Opinion: Is Ollanta Humala the New Autocrat Apprentice?

Though Latin America has changed from a continent once plagued by violent dictatorships and a seemingly unending series of military coups, the region is still not democratic. The dictatorship in Cuba remains a shame for the region while dictatorship has been replaced by electoral authoritarianism whereby the “military boot” has been replaced by the “electoral boot.” Governments might be popularly elected, but that does not mean they are properly liberal and democratic.

Latin America has changed in the past 20 years. Whereas many countries have reached levels of democratic stability rivaling European countries, others continue to lag behind. Economic stability has come to Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Peru and Argentina, and after a long period of unrest, even El Salvador is emerging as a democratic and economic success story. Yet Venezuela and Nicaragua are increasingly autocratic countries while Bolivia and Ecuador are drifting that way.  

There are two realities in Latin America—one consisting of countries that have forged a forward-looking view and others who are still tied to a past defined by a dangerous mixture of ideological visions, fake revolutions, and inescapable violence.

A democratic Latin America is also not a question of left and right. Common to all the leftist successes in the region is that they have broken free of this dangerous second reality. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has carried on former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s respect for the rule of law and institutions. Unlike Castro’s regime in Cuba, Rousseff left is pursuing a social democratic agenda consistent with liberal democratic norms.  This is also true for President Funes in El Salvador. There are plenty of other examples as well from former presidents:  Chile’s Michelle Bachelet, Uruguay’s Tabaré Vázquez, and of course, Brazil’s Lula. Some center-right presidents have also demonstrated respect for the rule of law, liberty, and democracy as key elements for progress—for example, Costa Rica’s Laura Chinchilla, Chile’s Sebastian Piñera, and Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos. In Mexico, even with the terrible crisis due to the drug related violence, we can see progress.

On July 28th the new president of Peru will enjoyed his presidential inauguration with a big question mark in his future. Peruvian president-elect Ollanta Humala faces a critical test. What reality will he embrace? Will he break with the authoritarian past and become a democrat or will he be a force for  the second reality—the Chávez-style electoral authoritarianism that has so greatly setback the region. Humala has said he wants to follow Brazil’s lead and time will tell if the new president can continue to grow Peru’s economy while also providing for a “social face.” He will always have the temptation and he can fail the test if he decides to take the road to Cuba.  Open economic systems are important but so also are social policies, human rights, democracy and liberty. Striking the right balance is not always easy, but it is doable, as evidenced not only by Brazil, but also El Salvador, Chile, Panama, Costa Rica, Colombia, and Uruguay.

Humala already faces terrible critics from the right and from the left. Some “left-fundamentalists” has been critics of his negotiations with Toledo, his lack of attacks against the mining industry and the selection of non-left advisors and potential technocrats as ministries. These groups are ready to push the radical indigenous agenda, pressure for extreme government-base programs and fight against any type of market approach. Some of these groups, supported by Chávez, organized the fall of Lucio Gutiérrez in Ecuador because he didn’t followed the script.

The Americas doesn’t need heady ideology. What is needed is pragmatism. What is needed is sound policy and efficient administration. We need opportunities for all—stronger economies that eliminate rent-seeking and corruption, provide social services, and reduce the size of government while providing for a proper amount of regulation and social welfare. The continent needs to move beyond old conceptions of “left” and “right” and simply adopt democratic practices and policies that deliver. Further, democracies must evolve beyond elections to become fully participatory—systems in which decisions are actually made my people.

Regional leaders must continue to distance themselves from the tyrannies from Havana and Caracas, and this is the test before President Humala. He will have the opportunity to resist the temptation of the “love” and advisory from Cuba or Venezuela and show the world that he is committed to his 5 year presidential term, not a single day more, and he will not trick Peru supporting his wife for the continuation of this term.

He comes from the military and he has no government, business, academic or administrative background, so for him the democratic game will be really hard to play. Humala will try for sure to change the constitution in two years to seek for social changes (maybe reelection) and he will be also tempted to reduce the influence of other political parties, including Toledo’s, in his administration. He will have the inclination, as Alberto Fujimori did, to instigate a confrontation with the Parliament to gain control. He will need the strength to fight against the temptation and the inclinations and rule as a democrat. It is indeed a major dilemma for Ollanta, fall in the temptation of power or be the president that Peru needs and rule for all the Peruvians.

Peru requires an ongoing negotiation of the exercise of power, and this is where Humala will prove whether he is a democrat. It is also up to Peruvian civil society, which should pressure Humala not to abuse his power or to copy the bad examples from Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua and unduly extend his term in office.

Civil society will be a key factor in controlling Humala’s behavior, but it is also time to motivate youth movements to participate in politics and in civil society organizations. Youth will continue to be a countering force in Venezuela and other Alba Countries. Young people are also a critical force in countries on the fence between the two realities, and they will be important to keeping Peru free and democratic and force Humala to keep his promises of a true democratic ruling. Youth movements can become a force for positive change—a voice to hold Humala to his promise that he wants more freedom and democracy, not less.

Given that Peru has experienced exponential growth and a level of economic stability previously unknown to the country, the opportunities for Humala are endless. Humala will also have the opportunity to manage a small but important oil and gas industry.  Plus, Peruvians want democracy. Economic success under democratic rule has strengthened support for democratic values among Peruvians. If Humala decides to change the constitution or to extend his term limits or authority, we will see a major confrontation in Peru and it will be his fault to generate a social confrontation and a crisis in a peaceful country.

One of the advantages of the latest election is that no single party obtained a majority of the Congress and so Humala will have to co-govern with former president Alejandro Toledo and other democratic forces. For Toledo, this will be a major challenge to build a real political party and contribute his experience to building a more socially just Peru while at the same time helping to prevent Humala from becoming Chávez’s puppet.  

The Peruvian elected president had a meeting with President Barack Obama and promised to respect free trade, now he will have the challenge to fulfill his words. But his actions distanced himself of such promises when he also visited the long lasting tyranny of the region. When Ollanta Humala made a suppressive trip to Habana to meet Raúl and Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez he is just mapping his way to a new autocracy in the Americas. He is supporting tyranny and autocracy in Cuba and Venezuela. He is just trying to play a game of power, but it is not a good game for an apprentice.

Humala is faced with the choice of deciding which Latin America Peru will fall into, the one of progress or the anachronistic one. Will Peru be like Brazil or will it be like Venezuela/Cuba? Will Peru be independent or will it fall victim to Chávez’s regional games—a mere puppet state of Caracas tyranny. His visit and support to the autocrats of Cuba and Venezuela shows lack of criteria and send a bad message to the ones that trust him and believe that he will be a democrat. He will try to change the Constitution and if he fails his wife, Nadine Heredia, will take the lead for the 2016 election to continue the new hegemony in power of the Humala’s clan.

It is time to support Peru, but not with a blank check. Observers should keep an eye open to authoritarian temptation in and leader’s appetites to seek unending presidential terms or to follow the example of Cristina and the late Nestor Kirchner of Argentina. His trip to Cuba is a strong message of the new times for Peru.

Dr. Carlos Ponce is a Reagan-Fascell Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy and the elected general coordinator of the Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy. The views expressed in this article represent the opinions and analysis of the writer and do not reflect those of the National Endowment for Democracy or its staff. Twitter: @ceponces       http://twolatinamericas.blogspot.com/