A few weeks ago I visited Lima for the first time. The city has become the center of South America’s culinary universe, and with good reason. My first dive into Lima dining took place in one of the city’s many upscale eateries. The subtle electronic beats – not too loud, not too soft – emanating from the loudspeakers suggested Paris, or Oslo. The decor was contemporary classy. The food was incredible, beyond what I expected.

But the diners? They were whiter than me. Every time somebody came in, people would turn around to see who it was. It was the definition of an in place in a society where people still expect to know everyone else. Needless to say, the wait-staff were all Peruvians of indigenous descent. It was all one big Latin American cliche, like a dress rehearsal for the next Jaime Bayly novel.

As I breathed in the milieu, something else caught my eye: in every table, diners were wearing the same wristbands. My friends explained they were for PPK, the preferrred candidate of Lima’s elite.

“The rich people here hate Keiko,” my friend told me. “They can’t stand her father. The funny thing they do not realize, though, is that the only person standing in the way between Peru and a chavista revolution … is Keiko Fujimori.”

A few days after I had left, the country held the first round in their elections. PPK narrowly edged the chavista candidate Veronika Mendoza for second place, with Keiko Fujimori solidly in first. Polls suggest Keiko and PPK are neck-and-neck.

As we await tonight’s results, my friend’s phrase keeps coming back to me.

There is no doubt that Alberto Fujimori, Keiko’s father, was a dictator. After literally shutting down Congress, his rule descended into authoritarianism. His became a state where the national spy agency routinely preyed on political enemies, bribed politicians, and actively engaged in drug smuggling and human rights violations. Some of the charges against Fujimori, such as that he forcibly sterilized women, were thrown out by Peru’s courts, much to the dismay of the alleged victims.

He now sits in jail, justly so. But it would be stingy to deny that Fujimori laid the groundwork for much of Peru’s recent success.

Putting the country’s finances in order and ushering in a wave of privatization and deregulation are undoubtedly some of the key ingredients of the current Peruvian success story. So too is the defeat of the marxist guerrilla groups that almost turned the country into a failed state in the 1980s and early 1990s. That is also part of the Fujimori legacy.

But that’s Alberto. What about Keiko?

The people I spoke to, even those who did not like her, acknowledged two things: that she is articulate and smart; and that she is a capable politician. Just like her father in 1990, she brings an “outsider” appeal that endears her to many in Peru’s empoverished, historically excluded hinterlands. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the hatred the upper classes have toward the Fujimoris makes up a major part of their political capital.

Whoever wins today, Peru’s next wave of reforms requires at least two things: changing the country’s labor laws to make them more flexible, and incorporating large swathes of the informal economy into the formal sector.

The first reform will require a solid political base. The unions and the extreme left – which still draw considerable political support – will scream to the heavens. Drowning them out will require a strong bully pulpit, but also a healthy dose of populism. The Fujimori brand of politics, articulated by Keiko’s large majority in the incoming Congress (where her party will have 73 out of 130 deputies), will help in this regard. PPK would try to enact the same reform, sans the political base to do it.

As for bringing Peruvians into the formal economy, Fujimori has tapped the advice of Hernando de Soto, one of the world’s leading thinkers on the issue of using access to formal markets as a means to overcome poverty. De Soto is a Latin American giant who understands that poverty breeds quick-fix chavista “solutions” that end up overturning democracies. Keiko, it seems, also understands the urgency of addressing this.

Keiko has vowed not to pardon her father if elected. Nevertheless, many are suspicious that he will govern behind the throne, and that the same people who ran his authoritarian state will be in charge, once more, of the levers of power.

This is unacceptable to many, and I understand that. But a fair assessment of a candidate needs to take into account strengths and weaknesses. Any voter in Peru needs to ask themselves if they are rejecting Keiko because of policy, or because of genealogy.

