Why Peru's political suicide should matter to Americans


Peru had its presidential election on Sunday, and the outcome could not have been worse. Few Americans will care about that, but they should. The result is not just another example of Latin America's self-destructive tendencies. It may be America's future.

Here is what happened and why it matters. There were 10 candidates for president, but only half of them had any real chance. There were three centrists with the credentials to govern well — Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, an economist with degrees from Oxford and Princeton; former president Alejandro Toledo, who has a Ph.D. from Stanford; and Luis Castañeda Lossio, the former mayor of Lima. They divided the political center, however, and that allowed two extremists to finish first and second. Those two will proceed to a runoff election in June.

On the far left and coming in first was Ollanta Humala, a former army officer and coup plotter. Humala was first in the last presidential election five years ago, but lost the runoff to the current president, Alan Garcia, by a few percentage points. This time Humala bought himself a suit and a new set of talking points and has tried to sound more reasonable, while still maintaining his populist credentials.

Predicting how President Humala might govern is impossible, given his lack of relevant experience or anything that one might call a political philosophy. If his family is any indication, it won't be pretty. His father is a communist who thinks all the imprisoned terrorists in Peru should be freed, his mother thinks homosexuals should be shot and his brother was convicted of kidnapping and murder.

Humala went to great lengths this time to distance himself from Venezuela's president Hugo Chávez, who is unpopular in Peru. But once in office, Humala will no doubt copy Chávez's style of pitting the poor against the rich in order to accumulate more power.

Facing off against him will be Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of Alberto Fujimori, the former president who is now in prison for the crimes committed during his regime. It would be like Tricia Nixon running for president at age 35, if her father had received the jail time he deserved, with a program that consisted of nothing more than pardoning him.

Humala will probably win in June and then start rewriting the constitution to permit his immediate reelection. That will require a majority in Congress, which he can obtain by letting Fujimori out of jail and thereby gaining the support of his followers.

Why should this bleak panorama interest Americans? Peru's election results show that when the poor believe they have no stake in the political and economic order, they opt for extremes. The more extreme the candidate, the more appealing he is because he promises radical change.

That happened in Peru despite a decade of remarkable and consistent economic growth and low inflation. The benefits of that growth have not trickled down enough, however. A leader who promises to end corruption, improve the lives of the poor and keep them safe will get their votes, even when there is no chance that person can actually deliver.

Income inequality in the United States is at an all-time high and approaching that of Latin America. Even though the tax burden is lower now than at any time since the Eisenhower administration, the rich here, as in Latin America, always insist they pay too much. Given the cost of running for office, the market economy ensures that the winners are the best politicians money can buy. The result is the current budget debate in Washington, where the discussion centers on how to dismantle the social safety net in order to cut taxes on the wealthy even more.

When any of this is pointed out, the reaction is that the critics are resorting to class warfare. But the war has already begun. Common sense and common purpose have already been victims of that war in much of Latin America. Now Peru has set itself back economically and politically by decades. America is on the same path to division and irrelevance. That process is a tragedy for Peru. It will be a disaster for the world if it happens here.

Dennis Jett is a former U.S. ambassador and international affairs professor at Pennsylvania State University.