A quick snapshot in the region brings into question why Peru has not yet seen its indigenous population mobilize with greater impetus. Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru share similar demographic divisions, languages, religions and cultures. Bolivia and Ecuador have both seen in the past the end of two presidents (each) as the indigenous population of each country organized and brought the political machinery to a stop.   


There are now a number of articles questioning when the indigenous population of Peru will mobilize just like they have done in Bolivia and Ecuador[9]. The Economist has put forward the fact that unlike its neighbours, Peru has enjoyed in the last couple of years a permanent growth in its economy[10] (a contested idea even by the Vice-President of the country who is convinced that the economic growth is not “trickling down”). Another argument should be made regarding the fact that neither Bolivia nor Ecuador’s popular movements have suffered the sorrow that Peru’s indigenous population experienced during the years of internal war.


Terrorists like the phoenix


Throughout the 1980s Peru underwent an internal war against two terrorist organizations, The Shining Path and the Movimineto Revolucionario Tupac Amaru (MRTA). The Truth and Reconciliation Committee established to bring society to term with those turbulent years has determined that approximately 69,000 people died during the internal war. It is estimated that a little more than half of them where killed by the revolutionary movements and a little less than half of them were killed by government forces. Of those 69,000 people it is estimated that three quarters where indigenous civilians[11].


The root causes that fostered the emergence and perpetuation of the internal fracas have not been addressed. The Government continues to be perceived as a failed or absent landlord in the most remote areas of the country. Half of the population of the country continues to live in poverty at exactly the same level as they did in 1991 (54%)[12]. Most importantly, a frustrated rural population is, once again, beginning to take justice into their hands (as was the case with the murder of Llaves’ mayor last year).


Not long ago a video with one of the Shining Path’s remaining leaders, comrade Artemio, circulated around the media. In the recording, Artemio, in disguise, stressed the need to continue the internal struggle and their solemn vow to bring justice to their name. Within the same week media analysts claimed that the video was in fact prepared by the increasingly unpopular military. Should these claims be true, it could be demonstrated that political diversion is not only practiced by politicians but also by the armed forces.


A dangerous recipe


As Peru leaves behind more than 10 years of autocratic rule a power-vacuum has been left dangerously opened. Responsible politicians should take this opportunity to institutionalize in the national political culture the benefits of having a transparent and accountable system.  Unfortunately, the opposite is happening. Political leaders, the media (and perhaps the armed forces) are learning that it’s easier to reach and maintain control through fear. The solutions are surely not simple (are they ever?) but Conflict Management Specialists should not take Peru off their radar and, we, Peruvian citizens must learn to be more critical about our political surroundings if we want to prevent further bloodshed in our land.   

[1] International Crisis Group “Coca, Drugs and Social Protest in Bolivia and Peru”. March 2005, Latin America Report N°12

[2] El Comercio “Cuando la hoja de Coca puede ser el Diablo en Campaña”. Accessed on 7/08/2005

[3] Peruvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Press Release, Accessed on April 2005

[4] RPP Noticias “Toledo exige a Chile disculpas públicas por venta de armas a Ecuador”, Accessed on May 2005

[5] Radio Cooperativa “Video de LAN desata la ira de Congresistas Peruanos”, Accesses on April 2005

[6] Diario La Razon “Nos Invaden” 22 June 2005

[7] Luis Esteban Gonzales Manrique “Etnonacionalismo: Las nuevas tenciones interetnicas en America Latina” Real Instituto Elcano de Estudios Internacionales y Estratégicos” Accessed on May 2005 

[8] Guillermo Nungent “Andahuaylas: el limite de la traduccion politica” Quehacer. Enero/Febrero 2005

[9] Michael Shifter, “Unrest in the Andes” Foreign Affairs. September/October 2004. Vol. 83, Nº 5

[10] The Economist “Peru’s adhesive President” The Economist print edition, June 9th 2005

Rafael holds a MA in International Peace Studies from the United Nations University for Peace. He currently works in the area of communication for an International Organization and as consultant in the area of African Conflict Management. He may be reached at