Why Peru’s calls for change are the loudest

Perú has just recalled its ambassador after a war of words that cements Pedro Pablo Kuczynski’s role as the leading friend of Venezuelan democracy in the hemisphere.

Relations between Venezuela and Perú hit the skids today as Perú recalled its ambassador to Venezuela following a furious row about who is more like a dog.

It all started last week with President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski gave a speech at Princeton University. During the Q&A, a Venezuelan student asked what responsibility Latin American governments have in Venezuela, and the Peruvian President just let it rip:

Kuczynski revealed that he told Delcy Rodriguez her government was “unsustainable” last October. The mental image it conjures is of an adult speaking to a child. Kuczynski repeated his case for the region to step in to prevent the Venezuelan crisis from becoming a regional crisis.

Kuczynski told Delcy Rodriguez her government was “unsustainable.”

Kuczynski was already Venezuela’s leading critic, until the Vatican-sponsored dialogue took the wind out of his sails. But with dialogue failed and elections on ice, Kuczynski has resumed taking his shots. Last month he unveiled a special visa to allow 6,000 Venezuelans to study, work and receive health services in Peru.

Maduro had to hit back. He honed in on the opening line of Kuczynski’s response to that Venezuela question.

Well, the U.S. focuses on areas that cause trouble, right? The Middle East and so on. It does not spend much time on Latin America, which is like a nice dog sleeping on the carpet there and is not causing anybody any problems. But in the case of Venezuela, it’s a huge problem.

In English, comparing somebody to a dog isn’t necessarily an insult. But Maduro isn’t talking to English speakers. He’s trying to win points in Latin America. In a typically self-aggrandizing proclamation on behalf of his fellow Bolivarian revolutionaries – which went as far citing the Battle of Ayacucho Maduro demanded Kuczynski apologize to Latin America (and to the Caribbean, for good measure.)

Ten years ago that might’ve been picked up by like-minded anti-imperialists in Peru. But today? Crickets. Radio silence.

Possibly looking for a fight, some members of Kuczynski’s party in Congress condemned Maduro’s statements. But Peru’s leftists wanted none of it. Perusing their Facebook and Twitter feeds, you’d think they missed the news altogether.

With no takers in Peru or anywhere else, Delcy Rodriguez chimed in, calling Kuczynski a “coward” and the “American empire’s dog.” Peru’s ambassador to Venezuela issued a letter of protest before being recalled to Lima by Kuczynski.

Why is Kuczynski leading the charge against Venezuela?

Leaders in Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Mexico would be speaking out, but they have more pressing problems at home. Compared to them, Peru is sitting pretty. Our biggest problem is that Odebrecht fallout will keep us from reaching 4% GDP growth, and that stubborn inflation keeps jumping outside the target range of 1% to 3%. This gives Kuczynski a lot of room to play the nemesis.

More important than stability at home, Kuczynski is a true believer in democracy and capitalism. The former World Bank economist was working for Peru’s central bank at the time of the 1968 coup which ushered in the socialist military dictatorship of Juan Velasco Alvarado. Facing jail on trumped up charges, Kuczynski went into exile in the United States. He watched Peru decline into economic crisis from abroad as he made a fortune in investment banking. After the crisis, Kuczynski watched former President Alberto Fujimori’s slow-motion coup in the 1990s which, in hindsight, reads like el finado’s blueprint on how to consolidate power.

More important than stability at home, Kuczynski is a true believer in democracy and capitalism.

Aside from what Kuczynski believes, the people of Peru may be Latin America’s least friendly to the Bolivarian Revolution. With just 20 of 130 seats in Congress, the leftist Broad Front would be weak even without its current turf war between rising star Veronika Mendoza and party chief Marco Arana.

I recently did a report on the trend of tourism to Lima’s historic slum, Villa El Salvador. At some point I asked the community leader tasked with accompanying our group about politics. The woman, a teacher who built her school on what was a trash dump on the side of a hill, said a slight majority backed Keiko Fujimori. The rest are “PPKausas,” or Kuczynski supporters.

“Y Vero?” I asked, referring to the leftist firebrand whose late surge spooked markets during the 2016 election.

“Nada,” she answered, adding that everybody associates Broad Front with terrorism.

The infamous Marxist guerrillas of Shining Path led a brutal occupation of Villa El Salvador during the 1980s. Throw in a backdrop of hyperinflation, food lines and malnutrition during Peru’s own stint with state-planned economies in the 70s and 80s, and you see why socialists get “nada” in Lima’s second-largest district, despite being made up of lower-income households.

So Kuczynski doesn’t run much political risk by challenging Maduro. The Venezuelan model is a tough sell here not only because of Peru’s history, but also its present. Everyday Peruvians don’t have to read the news or watch television to learn about Venezuela today.

My wife recently took a ride with a Venezuelan taxi driver. She had to direct him the whole way home. While a taxi driver who isn’t a born-and-bred limeño is not unheard of, a foreigner to Peru who doesn’t know his way around freaking Lince raises eyebrows.

The Venezuelan model is a tough sell here not only because of Peru’s history, but also its present.

The neighborhood around the Migraciones office has long been a reliable place to score an arepa, but in the last year we’re seeing arepa stands all over town and even in the smaller cities. In the country which has won World’s Best Culinary Destination for five years running, the average Peruvian didn’t have to study economics at Princeton to wonder if arepas’ sudden popularity is more a function of supply than demand … as good as they are and all.

I met an elderly Venezuelan couple in Barranco. One of their children is in Lima, the rest spread out over the continent. The couple travels as much as they can, but they can’t leave Venezuela permanently. They said that if they don’t keep up appearances at their house, the government will seize it.

These are just the anecdotes from a work-from-home gringo and his homemaker wife. Imagine what Peru’s taxi drivers, restaurant servers, hotel managers and police officers hear from the Venezuelan diaspora.

In the last year we’re seeing arepa stands all over Lima and even in the smaller cities.

What I mean, though, is that Venezuela is no longer just something Peruvians learn about through the media. When Kuczynski warned that “you’re going to have boat people going to Curacao, you’re going to have people marching into Colombia, you’re going to have planes arriving in relatively nice places like Peru,” that’s not some wild projection about the future. It’s already happening, and no amount of Telesur headlines about how “Venezuela rejects Kuczynski’s insults against Latin America” is going to change that.