Peru Election 2006

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The Alluvial Nationalism of Ollanta Humala

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Maxwell A. Cameron
February 17, 2006

Photo: M.A. Cameron
Ollanta Humala, the nationalist candidate for Unión Por el Perú, chose Las Malvinas, an old factory district that has been reconverted into a sort of industrial park for small businesses, to drive home his message that Peru needs to promote national production based on the domestic market to generate employment and a more equitable distribution of wealth.
Photo: M.A. Cameron
Avenida Argentina used to be a major industrial center where thousands of workers found full time, unionized employment. When the economic crisis of the 1980s gutted the factory sector, thousands of workers were laid off. Many found precarious employment in the informal sector. The area of Avenida Argentina known as Las Malvinas, in the center of Lima, was overrun by the black market. Today, there is still evidence of black market activity: someone offered me a cell phone as I walked down the street. Even the relatively formal market activity operates in the grey area between legal and illegal. I bought a New York Yankees cap for 5 soles (about US $1.50) that was clearly made in Peru, though there was no tag to indicate where or by whom. I doubt the Yankees got their royalties.
Photo: M.A. Cameron
The plan was for supporters of the comandante to gather in the market place around 10:00 am. The notice of the meeting was spread by “radio bemba,” or word-of-mouth. The secretaries of organization of various base committees were notified, and they sent out the word to their supporters. “We don’t have a lot of resources,” said one Humalista, “our resource is our presence.” Supporters arrived by combi (microbuses) or on foot, carrying placards and banners, pamphlets and flags. Within about an hour, the crowd had growth to two or three hundred people. Most conspicuous were the retired or reserve military officers in bright red shirts who formed the security detail for the meeting. “Don’t worry,” said one of the red shirts to the four rather conspicuous observers in my party, “we’ll watch out for you.”
Photo: M.A. Cameron
One of the first on the scene was Rosa Dueñas, candidate number 13 to the Andean Parliament. Dueñas was a council member in Lima when Alfonso Barrantes was mayor back in the 1980s. She was a founder of the Vaso de Leche, a popular program which offered a glass of milk to every poor child in the shantytowns of Lima. She has worked for years with battered women and for indigenous women’s rights. Today, she is with Humala.
Photo: M.A. Cameron
She said she could not support Lourdes Flores because whenever she approached Flores’ office in congress in her capacity as a leader of indigenous women, she could never get in the door. “What happened to the left?” I asked. “Nobody was willing to sacrifice hegemony,” she said. “Everyone wanted to be a leader, so there was no unity.” Today there are four mini-parties of the left, which collectively claim about 5 percent of the electorate according to the polls. Unless trends change, not one of them is likely to cross the 4 percent threshold necessary to win parliamentary representation. This vacuum has created an opportunity for someone like Humala.
Photo: M.A. Cameron
I asked Dueñas whether she was bothered by the accusations that Humala has committed human rights abuses. Her response says a lot about Humala’s “Teflon”: “he is part of the people,” she said. She then described a massive meeting in Huaycán yesterday evening, which received little attention in the print media, in which Humala spoke out against the violence that the Shining Path had caused. Huaycán was one of the neighborhoods in Lima where the Shining Path not only established a foothold, but where they acted with great viciousness. For example, Pascuala Rosado, a prominent local leader, was killed by the Shining Path in Huaycán. According to Dueñas, and others with whom we spoke, Humala’s condemnation of the Shining Path was well received. It is becoming clear that Humala’s response to the allegations of his involvement in human rights crimes will be to emphasize his patriotic service in the fight against the Shining Path. According to Dueñas, Humala has scars from the war that he will reveal later in the campaign.
Another person responded to the same question by saying that the Shining Path committed many abuses, and Humala has the merit of having fought against them. Moreover, whereas the soldiers were uniformed, the Shining Path blended into the trees and that made it hard to fight them. In a not-so-subtle way, human rights abuses are justified in this framing of the issue. Might the very population that was the target of human rights abuses excuse these abuses as long as they see the perpetrator as among “the people”?
Such is the enormous complexity of the conflict that Peru has undergone that it may be possible for people to believe, on the one hand, that the Shining Path, though condemnable, was opposed to an unjust order, and, on the other hand, that the military, whose duty was to defend the country, committed grave abuses. Someone holding these conflicting views might be prepared to overlook crimes committed by a soldier in this war, even—or perhaps especially—if the person in question was a target of violence during the war, provided the actions are construed in such a way as to place the perpetrator on the side of the people.
