LIMA, Peru – Alan Garcia, who left the presidency in disgrace 16 years ago after driving Peru's economy into ruin amid a guerrilla war, will have a chance at redemption when he is sworn into a second term Friday.
The 57-year-old Garcia defeated Ollanta Humala, a nationalist who promised radical reforms to help the poor. Garcia must act quickly to improve life in rural areas, where Quechua-speaking Indians and mestizos voted overwhelmingly against him.
As he moves to assuage discontent in Peru's southern Andes, Garcia is also likely to take a prominent leadership role in South America as a counterpoint to anti-U.S. crusader Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's leftist president.
Garcia and Chavez traded insults during the campaign over Chavez's support of Humala, and Garcia depicted his opponent as Chavez's pawn.
In the weeks since his victory in a June runoff, Garcia visited the presidents of Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador in a bid to draw them together as a bulwark against Chavez's growing influence in the region. Except for Colombia's conservative leader Alvaro Uribe, all are moderate, pro-business leftists like Garcia and uneasy with Chavez's politics.
"Chile's government, together with Peru and Brazil, is an alternative to the model of government control and poor democratic manners that Venezuela is seeking to impose," Garcia said during a visit with Chile's President Michelle Bachelet in June.
In Peru, Garcia is preparing for the "Battle of the South," as pundits have dubbed his plans for public investment to undercut Humala's support in the southern highlands.
Polls show Garcia has 50 percent support nationwide, in contrast to 1985 when his popularity topped 90 percent. His support is strongest in urban areas; many in the rural hinterlands question his commitment to the poor.
"Alan Garcia is not a good man. He really favors the rich," said Apolinar Apaza Huillca, a 35-year-old Quechua-speaking farmer dressed in worn clothing and sandals in Cuzco, ancient capital of the Inca empire.
"I don't believe in the Apristas," he said, referring to members of Garcia's party. "They made us suffer hunger. During their time there was no rice, sugar or other things."
More than half of Peru's population survives on less than $2 a day, with the poorest living in remote areas where support was strongest for Humala's pledges to punish corrupt politicians, intervene in the free-market economy and redistribute wealth.
Garcia aims to boost development with a $400 million investment program in rural areas to build roads, schools and health clinics, coupled with austerity measures, including a sharp reduction in salaries of top government officials.
Enrique Cornejo, director of the Aprista party's economic plan, said the aim is to build on the 5.5 percent growth rate under outgoing President Alejandro Toledo and reach 7 percent.
Garcia insists he will not repeat the errors of his first presidency, when he drained the nation's reserves for populist spending and defiantly limited foreign debt payments. He left office in 1990 amid soaring inflation, political violence and long lines for food.
Humala, a former army officer who initially hinted he would organize protests against Garcia's government, has toned down his rhetoric since the election. His political movement has splintered and he has largely disappeared from public eye, working behind the scenes to organize supporters to challenge Garcia's party in November elections.
Some analysts say that after two decades in the army, Humala lacks the skills to forge a lasting party. But even if he fades as an opposition leader, the highlands that nearly carried him into the presidency remain a potential threat to Peru's stability.
"If Humala disappears, it would be a grave error to forget that his voters are still there. They are not going to evaporate," sociologist Santiago Pedraglio said.