Peru's president dazzles, frustrates with rhetoric
September 26, 2008 - Reueters

By Terry Wade - Analysis

LIMA (Reuters) - Whenever Peruvian comic Hernan Vidaurre gets in a jam on his improvised show of political satire, he uses a line about President Alan Garcia that always makes listeners laugh.

"I bring my message of illusory hope and conspicuous verbal-rrhea full of matrices of palindromic uncertainties within the ephemeral nature of a nationalism that is honorably organic, and because life is full of dreams, and dreams they are," Vidaurre says in his best Garcia voice.

Then comes the punch line on the influential daily radio show Vidaurre co-hosts, called Los Chistosos, or The Funnies: "I don't know what the hell I just said, but it's powerful!"

Garcia's dramatic speaking style has helped him win the presidency twice, first in 1985 at the age of 36 and then again in 2006. He still works himself into almost manic frenzies with rhyming, poetic lines that dazzle audiences with sketches of a golden future.

"He is incredibly smart and astute when it comes to seducing people. He enters a trance when speaking and it's other-worldly. It paralyzes you," Vidaurre told Reuters.

But that power of seduction is wearing off and Garcia's popularity has plummeted as he struggles to fulfill promises made to voters, raising opposition to Peru's free-market economic model despite a seven-year boom fueled by high commodities prices.

The president's approval rating has fallen to a low of 19 percent, a third of where it was when he took office two years ago, and left-wing parties could tap into that frustration at the next presidential election in 2011.

Garcia's aides blame higher prices for imported foods for his drop in the polls, but many Peruvians say the government is hopelessly ineffective when it comes to providing basic services, from water to education.

Even though it is flush with cash from the economic boom, Garcia's government has largely failed to rebuild cities, such as Pisco, devastated last year by an earthquake.

"There's a huge time lag between when Alan announces a project and when it gets done ... the machinery of the state is failing," said Martha Hildebrandt, a conservative member of Congress. "He's got an absolutely prehistoric state that's dysfunctional."

To fend off criticism that he promises more than he delivers, Garcia has tried to shift his speaking style away from flowery phrases to instead painstakingly list public works being built to help spread the benefits of economic growth to the poor and lower the poverty rate from nearly 40 percent.

But inevitably, Garcia, who nearly always speaks without notes, becomes inspired by crowds and ends up invoking memories of the Incan empire, borrowing lines from poets, or drawing metaphors between water manes and democratic theory he studied in France.

"Alan is intellectually brilliant. His ability to improvise is his biggest treasure, because he does it so well, and it's a skill you can't learn, you're born with it," Hildebrandt said.


To try to win back support from humble voters, the government threw a party last week in a hilly slum in the Ate Vitarte district of Lima to celebrate its "Water for Everybody" program.

Garcia's administration had installed a water mane in the shanty town's main plaza and chalked it up as a smashing success, even though the surrounding houses are months away from being hooked up to it.

Garcia, heavyset and unusually tall for a Peruvian, painted himself as a doer instead of a talker by using an expression popular among the poor: "Acts are love, words are not."

He then riffed on the theme of democracy and opened a spigot to splash water on the crowd in the desert hills.

"Water is a basic right, without it democracy or liberty cannot exist. Liberty isn't just freedom of expression ... but freedom from misery," he told the crowd. "Democracy must free women from the slavery of carrying buckets of water up hills."

His rousing speech awed the crowd, but complaints set in as soon as his motorcade left.

"Garcia's in charge but there are people who work for him who don't carry out his orders. Some people work and others don't do a thing," said shantytown resident Maria Falcon, 30. "We still don't have water in our homes."

(Editing by Dana Ford and Kieran Murray)