They seem to be everywhere: ragged pedlars wheeling cartloads of bruised fruit along grimy city alleyways; halfstarved beggars scrounging for loose change from passers-by; barefoot mothers and frail, emaciated children seeking shelter in doorways as dusk descends on a teeming and troubled city. They are Lima’s street people—the most visible manifestation of an economy brought to its knees by rampant inflation and harsh austerity measures dictated by the country’s foreign creditors. Inevitably, the three million inhabitants of the Peruvian capital’s squalid, disease-infested shantytowns will also pose a major challenge to the nation’s next president, to be chosen in general elections on April 14. But on the eve of the vote there is a palpable sense of despair among Peruvians that any of the nine presidential candidates can reverse the country’s relentless slide toward economic chaos.
The gloomy atmosphere is in sharp contrast to the optimism that surrounded Peru’s long-awaited return to democracy in 1980. Emerging from 12 years of increasingly unpopular military rule,
the country’s 7.5 million voters installed a centre-right government led by former architect Fernando Belaunde Terry, 73, who pledged rapid industrial growth and jobs for the 59 per cent of Peru’s work force that was unemployed or underemployed. Instead, the double punch of higher interest charges on the nation’s $13.5-billion (U.S.) external debt combined with falling prices for Peru’s mineral exports sent the economy into a protracted decline, lowering workers’ buying power to 1965 levels.
To compound those economic difficulties, Belaúnde’s government has faced a deadly guerrilla uprising in the Andean highlands, accusations of human rights violations and a succession of corruption scandals in high places—raising fears among some observers of another military takeover. Said Lima economist Efrain Gonzales: “Peru is in dark times. The capacity for conflict is increasing. We could even have a civil war.”
Foreign diplomats in Lima clearly consider the coming elections an important test of Peru’s still fragile democracy. If all goes according to plan, Belaúnde this July will become the first civilian president of Peru since 1912 to yield power to a democratically elected successor. For now, army generals claim "
that they will respect the results of the elections—no matter who wins. But few observers doubt that in the long run the military’s willingness to co-operate with the new president will depend on his ability to steer through a logistical minefield of political troubles.
Belaúnde’s most likely successor, according to the last pre-election polls, is Alan Garcia, 36, the charismatic leader of the centre-left American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA). Although it is Peru’s oldest (61 years) and best organized party, APRA has never attained power, and it has a reputation for political violence and confrontations with the military. Five years ago Garcia himself—a career politician— was detained by police for carrying weapons in his car trunk. But now Garcia is trying to soften the party’s radical image with a slick television advertising campaign describing himself as a president “for all Peruvians.” His only specific commitment so far: to hold payment of Peru’s external debt to 20 per cent of the country’s export earnings—less than one-fifth of the amount needed to cover the annual interest. Declared Garcia: “Let us not forget that the government’s first debt is to the Peruvian voters and not to the foreign banks interested in
satisfying their appetites.”
Still, even APRA supporters admit that Garcia will be hard pressed to obtain the outright majority of the vote required by the constitution for immediate victory. Instead, he will probably face a runoff election in May or June with the second-place candidate. Most observers predict that the challenger will be Lima’s Marxist mayor, Alfonso Barrantes, 57, leader of the Unified Left, a coalition of Peru’s left-wing parliamentary groups. An unassuming labor lawyer known affectionately as Frejolito (Little Bean) because of his diminutive stature, Barrantes is widely admired in the capital for keeping his 1983 municipal campaign pledge to provide one million glasses of milk a day for Lima’s hungry children. Now, he vows to declare a moratorium on foreign debt payments and to nationalize the U.S.-owned Southern Peru Copper Corp., which produces twothirds of the country’s copper.
Barrantes’s chief rival for second place is Luis Bedoya, 63, head of the Popular Christian Party, which allied with an APRA splinter group to form the ultraconservative Democratic Convergence. Twice mayor of Lima in the 1960s, Bedoya is a staunch defender of private enterprise and an unflagging critic of leftist reforms. He is expected to split the right-wing vote with two other presidential hopefuls: Javier Alva Orlandini, Belaúnde’s vice-president and candidate for the ruling Popular Action party; and retired Gen. Francisco Morales Bermudez, 63, who headed the military regime from 1975 until its replacement by a civilian government in 1980.
Peru’s voters have shown little enthusiasm for any of the leading candidates. Demoralized by the deepening economic crisis and by increasing terrorist attacks by the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas, many Peruvians have lost faith in the government’s ability to restore peace and prosperity. Said Betzabe Monzon Delgado, 25, an accounting student: “I do not think any party is going to improve conditions. Most of the politicians are too corrupt and their policies are superficial.” Added Daniel Miranda, 21, a shoeshine boy who lives in Comas, a shantytown on the northern outskirts of Lima: “At least Sendero is trying to help the poor. Right now the government only helps the rich people.”
At the same time, left-wing terrorists have stepped up their attacks in an effort to disrupt the elections. Last month a shadowy urban guerrilla group known as the Tupac Amaru revolutionary movement—named after an 18th-century Indian rebel—claimed responsibility for the firebombing of three branches of the U.S. franchise chain Kentucky Fried Chicken, the latest in a series of attacks on American targets in Lima. Three days earlier unidentified guerrillas bombed the home of Peru’s labor minister, Joaquin Leguia, seized a Lima radio station and attacked the house of the brother of Agriculture Minister Juan Hurtado Miller. There were no injuries, and police rounded up almost 1,000 suspects for questioning.
In the highlands, fear of rebel violence is even more pronounced. Peasants in the Tingo Maria area, 550 km northeast of Lima—the heart of Peru’s illicit,
and thriving, coca leaf growing region, which supplies half of the world’s cocaine—have been warned by Sendero gunmen that they will be executed if their national identity cards are stamped, proving that they cast their ballots in the elections—as legally required. Said Sacramento Cieza, a rice farmer in La Morada, 150 km north of Tingo Maria: “On the one hand, if we vote and then meet the Senderistas we will be punished with death. But if we do not vote and our cards are not stamped, the army forbids us to travel.” Meanwhile, in many towns and villages municipal officials have resigned because of Sendero threats, leaving their communities without any government. Said Toronto-born Oblate priest John Massel, who works in the area: “Unfortunately it is in the back country that people suffer £ most.”
As tension rose outside the capital, a measure of calm was restored to Lima last week when negotiators reached an agreement ending a 23-day strike by two-thirds öf Peru’s 600,000 civil servants. The workers had demanded a 125-per-cent pay increase in order to offset skyrocketing inflation of 127 per cent. But they settled for about half that amount, bringing average wages to the equivalent of $165 a month. In fact, most are not so fortunate. Many families find their meagre earnings stretched to the limit simply to maintain a staple diet of potatoes, rice and fish. Malnutrition is rampant and infant mortality is as high as 30 per cent. Said Louise Couture, a Canadian nun who has spent 16 years in Peru: “The situation just keeps getting worse. Those who are doing well can save enough to buy meat perhaps once a month.”
Whatever the outcome of next week’s vote, there is no guarantee that any party can deal effectively with Peru’s social and economic malaise. Indeed, the apparent popularity of the untested Garcia is as much a reflection of the nation’s deep-rooted desire for change as it is an endorsement of his party’s ambiguous political platform. Admitted Luis Alva Castro, 41, an economist and candidate for deputy vice-president under the APRA banner: “Peru’s voters are exhausted with traditional politics andwith all politicians. Up to now they have promised a lot and yet delivered nothing.” Clearly, by lowering their expectations Peruvians are bracing for what they fear will be another costly adventure in political failure.
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