Ollanta Humala’s bumpy road to power

By Rick Vecchio
Peruvian Times Editor

There were very few times I had ever fought so hard to get one of my stories run in its entirety than the piece below. As it was, I lost and an overnight editor transformed 930 words into a substantially shorter and brighter rewrite.

The gist of that story was that Ollanta Humala was a has-been, betrayed and abandoned by political allies and stripped of the potent “Olla” clay pot campaign symbol. Conclusion: he was heading for final humiliating defeat in local elections — a certification of his final political doom.

Not far from public perception at the time. Still, something that needed to get told about what this guy is like didn’t get past the edit.

Here is the original version:

October 19, 2006

Polarizing Peruvian nationalist falls to earth after meteoric rise


LIMA, Peru  Ollanta Humala is on the campaign trail again after losing Peru’s presidential election, pushing his ragtag caravan through impoverished shantytowns under a banner that reads: “Ollanta for President 2011.”

The retired army officer, an unabashed admirer of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, is trying to rally support for a list of mostly unknown candidates in next month’s local and regional elections.

“I have no illusions. I have to build the party,” said Humala, who brought Peru to the brink of radical change. “There is a lot of time before 2011 and a lot of things can happen.”

For a time, Humala seemed unstoppable. He pledged to punish corrupt politicians, intervene in Peru’s free-market economy and radically redistribute the wealth. In April, he won the most votes in the first round of presidential elections.

But Humala’s star has plummeted since Alan Garcia defeated him in a June runoff after accusing Chavez of meddling in Peru’s affairs. His political alliance is in tatters.

A similar backlash may cost leftist economist Rafael Correa the presidency of Ecuador. Correa boasted of his closeness to Chavez during his campaign and is now a distinct underdog in the Nov. 26 runoff against billionaire banana tycoon Alvaro Noboa.

Polls show Humala’s disapproval ratings as high as 70 percent as he faces human rights abuse charges that stem from his 1992 command of a jungle counterinsurgency base.

Humala, 44, blames his political misfortune on Garcia, and says the charges are political persecution to destroy his movement.

He acknowledges commanding the Madre Mia military base during Peru’s dirty war with Maoist Shining Path guerrillas. But he denies ordering the torture and murder of jungle residents caught in the crossfire.

Garcia’s government “is pressuring the courts to try to put me in prison,” Humala told The Associated Press in his green SUV as it led a caravan of two dozen vehicles ferrying candidates and some 60 supporters from one impoverished district of Lima to another.

Soldiers under Humala’s command allegedly murdered husband and wife Benigno Sullca and Natividad Avila after dragging them from their jungle home.

Last month, Avila’s sister and her niece, Maria Sullca, released a secretly taped video of a man offering them $20,000 to drop their allegations against Humala. Avila’s brother, Jorge, recanted testimony in June that he was tortured in Humala’s presence.

Humala told the AP he could not answer questions about alleged witness tampering.

“I can’t offer opinions about the trial in process,” he said as he jumped out of his car to climb aboard a pickup truck to wave to passers-by.

At an open air market, Humala stopped to tell a crowd to support his municipal candidate for Lima’s Villa El Salvador district. “If he does not fulfill his promises we will hang him,” Humala joked.

Humala had wooed Peru’s poor majority during the 2006 presidential campaign and generally terrified the middle and upper classes with a similar discourse, delivered with stone-cold seriousness.

Many Peruvians were also offended by Chavez’s open endorsement of Humala, and diplomatic relations with Venezuela remain icy. Chavez still contends Garcia stole the election.

“In the second round I also suspect they stole votes from us but I have no proof,” Humala said.

“There is a continental and regional strategy to stigmatize Hugo Chavez, as if he were a bad person, which he isn’t,” he added. “He is a Venezuelan patriot who is developing a revolutionary project in his country.”

Humala’s mayoral candidate in Lima has about 2 percent support, polls show. His other candidates are projected to win municipal and regional offices in only three of Peru’s 24 states, despite defeating Garcia overwhelmingly in 15 states in the June runoff.

Even in the long-neglected and impoverished southern and central highlands where Humala’s support was strongest, some independent front-runners have rejected his overtures to join forces.

Eduardo Ballon, a senior analyst at Peru’s Desco think tank, said Humala has a fatal flaw for a politician: he has no idea how to reach compromises.

“His absolute political inexperience and his very authoritarian logic in viewing politics is part of the explanation,” he said.

Humala’s appeal was still evident in Lima’s slums, however.

People in markets and in the doorways of shoddily built shacks excitedly shouted his name: “Ollanta! Ollanta!”

But not everyone expressed joy at his presence.

“Ollanta, get out of here. Go home!” one woman shouted from a storefront. Another gestured an energetic thumbs down in response to his salute.

The road was bumpy. One truck in Humala’s caravan ran out of gas. Another, carrying a brass band, screeched to a lopsided halt as a rear wheel broke off the axle.

Humala’s “nationalist” coalition won 45 seats in Peru’s 120-member Congress in the April 9 elections, the largest bloc, compared to 36 for Garcia’s center-left Aprista party.

But the number of lawmakers loyal to Humala quickly fell to 22 after defections and political infighting over complaints he has shifted too far to the left.

