Another angry neighbour for Bush

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 04/04/06):

Ollanta Humala, the former army officer and maverick populist-nationalist who leads in the run-up to Sunday's presidential election in Peru, says he wants to construct a "Latin American family" of like-minded peoples and governments. That has triggered fears in Washington that Peru could soon join Hugo Chavez's Venezuela, Evo Morales's Bolivia and Fidel Castro's Cuba in an anti-American, or at least an anti-Bush administration, radical front.

But if he is to achieve his ambition, Mr Humala will have to sort out his own extraordinary family first. His brother, Antauro, is in jail after leading a bloody insurrection last year against the outgoing president, Alejandro Toledo. In a recently broadcast tape, Antauro apparently demanded that Mr Toledo and the entire Peruvian congress be executed by firing squad for treason.

Mr Humala's father, Isaac, founded an ultra-nationalist movement, etnocacerismo, that stressed the racial superiority of "copper-coloured" Indian and mixed-blood mestizos over lighter-skinned Peruvians of Spanish descent. His mother suggested gay men should be shot to end "immorality in the streets". Another brother, Ulises, is running against him in Sunday's election.

Mr Humala, whose first name means "warrior who sees all", also faces persistent questions about his own democratic credentials. He previously supported etnocacerismo and, like Mr Chavez, he launched a failed coup, in his case against the now disgraced president Alberto Fujimori in 2000. He has been accused of human rights abuses when he commanded a remote army base during the Shining Path Maoist insurgency in the 1990s - charges he denies.

And although he insists he is not anti-American, his stated admiration for General Juan Velasco - who ran Peru in a dictatorship from 1968-75, nationalised industries and snuffed out independent media - has increased worries about a return to the age of the authoritarian caudillo and anti-market policies. Where Gen Velasco courted the Soviet Union, Mr Humala might look to China.

"We must impose discipline, we must bring order to the country," Mr Humala told a rally in Lima. If elected, he pledged (again like Mr Chavez, who has controversially endorsed him) to rewrite the constitution, industrialise coca production, cancel a free-trade pact with the US, and increase state control of the important mining sector. "Our motherland is not for sale," he said.

But these and other efforts to present himself, the child of a privileged upbringing, as a champion of the oppressed in a country where about half the population lives on $1.25 a day or less have prompted accusations of opportunism and worse.

"Maintain democracy or go to dictatorship: that is what is at stake in these elections," said the novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. Lima's political establishment and media mostly feel the same way; so do the traditional leftwing parties that oppose Mr Humala. But surveys suggest professional politicians are almost universally despised as self-serving. This context helps explain the apparent popularity of Mr Humala, who has not previously run for office, according to John Crabtree of the Centre for Latin American Studies at Oxford University.

"Humala could be expected to draw support from those dissatisfied with the political system and those who feel they have received little benefit from several years of buoyant economic growth," Mr Crabtree wrote in World Today magazine. Unemployment and insecurity, typified by low incomes, a widening wealth gap, high urban crime, drug trafficking and a lingering rural threat posed by leftwing extremists, were key issues.

T he most likely electoral antidote to Mr Humala, and to US fears of another destabilising regional lurch into pseudo-revolutionary populism, is Lourdes Flores Nano, a pro-business former congresswoman who has increasingly espoused social reform. Commentators say her gender may prove a positive point among female voters fed up with bossy, macho men who fail to deliver.

The last survey before the vote showed Ms Flores five points behind Mr Humala, with 26% support, but likely to triumph in a second round if (as seems probable) neither wins outright on Sunday. Such an outcome would echo the recent groundbreaking presidential victory in Chile of the New Labour-style moderate Michelle Bachelet.

In a recently published interview, Julia Sweig of the US Council on Foreign Relations suggested the current political volatility across Latin America was socially rather than ideologically inspired. It reflected a lack of confidence in "existing institutions and traditional elites", rather than a desire for revolution. But in badly governed, alienated and angry Peru, that could amount to the same thing. "The division in this country is not right versus left," Mr Humala said; "It's the business elite against the rest.".