Venezuelan president Hugo
Chavez has attracted a lot of media attention in recent weeks, as the
leader of a supposed swing to the left in Latin America. During his much-hyped visit to London
last month, mayor Ken Livingstone called Chavez “the best news out of
Latin America in many years.” But there are signs that his
authoritarian brand of left-wing populism is not quite unstoppable.

First
of all, the region’s swing to the left has not been a uniform trend:
election victors have ranged from Chavez ally Evo Morales in Bolivia
through to moderate, market-friendly leftists like Brazil’s Lula da
Silva and Chile’s Michelle Bachelet. Incumbents seem to be advantaged
just as much as in the rest of the democratic world; Colombia’s Alvaro
Uribe was re-elected in a landslide a week ago, despite his conservative policies and firm alliance with the US.

But
the strongest evidence comes from last weekend’s runoff election in
Peru. Voters had to choose between Ollanta Humala, a left-wing
nationalist strongly backed by Chavez, and former president Alan
Garcia, whose previous term (1985-90) was widely regarded as a
disaster. Garcia emerged the victor
with just over 53% of the vote. He had run heavily on the issue of
Venezuelan “interference” in Peru’s affairs, and it seems to have done
the trick.

In his day, Garcia himself was regarded as a
populist; his presidency was marked by runaway inflation, increased
insurgency by Maoist guerrillas, and a failed attempt to nationalise the
banks. The bank nationalisation issue led in turn to the entry into
politics of novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, who was narrowly defeated in
the 1990 presidential election by Alberto Fujimori. Garcia spent years
in exile, and his period in office was treated as a lesson not to be
repeated. To come back from there, even though his victory was not as
convincing as it might have been (or as the exit polls had predicted –
they’re not having a good year), is a remarkable achievement.

Given
the choice, Peruvians preferred a reformed populist to an unreformed
one. Chavez’s more uncritical supporters should take note.

Peter Fray

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