The Union for Peru party, which sponsored his candidacy after his fledgling Peruvian Nationalist Party missed a registration deadline, has denounced his leadership.

Congressman Aldo Estrada, who founded Union for Peru in 1995 with veteran Peruvian diplomat and former U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, said Humala lacks any political skill.

“He was formed in military ground,” Estrada said. “He thinks everything can be handled with shouting, with orders, which isn’t the case. Democracy is one thing. Militarism is another.”

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  1. And what do you have to say about Keiko Fujimori and clan? How about writing about all the people in her campaign that are from Alberto’s regime? Now that Humala has won I would have thought you might be embarrassed by your predictions; but no. If you are a good reporter then you might become a decent voice should Humala lean to far away from your principles. For myself, I think that he will be a decent president who will find it very difficult to get anything done with the power of the wealthy sitting on his head. Much like Obama…although Obama is so much farther to the right than he portrays himself.

    • Rick Vecchio says:

      I am not in the least embarrassed. The reporting was accurate and did not betray a hint of my personal political leanings or principles.

      What is noteworthy is that President-elect Humala turned every pronouncement by analysts, political rivals and colleagues in 2006 about who he was as a politician on its ear.

      “I have no illusions. I have to build the party … There is a lot of time before 2011 and a lot of things can happen.”

      In late 2006, the wheels were quite literally falling off of Humala’s political machine. His campaign was inexperienced, sluggish and reactionary. Alan Garcia and the Apristas danced circles around him.

      The wrap on Humala five years ago was that he was a person constrained by authoritarian logic, lacking in any political skills and incapable of compromise. In 2011, he shook off all of those monikers, running as disciplined a second round campaign as could have been imagined and making the necessary strategic alliances to win the presidency.

      He swore on a gilded bible, after all, and because of that act, won the endorsement of the bulk of Peru’s centrist civil society. My prediction that day at San Marcos, whispered into the ear of my friend and former colleague, Paola Ugaz: “This is going to win him the election.”

      Going into the polls last Sunday, the secondary question that voters had to ask themselves was whether what they had witnessed in Humala was an authentic political evolution in the blink of an eye, or a cynical act of political expediency.

      The primary question was who would they prefer to lead the country: him or Keiko Fujimori.

      A majority of the country chose Humala.

      What do I have to say about Keiko Fujimori and her clan. For now, nothing. But here’s what I reported about her the day she abandoned the Government Palace:

      22 November 2000

      LIMA, Peru — First lady Keiko Sofia, the daughter left behind by ousted President Alberto Fujimori, has vacated the Government Palace with her stereo, a huge Garfield doll and two pet poodles in tow.

      A symbol of his government, however, the official “first lady” is staying put in Peru — even as her countrymen expressed a mix of outrage that her father fled to Japan and relief that the iron-fisted ruler was gone.

      Asked by reporters Tuesday what message she has for Peruvians, she replied: “I ask you for peace. I ask you for tranquility. Peru is bigger than its problems.”

      Hours later, lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to ignore Fujimori’s resignation and oust him from office on constitutional grounds of moral unfitness.

      Guido Lucioni, Keiko Sofia’s personal assistant, said the first lady knew “for a couple of days” that her father planned to announce his resignation.

      Fujimori, the son of Japanese immigrants, said Tuesday from Tokyo that he was talking to Japan’s Foreign Ministry about staying in his ancestral homeland.

      “She’s a very strong woman. She’s coming to terms with the change,” Lucioni said. “In reality, politics have cost her a great deal in her personal life.”

      As the eldest of four children, Keiko Sofia became first lady in 1994 after Fujimori “fired” her mother, Susana Higuchi, after she accused him of tolerating widespread corruption. Their divorce was finalized two years later. Higuchi is now an opposition congresswoman.

      Trucks and cars lined up outside the palace Tuesday, carrying the family’s belongings to the home of Fujimori’s elderly mother, Matsue, where Keiko Sofia planned to live, Lucioni said.

      Her younger brother, Hiro, lives in Japan, along with Fujimori’s sister and her husband, Peru’s ambassador in Tokyo.

      Lucioni said Keiko Sofia’s “relationship with her father continues to be good.”

      Fujimori once said the only people for whom he would put his “hand in the fire” were his children. He has another daughter and son who live and study in the United States.

      For years, Keiko Sofia avoided the political limelight. She devoted herself to children’s causes and ceremonial occasions.

      But that changed in the months following her father’s deeply flawed election last May.

      In August, she said publicly that Vladimiro Montesinos — her father’s shadowy top adviser — should step down as de facto head of Peru’s repressive intelligence apparatus.

      The following month, a leaked videotape showed Montesinos apparently bribing a newly elected opposition congressman.

      Fujimori said it was with the sole counsel of his 25-year-old daughter — and no one else — that he made the final decision to deactivate his spy chief’s agency and call for elections in which he would not run. He said she helped draft the stunning announcement two days after the video aired.

      Keiko Sofia, who graduated from Boston University in 1997 with a degree in business administration, tried to clean up her father’s image.

      In recent interviews, she confided that his greatest error during a decade in power “was not realizing the magnitude of the problem caused by Dr. Montesinos’ presence.”

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