Humala won't be a Chàvez -- for now


By Andres Oppenheimer,

Venezuela's narcissist-Leninist President Hugo Chàvez welcomed the victory of Peru's President-elect Ollanta Humala as "the dawn of a new era" in Latin America. But he probably spoke too fast: at least for now, Peru will be a much more centrist and market-friendly country than Chàvez would like.

Humala, who -- like Chàvez -- is a former army coup plotter with a radical leftist background, may eventually follow the Venezuelan president's steps and become a democratically-elected dictator. But for the time being, he most likely won't.

There are many similarities between the two men, but also many differences. Let's start with the resemblances: in addition to their personal histories, both started out sounding conciliatory and promising to serve just one term.

Much like Humala now, on the eve of his 1998 election victory, Chàvez vowed: "I will give up power in five years." And after his 1998 election victory, Chàvez called for "brotherhood and fraternity" among all Venezuelans.

“The day after he won in 1998, Chàvez sounded like a mix between Jefferson and Roosevelt," says Maria Corina Machado, an opposition Venezuelan congresswoman. "He sounded like a statesman, and his conciliatory speech raised very favorable expectations."

In Venezuela's case, it turned out to be a Chàvez strategy to gain time, consolidate his grip on power, and gradually dismantle the country's democratic institutions, Machado told me. Little by little, Chàvez changed the constitution, dismantled the justice system, clamped down on independent media, and politicized the armed forces.

But there are also big differences in the circumstances that surrounded the two men's climb to the presidency. Among others:

  • Chàvez vowed during his 1998 campaign to call a referendum to change Venezuela's "moribund" constitution for a new one and replace the Congress. Humala, after initially toying with these ideas, repeatedly vowed during his most recent campaign that he won't seek a constitutional overhaul.
  • While Chàvez was elected amid an economic crisis, Humala was elected in a country that is doing very well, with a booming economy, low inflation, and record investments. Humala won because many Peruvians felt they were not benefitting enough from the country's prosperity -- not because they felt that the country was going in the wrong direction.
    "The country is in peace, the economy is doing well, growing," Humala said last week in Brazil. "That won't change."
  • While Chàvez won his first elections in 1998 by a landslide, with 16 percentage points over his nearest rival, Humala won by less than 3 percent of the vote. That hardly gives him a mandate to make radical changes.
  • Most importantly, while Chàvez shortly after his 1998 election was able to count on a new Congress with loyalists, Humala will have to rule with a 47 seat-minority in Peru's 130-seat Congress. Peru's president-elect will need the support of center-right former President Alejandro Toledo's 21 legislators to get almost anything done.

In a telephone interview, Toledo told me that his support for Humala during the runoff campaign "was not a blank check." Noting that Humala will need Toledo's bloc in Congress, he added, "We will not support any effort to break the democratic system."

How can you be sure, I asked Toledo, that he won't pursue Chàvez's strategy of starting slowly, and then gradually dismantling democratic institutions?

“I don't have a 100 percent guarantee that he won't do that," Toledo told me. "But if he reneges on his promises, we will give a frontal battle in defense of democracy and freedom of expression."

Toledo added that "if we notice a Venezuelan intromission in Peruvian issues, forget it! We will be zealous guardians of democratic freedoms."

My opinion: For the time being, Humala won't be a Chàvez. Most likely, he will be a mix between former Ecuadoran president Lucio Gutierrez, and El Salvador's President Mauricio Funes.

That could change in the future, of course, if world oil prices soar and Venezuela starts once again spending billions of dollars to buy political allegiances in the region. But that seems unlikely now, given the world economic slowdown and Chàvez's own economic problems at home.

For now, with a little bit of luck, it will be a new era in Latin America, but one of moderate leftist leaders that don't embrace Chàvez's totalitarian recipes.