Humala Wins Round One in Peru – Another Advance for 21st Century Socialism?

On Sunday, April 10th, Peruvians voted for president in a 5-way race and Ollanta Humala emerged as the winner. The race will proceed to a runoff in June between Humala and Keiko Fujimori, the second place candidate. (Keiko’s father, former president Alberto Fujimori, is serving a 25 year sentence for human rights violations he committed in his war against the armed communist movements in the 1990s.) The defeated candidates were former president Toledo (a neoliberal), Toledo’s former economic minister, and the mayor of Lima (a conservative who served under the Fujimori regime).

Over the past two decades, the Peruvian government has been strikingly conservative and neoliberal compared to other governments in the region (with the notable exception of Colombia). As Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay elected left or left-leaning governments that promised alternatives to the neoliberal model, Peru passed from the Presidency of Fujimori to Toledo and then Garcia, who all advanced neoliberalism, culminating in the Peru-US Free Trade Agreement. Toledo, the first indigenous president of Peru, was elected by an enthusiastic wave of mass grassroots support calling for change from the dark years under Fujimori. He symbolically held his inauguration on Macchu Picchu, but left office at the end of his six year term with abysmal approval ratings after continuing the neoliberal economic model first imposed by Fujimori. Garcia then returned to the presidency and followed the same unpopular course. However, as language of a renewed Twenty-First Century Socialism dominated victorious presidential campaigns throughout South America as a counter to neoliberalism, this language was notably absent – and remains absent—from Peruvian presidential races.

The two largest socialist projects in modern Peruvian history – the Velasco dictatorship (1968-1975) and the Sendero Luminoso guerrilla war (1980-2000)—were both marred by authoritarianism. Velasco, then the commander of the armed forces, led a coup in 1968 to cut off the growing possibility of rebellion from below by imposing socialist reforms from above. He described his coup as a socialist revolution and carried out a program of nationalizing major industries, redistributing land and abruptly closing the Peruvian economy to the international market in order to carry out import-substitution industrialization. He also cracked down on dissent and attacked the freedom of the press. The reforms had a mixed record and engendered a complex relationship between the state and the mass movements and Peruvian left. Velasco was later deposed by another military coup. During the 1970s and 80s, a vibrant left continued to exist in Peru with ideologies reflecting the entire spectrum of the global left. Some looked to the Soviet Union for guidance, others to Cuba and others to China. Mass movements surged forward including landless movements, trade unionism, urban movements, and the women’s movement. Many left political parties, trade unions and mass organizations existed. Sendero Luminoso rose to ascendancy from this diverse field of ideologies and organizations not through broader organizing or a more compelling ideological line, but rather by going to war with the rest of the left and the mass movements. Sendero built its power by creating a violent parallel state structure in vast swaths of the Andes and later pushing into Lima with a campaign of bombings and assassinations. Ultimately, Sendero was defeated not because the Peruvian state was more powerful nor because the Peruvian masses did not support radical change. Sendero was defeated when it lost the support of the masses because of its authoritarian use of violence against the masses and their organizations.

In this context, there was no major candidate in the presidential race carrying the banner of socialism. Ollanta Humala was himself an army officer in the war against Sendero, and while he is painted as a socialist for his criticism of neoliberalism and past ties to Chavez, it is not the label he chooses for himself. He describes himself and his party only as nationalist. His platform takes much of the language of the left critique of neoliberalism and US hegemony and calls for a “grand transformation” to an economy that would be more heavily regulated by a more powerful state, but would remain based in the capitalist market system. He took a further leap to the center late in the campaign by declaring that he would honor the existing free trade agreement with the US and respect the independence of the banking sector.

In many ways, however, Humala’s election would signal Peru’s late arrival to the left electoral movement described by Marta Harnecker and others as 21st Century Socialism. His calls for an alternative to neoliberalism and a much greater taxation of multinational companies operating in the extractive industries strongly echo the policies of Correa in Ecuador and Morales in Bolivia. His electoral coalition, Gana Peru, includes communist and socialist parties and he was endorsed by Chavez (though he distanced himself from that endorsement).

This vote is only one expression of the mass movements in Peru against the neoliberal model. The current struggles of the people outside of the electoral system are putting very real limits on the neoliberal project. To cite just one example, the heroic struggle of the people of Islays, Peru recently resulted in a planned copper mining project being cancelled. In the course of the struggle, masses of people rallied, led strikes, blocked roads and endured brutal police repression including the murder of three demonstrators. (Read more here:

Increasingly, the mass movements are blaming the neoliberal system by name for the injustice and inequality in Peruvian society. Humala’s platform cites a survey that reported 80% of Peruvians oppose the neoliberal model. But what is Humala’s relationship to the mass movements led by workers, farmers, women, and indigenous communities against neoliberalism? Is he co-opting their message or advancing it? Will his envisioned reforms lead to Marta Harnecker’s vision of increased popular protagonism and a democratic, pluralistic 21st Century Socialism? Or will they fall into the pitfalls described by James Petras in his criticism of Correa and Morales and stop at social democratic reforms while failing to meaningfully challenge capitalism or empower the oppressed?

Many questions remain, but it is clear that Humala’s victory was based in popular struggle against neoliberalism. It is unclear how far his reforms will go or how progressive he will be in other areas. I believe he deserves our support in the runoff in June, but also our critical eyes when he is hopefully elected to the presidency.

Jose M. is a US-based labor activist.

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