Populism in Peru: A Response to the Financial Times

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On June 22, the _Financial Times_ published a commentary entitled Latin America: Under New Management,’ arguing how recent events showcase that the region is turning away from populist-type regimes. Written by John Paul Rathbone, the piece argues that “a near continent-wide romance with the leftist leaders that rose to power in the 2000s has given way to ‘populism fatigue.’” As case studies, the author utilizes the recent events in Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Venezuela.

When it comes to Peru, Mr. Rathbone briefly discusses the recent election of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. The FT writer explains that “nor are voters only rejecting the populist left. Peruvians this month elected Pedro Pablo Kuczynski […] over rightwing populist Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of a disgraced and imprisoned former president. Notable for a continent renowned for political polarization, Mr Kuczynski won in large part thanks to support from the Peruvian left.” Given Mr. Rathbone’s overall thesis, namely his focus on populist regimes, particularly chavismo in Venezuela, the inclusion of Peru in his piece is woefully out of place.

By placing Peru in an article entitled “under new management” and which subsequently critics populism, Mr. Rathbone implies that either the current government of President Ollanta Humala (2011-2016) is populist, or that President Kuczynski will drastically deviate from the course laid out by his predecessor. Both arguments are incorrect.

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Regarding President Humala, it is true that when he was a candidate during the 2006 presidential campaign (a decade ago), he was generally perceived as being the “Peruvian Hugo Chavez” (as _El País_ entitled a 2006 article) given his background (both were military officers), their friendship and candidate Humala’s then left-leaning ideology. Nevertheless, by 2011 Mr. Humala drastically changed the policies he supported, becoming more business and investment friendly.

A quick look at Peru’s foreign policy during the Humala presidency highlights this fact: Latin American populist governments are generally viewed as being anti-Washington. They came together under the banner of a Venezuela-led bloc, the Alternativa Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra Americas (ALBA).
But President Humala never carried out any of these policies, as Peru refrained from joining ALBA and Peruvian-Venezuelan relations during the Chavez-Ollanta years were diplomatically cordial, but never close. President Humala’s priority was Washington as he maintained strong relations with the U.S.

Furthermore he made Peru a founding member of the Pacific Alliance, a free trade bloc, and a member of the Trans Pacific Partnership. Upon concluding the negotiations to join the TPP on October 5, 2015, President Humala gave a televised speech in which he explained the benefits of joining this 12-member pact. Throughout his presidency, President Humala maintained an investment-friendly posture, which earned him the support of the powerful Peruvian business agency, the Confederation of Private Business Institutions (Confederación de Instituciones Empresariales Privadas, CONFIEP).

As for Mr. Kuczynski, he is not expected to carry out a 180 degree turn in current government policies when he assumes power in late July. In fact, he is expected to maintain several of President Humala’s programs and goals. For example, Mr. Kuczynski will continue to focus on free trade and attracting foreign investment, and he will have the responsibility to organize the meeting of the Asia Pacific Economy Cooperation which Lima will host in November. (As a side note, this will probably be President Barack Obama’s last trip to Latin America).

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Even more, at the domestic level, Mr. Kuczynski has promised to continue, if not expand, some of President Humala’s social programs. One major example is Qali Warma which feeds 3.5 million children that attend public schools in order to fight malnutrition. Similarly, the new head of state has also promised to continue the Beca 18 program which provides scholarships to lower-income graduates from state-high schools so they can attend top-notch universities. Last April 2015, the new head of state tweeted: “Social programs like Beca 18, Pension 65 and Juntos, which started when I was in the MEF [Ministry of Economy] are basic. We must have social programs.” He declared his support for Qali Warma once again this past June.

In other words, it is the opinion of this author that the Peruvian government under President Humala cannot be defined as populist, particularly at the foreign policy level. Furthermore, Mr. Kuczynski is expected to continue the country’s foreign policy objectives (e.g. the Pacific Alliance and the TPP), as well as expand some of President Humala’s social programs.

It is understandable that given the ongoing presidential changes and internal turmoil in Latin America, particularly the new head of state in Argentina and the crises in Brazil and Venezuela, analysts may want to find a thesis for a piece that applies to all of these countries, as Mr. Rathbone did.

However Peru’s political stability, economic development, social programs and foreign policy goals throughout the 21st century, regardless of the president in power, have remained generally constant and similar. Peru will soon have a new president, but the style of management will not dramatically change.

_You can follow W. Alejandro on_ _Twitter_ the media correct to label President Humala a populist, or to assume that PPK will be much different from his predecessor?

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W. Alejandro Sanchez an international security analyst who focuses on geopolitics and defense & security security issues. His research interests include inter-state tensions, narco-insurgent movements and drug cartels, arms sales, the development of Latin American military industries, UN peacekeeping operations, as well as the rising use of drones (UAVs) for civilian and security uses in Latin America. He is a regular contributor for IHS Jane's Defense Weekly, Living in Peru, the Center for International Maritime Security, among others. His analyses have appeared in numerous refereed journals including Small Wars and Insurgencies, Defence Studies, the Journal of Slavic Military Studies, European Security, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism and Perspectivas. His Twitter is @W_Alex_Sanchez and his personal blog is Geopolitics.