Yet Again the U.S. Backs the Forces of Repression in an Americas Presidential Race

Cross-posted from the Tumblr site Peru Elections 2011.

With less than a week to go before Sunday’s vote, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roger Noriega, presented a report to the Peruvian government purporting to document Venezuelan government support for the campaign of presidential contender Ollanta Humala. According to Noriega, “We have a very sensitive source in Venezuela who says that Humala receives money, possibly from the Venezuelan Embassy in Lima, where cash is sent by military plane from La Paz (Bolivia), and from there across the border that is controlled by military attaches of the Venezuelan embassy in Lima.” In an interview with Univision, Noriega claims that “sources” in Venezuela have told him that Venezuelan military officers delivered cash for the campaign, but that he won’t release the report or the names of his sources so as to not put them in jeopardy. A high-level Peruvian government official told Univision that the report provided no proof of the allegations.

That Noriega sees Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez as a threatening enemy is no secret. (Assistant Secretary from 2003 to 2005, Noriega was replaced by a career diplomat in large part for having driven U.S.-Venezuelan relations to the breaking point.) Yet somehow, despite his obvious enmity for Chávez, Noriega claims to have internal sources that have provided him with this information. Also highly questionable is his timing, which certainly appears to be intended to give Humala’s opponent, Keiko Fujimori, a boost before Sunday’s vote. Ironically, Noriega was given an award by the government of former President Alejandro Toledo for his work (then as a top aide to then-U.S. Senator Jesse Helms) for his efforts to bring an end to the Fujimori dictatorship of the 1990s. (Now that he is working to put another Fujimori back in the presidential palace, he should have the decency to return the award.)

Such meddling in the electoral politics of Latin American countries was commonplace during previous administrations, though it sometimes backfired. In 2002, Evo Morales came very close to winning the presidency (which he then assumed in 2006) after statements against him by the U.S. Ambassador, Manual Rocha, caused his popularity to jump significantly. To its credit, since assuming office, the Obama administration has refrained from public interventions in electoral politics. According to a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, “The United States supports the democratic process, including elections that are free, fair, and transparent, and looks forward to learning the outcome of Peru’s presidential race. The Peruvian people will choose the next president of Peru. Regardless of who is elected, the United States looks forward to continuing its strong bilateral relationship with Peru.”

Behind the scenes, however, the U.S. Ambassador to Peru, Rose Likins, is evidently playing a very different role. As reported in a previous blog, she has openly expressed support for Keiko Fujimori’s candidacy in private meetings, including with a group of human rights activists where she actually attempted to defend Keiko Fujimori’s human rights credentials. According to journalist Gustavo Gorriti, “The U.S. Embassy strongly opposes Humala’s candidacy.” Like Noriega, Ambassador Likins no doubt fears another progressive government in South America joining the ranks of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela – all countries more willing to stand up to entrenched economic interests and the United States.

It is certainly true that Peruvian President Alan Garcia is now one the few consistent U.S. allies in the region. If Keiko Fujimori wins the elections on Sunday, it would be logical to assume that she would continue to play that role. However, it would be a mistake for the U.S. government to simply put Humala in the Chávez box. As reported previously – and despite Noriega’s claims to the contrary – Humala has sought to distance himself from Chávez, presenting himself instead as a more moderate candidate in the mold of the highly popular Lula in Brazil. Moreover, during the second round Humala has broadened his political support to include a range of progressive and moderate Peruvians. In short, if Humala were to win Sunday’s elections, it would behoove the U.S. government to reach out and try to work with him, rather than ending up in yet another situation of tense bilateral relations.

As is often the case in Washington, the official memory is short-lived. In the 1990s, the U.S. government was a key international actor in responding to human rights violations and the steady dismantling of democratic institutions in Peru. Developments there were seen as a direct threat to the democratic advances across the region and hence a threat to the U.S. government’s interest in promoting stable, democratic governments. Since then the U.S. voice has largely subsided. But a return to Fujimorismo in Peru would necessitate far more attention from the U.S. Congress and the Obama administration. Whoever wins Sunday’s vote, the U.S. government should be vigilant with regards to issues related to democracy, the rule of law and human rights in Peru and should work with its Latin American neighbors to ensure that the hard-fought gains of the last decade are not rolled back.

Finally, U.S. officials should not overlook the fact that a significant percentage of the population supports Humala – particularly in the southern and central parts of the country – which underscores the need address the countries’ real and deep inequities. While Peru has had impressive economic growth over the last decade, the levels of inequality have only improved slightly. Clearly, far too many Peruvians continue to suffer from extreme poverty, lack of opportunities for meaningful employment and a poor quality of life overall. If measures are not taken to address these issues – measures that go beyond food handouts – then the problems that Peru faces today will continue to grow larger, including social conflict and violence. Rejecting Humala as the “Chávez candidate” may be politically expedient for some, but negates the important role he has played in bringing the issue of inequality and poverty into the political debate.