Monday, June 6, 2011

Colombia Surrounded?

Colombia and Chile, the only nations  on the continent with conservative governments. 

Humala: Which version of him will rule?
The victory of Ollanta Humala in Peru's presidential election leaves Colombia almost surrounded by leftist governments, several of them with populist, nationalist pedigrees sometimes hostile to Colombia.

Humala beat out right-wing candidate Keiko Fujimori in a runoff after several candidates split the centrist vote, leaving a leftist populist to face off against the daughter of an ex-president-turned-dictator now in a Peruvian prison. Peruvian novelist and Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa called it 'a choice between AIDS and terminal cancer.'

Colombia already has on its eastern border the Venezuela of Hugo Chavez, who appears to have funded and supported Colombia's leftist guerrillas and has periodically talked of war with Colombia. On Colombia's west is Ecuador, whose Pres. Rafael Correa also apparently provided refuge to Colombia's FARC guerrillas. To the south is Brazil, whose leaders have carried out a more mature style of leftism, improving the lives of the poor without embracing obsolete ideas about revolution, guerrilla war and anti-imperialism.

Alan Garcia
For the past four years, Peru has been governed by Alan Garcia, himself a bizarre political character. During his four years in power, the Peruvian economy has grown by 9% annually - the fastest in South America. But during Garcia's previous presidential term 25 years ago, when he was a leftist, he led his country to disaster. Then, Garcia drove his country into economic ruin, while the Shining Path guerrillas unleashed a reign of terror.

Perhaps Humala will find a lesson in that. But his background gives reason to worry. During his unsuccesful campaign against Garcia four years ago, Humala promised to remake Peru and displayed admiration for Venezuelan Pres. Hugo Chavez, who probably helped finance Humala's first campaign. Like Chavez, Humala is an ex-military man who headed an unsuccesful coup attempt against his government. This time around, Humala has promised to maintain Peru's successful economic model, but with more assistance for the poor. Let's hope he sticks to that.

Pointless effort? Spraying
coca plants in Colombia. 
One almost-certain casualty of Humala's victory is Washington's campaign against cocaine production. Peru's crop of coca leaf, the base ingredient of cocaine, has increased in recent years, even as the U.S. has spent billions of dollars erradicating Colombia's own crop. Peru was historically the world's biggest cocaine producer, and if Humala follows the lead of leftist leaders of Bolivia and Venezuela and ends anti-drug cooperation with Washington, it will regain that status and Colombia's efforts will become futile. Of course, this only underlines the fact that the War On Drugs is probably all futile, anyway.

Humala's victory is most dangerous because of the way he could threaten Peru's fragile democracy. The leftist leaders in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua have variously tried to extend their presidencies beyond constitutional limits and expand presidential powers.

Humala's success was born from Latin America's presistent poverty. Despite vigorous economic growth, it is the region of the world suffering the greatest amount of economic inequality. Until the region's leaders resolve this problem, all kinds of radicalism will continue sprouting and flourishing.

Whether or not Humala helps his country will depend on which Humala rules Peru: a moderate focused on helping his people or a nationalist ideologue bent on proving that Marxism lives on. I hope he doesn't follow the cheap populism I saw in Venezuela, where Chavez uses his country's great wealth to buy political support. For example, Venezuela subsidizes gasoline to just a few cents a gallon - undermining the country's economy, environment and quality of life, but buying votes for Chavez. Besieged by his nation's troubles, Chavez has often looked for enemies to rail against in Colombia and the United States. If Peru's economy weakens, we could see a repeat from the west.

It may be fortunate for Colombia that this is happening during the government of Pres. Juan Manuel Santos, who has tried hard to get along with Colombia's leftist neighbors. His predecessor Alvaro Uribe, in contrast, seemed paranoid about Venezuela's Chavez, which only made things worse.

As for Humala's defeated rival Keiko Fujimori, she may still have a promising political future. Peru's last two presidents had both finished second in the preceding election.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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