A heuristic for Humala

I’ve been pondering in recent weeks the inscrutability of Peru’s president Humala, a man without a clear political philosophy who governs Peru with a certain bland pragmatism. My impressions congealed watching him give a presidential address two weekends ago, at least enough to offer an interpretation of sorts; more structured comparisons of Humala to his military-background predecessors, more rigorous examinations of his economic programs, and indeed more in-depth historical treatments of Peru’s fascinating military governments of the 1970s, which surely deserve their own post, will have to wait for another day. But for now, a certain interpretivistic sense of image is inescapable. Like any image, this one changes depending on the angle from which it is viewed, looks different to everyone, and may not look the same next week. 

Watching the presidential address for Fiestas Patrias, the great Peruvian national festival that combines July Fourth, Thanksgiving, and Decoration Day into one grand, nationalistic, tragic spectacle, it struck me that Humala looked more than a little dutiful giving his speech. As usual, he gave a workmanlike speech in which any real political philosophy was hard to discern, and drew upon his military bearing and slight reserve to carry the day. It’s like almost everything else he does – the good soldier, very slightly uncomfortable at doing what must be done. The impression of watching the heir to Peru’s unusual military dictatorship(s) of the 1970s has never been stronger. Yet is he the melancholy Velasco, the revolutionary who took power to forestall a revolution, or the counter-revolutionary Bermúdez, who took power because he was afraid of the excesses of the people, and was in turn chased from power by popular protest?

Whichever he may be, Humala has in him more than a little of the authoritarian modernizer. Indeed, his projected policies propose to address deep issues, not just of growth and prosperity, but also of equity and inclusion, that have long dogged the Peruvian polity. And it is hard not to see in Humala someone with a real concern for a sort of social justice, particularly in the sense that he is focused upon remedying the profound social injustices of poverty and inclusion. Yet he seeks solutions to these problems without concern for procedural justice and inclusion, while seeking to discourage, in many cases, the popular participation that might give political weight to an agenda of social justice and inclusion. (This is, of course, by no means his fault alone; the Peruvian state is not an inclusive beast, nor one that welcomes public participation. It is, however, his problem.)

 Humala must be aware that his government sits atop a slumbering – but ever-stirring – volcano, one that looks a lot like a still-bleeding national wound. Mixed metaphors aside, this is both more or less empirical truth, and a reflection of the hegemonic narrative of Peru’s still-smoldering national divisions.

It is empirically true in that Peru has faced multiple leftist and anti-systemic insurrections in the past, statistically correlated with increased risk of civil war (the why of course is harder to get at, but that’s for another day!). Less histrionically, it is empirically true in that the Defensoria del Pueblo currently has over 220 ongoing social conflicts logged as of June of this year. And it is empirically true in that Humala is currently facing an uptick in social protest, from striking doctors and nurses protesting medical reforms, to the emerging anti-corruption and anti-politics as usual movement currently stewing in the streets of Lima and elsewhere.

The interpretive truth behind the cliché accords with the dominant narrative in that the targets of Humala’s development schemes are the historically disadvantaged and disenfranchised indigenous campesinos of the highlands, a patchwork of peoples with one of the most storied histories of violent rebellion in the Americas. Official Lima, in so many manifestations, has always seethed with anxiety over those people, what they might do next (when it isn’t ignoring them). Humala’s big idea seems to be to resist the temptation to ignore the highlands, to push a broad economic integration into the national prosperity, satisfying the economic needs of those who the dominant narrative inscribes as most likely to revolt – because it is in their nature, because they are sick of poverty, because to revolt is unfortunately at the moment justified, heck, pick a reason – before they revolt again.

In Puno region, for example, in the conflictive far south of the country, Humala recently paid a visit to the town of Ayaviri, where he presided over the regional council of ministers. While there he delivered, in person, some 150 refrigerators, meant to hold enough basic vaccines to resolve the shortage which plagues the country’s rural zones. He then unveiled a new program to promote cheese production for export to neighboring countries, made a speech touting Puno’s potential to be among the greatest regions in Peru, and winged back off in military helicopter.

Besides the populist gesture of refrigerator delivery – and Humala is so clearly a certain sort of populist, the kind of military president who occasionally drives his own car to events, that it’s barely interesting save to note in passing – one gets a fair sense of what Humala is about here. Puno is poor and rural, prone to outbursts of popular protest that draw particularly disruptive forms from the Andean repertoire of contention. The last time I was in Puno, a sea of informal miners chanted for Humala’s resignation – “Humala, traitor,” was a popular pairing – in the main square of Puno city. A year later, the traitor to the nation himself is back in the region, delivering refrigerators and promising agricultural promotion programs to wean such people from their (incredibly environmentally destructive) squalid livelihoods, to put these people, the region, the entire country on a sustainable path to inclusive prosperity.

Humala, then, is making a great capitalist gamble: he is betting that enough people in Peru will get rich enough soon enough that the inevitable conflictivities of the nation of which he is head of state can be defused. This is an impressive and ambitious goal; in terms of economic development, and, indeed, psychically, he is dragging with him heavy freight in attempting to race against time.

Yet can he succeed in catalyzing inclusive growth while failing to promote popular participation, while neutering participatory and consultative organizations? The approach he is pursuing, particularly in striking populations most-affected by the vast majority of mining projects from the rolls of those to be consulted, and flirting with the criminalization of protest in other areas, suggests an attitude of pursuing growth at all costs. We may not doubt that his motives are pure, and focused on lifting people out of poverty. Yet this is an approach that cuts indigenous campesinos of the highlands out of the conversation on extractive-driven growth because their participation is inconvenient, and threatens to slow the implementation of mining projects. It is an approach that focuses only on results, at the expense of process.

But carried to its furthest extent, this is barely the approach of a democrat. Watching Humala chart his country’s path forward is more like seeing the shadow of Velasco, gripped with the passion of solving his country’s deepest problems before the nation can be engulfed in blood and chaos, and then seeing him becoming Bermúdez, the counter-revolutionary revolutionary, before one’s eyes, all within the figure of one man, possessed of a certain pragmatic vision, and ruling in the midst of a certain splendid isolation.

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2 Responses to A heuristic for Humala

  1. Pingback: Is Peru’s Humala a modern-day Velasquista? | Suffragio

  2. Pingback: Democracy, participation, and discontent: a crisis of governance for Peru? | Suffragio

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