They also need to be aware that the spectre of chavismo is latent in all of our societies, particularly one as stratified as Peru. Can a 77-year old economist who shed his American passport like last week keep the demons of chavismo at bay? Can a man elected for who he is not rather than who he is, with no base in Congress —zero—, be the solution to the anti-politics plague Peru has suffered the last fifteen years? Can an economic boom continue to be led by politicians nobody believes in? Is this sustainable?

If she were to win today, Keiko Fujimori would bring some foul-smelling baggage to Pizarro’s Palace. But she also has considerable political strengths which she will likely use to pass many of the same reforms PPK is vowing to enact.

In other words, at her best, Keiko could turn out to be a politically viable brand of sensible, pro-market populism, one that could help consolidate the economic model that has served Peru so well in recent years.

Along with their Sunday ceviche, that is something upper-class Fujimori-hating Peruvians need to chew on.

22 COMMENTS

  1. Another great article from Juan exploring the many paradoxes of Peruvian political life , among them :

    Seems as if being perceived as an ‘outsider’ rather than as someone from the established social or political circles is an attractive political feature in a candidate , Not only in Peru but in the US…….Outsiders are in while insiders are out , what a paradox…..!!

    Being the daughter of an authoritarian human rights violator like Daddy Fujimori doesnt seem to have been a drag to keikos ambitions , something like what happens in Venezuela were human rights violations are more relevant to the middle class oppo than to the mass of the underpriviledged .!!

  2. Living here for over 10 years i can tell you that fujimori is a very polaricing image. People either hate the phenomenon or love it. However there is a numerous bibliography that says many of the achievements adscribed to fujimori are not his in reality. First of all the economic policy, which plan was set by Mario Vargas Llosa in the elections of 1990. I’ve thought a lot about what you have said and somehow I concurr on the premise that only her has the political mass to hold the door to the left. However human rights violations and supression of dissidents and oppo in Venezuela is something that could well have been withdrawn from Lima’s government from the 90’s. A president with such powers could give to the left the discourse to do the same when they get to power, which I Verymuch think will happen eventually given al stratification in this society.

  3. Thanks, Juan. Great post.
    Soto and property rights…it is amazing for me how little this topic is discussed among our feudal societies.
    Many (middle to upper-middle class) urbanites in Venezuelans downplay this as well…the same as the military caste – who uses land like the lords in Extremadura or Southern Italy many centuries ago – or the extreme left. A lot of poor families I know from around Venezuela who have been living in a place for generations do not own that very land…it was land that was in the hands of Gómez, some gomecista, the State, whatever.

    Let’s hope we don’t have to wait for a Keiko-like figure.

    • “…property rights…it is amazing for me how little this topic is discussed among our feudal societies.”

      Because the sense of entiltlement, part of the infamous “viveza criolla” in Venezuela and just “being a swindling cheating bastard sociopath” in the rest of the world, has been injected very deep in the mind of a lot of people in these societies, where they believe they deserve free stuff just because they exist, and see formal work as “fool’s stuff”

      A vision fostered by the populist governments as an easy way to keep a grip on the population.

      • I think you are getting my message wrong.
        The privileged in Venezuela have been more keen on keeping their “rights” since they got vast pieces of land during the Conquista…and then since the Venezuelan “liberators”, the military, got to rule in Venezuela after the Spanish government was gone…and then through the dictators but also through those privileged enough to have good contacts with them. The poor, on the other hand, was almost never given the opportunity to own land one way or the other until Gómez died. Then there were only very timid attempts at reform. I don’t know if you are aware of this but until now a huge amount of land not in the main cities was simply not really for sale, the whole documentation – if any – being incredibly incomplete

        In most developed countries that I am aware of there was a clear process of land distribution one time or the other. In Norway there was basically never a feudal society
        and property rights were passed from one family to the eldest son since Viking times.
        In France land distribution got a dramatic push with the French Revolution. Even in German kingdoms with very feudal laws things changed for good when the French arrived there (for better or worse).

