PATERSON, N.J. – A candidate for president of Peru made a campaign stop Thursday to court the votes of an increasingly important constituency: Peruvians living abroad.
Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of Peru's imprisoned but popular former president Alberto Fujimori, added Paterson, N.J., to her itinerary. The city is home to one of the largest emigre communities outside the South American nation.
"It's an opportunity to have direct contact with Peruvians here in U.S.," Fujimori said, minutes before being greeted in a packed banquet hall by children performing traditional Peruvian dances. "They are the fourth largest source of revenue for Peru and represent 1 million voters, so we need to pay attention."
Paterson businessman and native Peruvian Norberto Curitomai says such visits by Peruvian political candidates were rare in the past. Now that Peruvians living abroad have the right to vote in Peruvian elections and their remittance power is growing, their political clout has not gone unnoticed, he said.
"We're looking to have some kind of link from the outside, a representative in the Peruvian congress," said Curitomai, who has been lobbying Peruvian government officials for years to create a congressional seat representing Peruvians abroad. "We send a huge amount of money to support Peru; we need something in return from our government."
Kathleen Newland, director of the Migration and Development program at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, said Peru isn't the only country where there has been a major shift in attitude toward the diaspora.
"It's a huge trend, almost a revolution really, for countries to stop seeing their immigrants, and the descendants of immigrants, as deserters or even traitors, and begin to see them as resources," she said.
The Migration Policy Institute estimates that Peruvians living abroad sent more than $2 billion in remittances to family members in Peru in 2007, the most recent year for which figures are available. Although that figure represents about 2 percent of Peru's gross domestic product, Newland says it's still significant enough for emigrants to push for something in return.
"Two percent is not nothing; people who are sending remittances home regularly, one of the first points they press is the right to vote," Newland said. "There's a feeling it's taxation without representation otherwise, so that's often the first thing on the list for diaspora populations when they're pushing for more representation."
In Paterson, New Jersey's third-largest city, Peruvian community leaders and consular officials estimate there are about 40,000 Peruvians — or their descendants — in the city of about 145,000 residents. The Peruvian government even established a consulate there, less than 15 miles from the one in New York City.
Peruvian community leaders such as Curitomai estimate nearly half of the small businesses in the city's downtown are Peruvian-owned. He says it's a key factor in the revitalization of the former industrial center that fell on hard times when the plentiful factory work that first attracted Peruvian immigrants to the city in the late 1950's moved elsewhere.