In this sense, the real challenge for Humala is not to deny that he committed abuses, which more people believe to be true than believe to be false, but to present himself as a defender of the people. That he committed abuses may be less important than whether such abuses can be somehow assimilated into a story in which Humala is cast in the role of defender of “the people.”
Consider the story of one of Humala’s supporters, who expressed frustration bordering on desperation and rage. There is a sense of desperation that comes from not knowing how to provide the next meal, from not knowing how to provide a better future to one’s children. The woman I spoke with came from a base committee in Comas. Originally from Huánuco, an area afflicted by terrorism, she arrived in Lima at the age of 18 in 1984. She found work for a year as a domestic employee in the residence of an ambassador, but since then has been unable to find steady work. Her son, now 17 and unable to find employment, is about to join the army. “People want a civil war with big capitalists” she said. Slightly shocked, I commented that nearly 70,000 people died in a civil war between 1980 and 2000. She backtracked a bit and then said “if Humala does not win, there will be civil war.” She went on to say that Peru needs a military leader like Humala, because only such a strong leader could change Peru, impose order so that there are not so many prostitutes, beggars, and thieves, and force big business to pay taxes. As for whether Humala may have committed abuses, if so he was only carrying out orders.
Another fact that may attenuate the effect of accusations of human rights abuses is the view that poverty is an abuse of the human right to a minimum level of wellbeing that does not exist for half of Peru’s population. Insofar as Humala has created the expectation that he will do something about poverty, the criticisms of human rights abuses may be muted. Last week a worker was killed when he was crushed by concrete during excavation in a building project. The site was unsafe, and a wall collapsed due to vibrations caused by a passing bus. This came up as an example of the daily injustices suffered by Peru’s poor.
Photo: M.A. Cameron
A bit before noon, Humala finally arrived, phalanxed by his own bodyguards who, we were assured, were well armed. Yet he seemed vulnerable in what immediately became a mob scene in which scores of supporters pressed in to shake his hand and offer their encouragement. Humala seemed to revel in the attention as he moved through the market place greeting vendors and bystanders. We were witness to highly enthusiastic, spontaneous expressions of support. For his part, Humala comes across as an ordinary Joe.
Photo: M.A. Cameron
When he reached a central location, Humala, surrounded by perhaps two hundred people (the rest of his supporters being outside, on the street), was handed a microphone from which to speak. He could not be seen by the crowd, however, nor heard because the spectators would not tone down. Someone brought a stool, and Humala was lifted up to speak. After a lengthy applause, Humala was at last able to make a brief speech.
Photo: M.A. Cameron
The content was simple, and clearly directed at the audience. Peru needs more national production based on the internal market. He congratulated the local vendors, the small and medium entrepreneurs in the market, for their efforts, and insisted on the need for a redistribution of income. At one point, someone yelled out a taunt against SODIMAC, a Chilean company, part of the conglomerate that owns Falabella, which sells home hardware and construction materials—the direct competitor of Las Malvinas.
Photo: M.A. Cameron
After the speech, Humala proceeded to walk down the street, and through various other markets before getting into his car—a now familiar maroon SUV—and heading off.
While there is a lot of diversity in the ideas expressed by Humala’s grassroots supporters, a key theme that emerged in many conversations was control over natural resources. One Humalista stated that Canadians are destroying humanity within their mining activities. A very thoughtful, university-educated supporter of Humala intervened and suggested that one should not generalize from the activities of a few companies to an entire country. Clearly, however, control over natural resources is a major unifying theme. “Gas is cheaper in Chile, and they import” complained another nationalist.
Humala’s supporters appear to be quite convinced that public opinion polls are deeply flawed, biased in favor of Lourdes Flores, and as inaccurate in Peru as they were in Bolivia where Evo Morales was elected in the first round to the surprise of those who, following the polls, expected him to fall 10 percent short of the mark. “We are the power now,” (nosotros somos poder ya) confidently proclaimed one leader. Indeed, the popular support for Humala seems to have been a big surprise to the nationalists. One party organizer, a leader of the “National Association of Lawyers” for Humala, said that support for his leader has been “alluvial.” The original intention was to build a party to support a candidate for 2011, but the pressure of the masses forced them to enter the race. Carmen Rosa Balbi, who teaches sociology at the Catholic University in Peru, observed Humala’s walk through Las Malvinas. Balbi has written extensively on working class politics and protest, and she was struck by the enthusiasm and apparent spontaneity of the support shown for Humala. She also noted the coherence of Humala’s discourse, which seemed to be music to the ears of his audience in Las Malvinas.
Photo: M.A. Cameron

Written by Michael Ha

February 17th, 2006 at 9:33 pm

Posted in Analysis & Opinion

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