        In the US there was also a process of massive, rapid conquest whereby the white government decided to distribute land according to very clear rules to the new (white) settlers. At least that was kind of transparent and fair to the newcomers (even if not to the others).

        No, man, it is not “the poor are psychopaths who want to have things for free”. It is a bit more complicated than that. It is that most of the privately own land in Venezuela has been acquired anyway through very dark means.

        • amén – it has become a trend to blame it on some supposed ‘inherent’ fatal flaw that all Venezuelans seem to be guilty of having (unless you are lucky enough to have access to a good education, money, a foreign passport…) instead of trying to work out all of the possible factors that are hindering the country’s development — like you said, the former is too simplistic and frankly even an unreasonable generalization that I believe can even become detrimental to the whole process of progress…

          • Syd,
            No, I am not referring to the Gauls. I am referring to Napoleon’s wars and changes across a lot of Germany from 1803 until around 1813. Those years saw radical changes across many nations apart from France and a few of those changes were there to stay. Among them was a bit of land distribution. In some places things were reverted but nothing remained the same.

  4. Enjoyed the writing, Juan, finding some recognizable beats. A long-ago fan of basic Peruvian food, in Venezuela, I had not experienced what you did, until I attended a “noche peruana” at a Peruvian restaurant in Toronto, c. 2005. The racial homogeneity (read: blanco-blanquiiito) of the diners, check. The high index of their entitled body language and pistoladas, check. The hired indigenous help, check. In sum, it was a cliché, indeed. But consistent with a collective unconscious based on history. For, of all the virreinatos in colonial times, Peru was the most valuable one for Spain. (Hint: where do you think all the silver came from to make shine the cathedrals of the madre patria, and thereby attract the filigre$e$?)

    As for Keiko’s “outsider” appeal that endears her to many in Peru’s empoverished (sic), historically excluded hinterlands, I would add this, as told to me by a Peruvian banker, c. 1990: the reason Alberto Fujimori won was because the indigenous looked at his face and said to themselves, “he looks like me; I’ll vote for him”. Así de simple.

  5. She could be bringing the Greatest Economic Plan Ever down from Heaven, escorted by angels.

    I’d not vote for her in a million years.

    All that “well, he was an dictator and a criminal, but the economy….” stuff can die in a fire for all I care. Thats the way you get people to identify sensible economic plans with the far right. There is no “but”. Or more appropiately, the “but” doesnt justify, enable or put a good spin on all the rest.

  6. Thanks for the info.. waiting for Baylys comments on Peru tonight.. But how can we be sure Keiko will not turn out to be like her father? Fujimori promised democracy, and then switched gears into a dictatorship. Same as Chavez, promising “free markets” back in the day..

    Has Keiko openly criticized and condemned her father, for his lies and brutal dictatorship? That’s what I’d like to know. To vote for her I would have to hear: “my father is a scumbag totalitarian dictator, a liar, and deserves to be in jail”. Has she said that??

  7. Typical Old-School Venezuelan Oppo-thinking: “Liberal democracy is only valuable if it advances MY agenda, and populist authoritarianism is fair play if it serves MY interests”.

    This complete lack of integrity and disdain for liberal principles is what paved the way and eventually allowed for 17 years of Chavismo in the first place.

    Venezuelans who would support Fujimorismo deserve to deal with Chavismo. Unfortunately the rest of us have to deal with the consequences, too.

  8. Still no result announced. PPK is ahead by a fraction of a percent, but they still have votes to count. A real squeaker.

  9. Nivel de sorpresa respecto a que Nagel le haga apología a los Fujimori: cero.

    “De Soto is a Latin American giant who understands that poverty breeds quick-fix chavista ‘solutions’ that end up overturning democracies.”

    Curiosa la cita, porque a mi entender, Keiko es ese quick-fix. La izquierda radical no es la única que amenaza a la democracia.

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