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Peru's election and
the Indian question



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991
Comments to

February 1, 2006

LIMA - In Bolivia, with the election as president of a representative from the excluded Indian majority, Evo Morales, it is clear that belatedly the Indian community has expressed its deepest longings, albeit by voting for a leader who if he walks like he talks will destroy any hope they may have for escaping the worst poverty in Latin America.

In Peru, whose election is only a few weeks away, the Indian question, although not as polarised as in neighboring Bolivia, threatens to undo the good economic work done by president Alberto Fujimori (who had to flee to Japan in 2000 after scandal felled him) and the present president, Alejandro Toledo. Even though Toledo is an Indian, and even though he has been able to maintain GDP growth rates at a healthy 5% a year, he is probably the least popular president in Latin America.

In this polarised situation there is no automatic linkage between economic growth and the quality of democracy. The steady and alarming drift in the opinion polls towards Ollanta Humala, the authoritarian-inclined clone of Hugo Chavez does not reflect well on Peru's sense of maturity. Humala who once, like Chavez, tried to stage a coup d'etat, is winning the Indian and poorer class vote, as Morales did, on promises to support the besieged Indian coca farmers and to review the contracts that grant tax breaks to foreign mining companies, with a dose of anti-Americanism thrown in.

Understandably, many Indians are not tuned into Western notions of democracy. The high Indian civilizations, the Incas and the Aztecs, were destroyed mercilessly by the Spanish conquistadors. Prescott's great accounts of the advance of empire are replete with one brutal act of ignorant savagery after another. Over the centuries the Indians of the Andes have been treated more badly than the blacks of South Africa ever were.

Only in recent years have the Inca descendents of Peru begun to re-discover their own culture and thanks to more enlightened government policies and the work of the UN's International Fund for Agricultural Development begun to get their feet on the ladder of economic development. Even so, as the revival, albeit very limited, of the terrorist movement, Sendero Luminoso, suggests, militancy and violence are not totally rejected options.

Only one Andean country managed to escape the worst. This was Chile where only a modest Indian population existed. Chile, protected by deserts in the north, was barely settled before the Spanish arrived. Its political culture is not infused with a tradition of repression and violence. Democracy arrived in Chile nearly 120 years ago and survived relatively unscathed until the coup of Augusto Pinochet in 1973. Now with this month's election of Michelle Bachelet it confirms that Chile has reinforced the stability that has characterised most of its history.

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Yet even in Chile steady economic progress is a relatively recent phenomenon. The English pioneers went to North America to build a paradise; the Spanish and the Portuguese went to South America to enjoy a ready made one. The conquistadors were not like their counterparts to the north, fleeing persecution. They were adventurers and mercenaries. They lived under the Inquisition and the Counter Reformation. Authoritarianism and feudalism were second nature. They were not much interested in development and society. They were there to conquer and to pillage, to extract the mineral and agricultural wealth as fast as they could and ship it home. Pizarro himself used a network of brothers as a chain along which he passed his looted wealth to build mansions in Spain. "The bloody trail of the conquest", as the continent's earliest foreign correspondent, the fifteenth century friar, Bartolomé de Las Casas, put it.

Here were two continents side by side, equally endowed by nature. One prospered, whether in its U.S. or Canadian variants. The other has crawled from one upheaval to another. Only in the last seventy years have the more progressive parts of the southern continent, Chile foremost, but also Brazil, Colombia and Uruguay, begun to shed the inheritance of the Counter Reformation state which banned and restricted enterprise in the private sector. It licensed chosen entrepreneurs to develop state monopolies and favored mercantilism. Church, the propertied and merchant classes and the state were all woven together. Individual initiative was simply stifled.

Bolivia has not even begun to escape its past and launch itself on economic and thus social liberation. Neither has Ecuador. Peru since the time of Fujimori has started to. But it is painful to watch. Its Indian population, now half emancipated but still only dimly aware of the historical and financial forces (including the drug barons) that influence its choices, may choose in April's election to sideline the country's prospects once again.


Copyright © 2006 By JONATHAN POWER


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