In 2011 I wrote a piece titled “Understanding Uribismo,” which was my attempt to shed light on the popularity of Colombia’s hard-line former President Alvaro Uribe.
The gist of that article was that many Colombians voted for Uribe because they wanted him to cross the line of ethics and legality. Like in the war on Pablo Escobar, Colombians wanted a president who would be willing to do whatever it took to beat the guerrillas. And Uribe did exactly that.
Uribe has since suffered an epic fall in public esteem for reasons I have only watched from the international headlines since I left Colombia behind in 2012. But it seems he would have been wise to bow out of politics when he was on top.
There is a similarly curious phenomenon in Peru’s 2016 elections. The longtime presidential frontrunner is Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of former President Alberto Fujimori, who is currently jailed for authorizing death squads and embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars.
Gringo disbelief is summed up in this question from a student at a Utah university last year:
In not making his remarks brief as promised, the student clearly did not have a question so much as a call for attention to himself. And without going into detail on where the student’s remarks were misinformed, he asked what all the gringos want to know:
Your dad’s in jail. Why are you a candidate?
Why is the daughter of the dictator so popular?
First of all, Fujimori is above all the candidate who defeated the guerrilla insurgency, as Uribe later became in Colombia. The Shining Path was crippled early in Fujimori’s term and relegated to drug-running in the jungle.
Security alone explains Uribe’s popularity circa 2011, but Fujimori’s goes deeper. In addition to being the security candidate, Fujimori was also an economic savior for Peru.
Peru in 1989 was in a worse state than Venezuela today. How could that be possible? Imagine Venezuela’s economic situation but without the world’s largest oil reserves. It depends on whether you consider such an immense natural resource an advantage or a curse (devil’s excrement).
Either way, imagine Venezuela today with higher inflation and, instead of oil, one of Latin America’s bloodiest Marxist guerrilla armies. That was Peru in 1989.
Peru arrived to that sorry state after more than 20 years of statist policies, starting with the 12-year military dictatorship launched by Juan Velasco Alvarado. Velasco nationalized almost all of Peru’s industry and executed one of Latin America’s most comprehensive land reforms. He was a precursor to Chavez.
The military decided to bow out and hold elections in 1980. However the political scene was so splintered that reforms did not come quick enough and the 1985 election of Alan Garcia brought more statist populism that led Peru to near ruin.
Alberto Fujimori rose as the contender to frontrunner Mario Vargas Llosa, who shocked the political scene by advocating liberal, free-market policies in a region where such talk was anathema to treason on the part of gringo imperialism.
But the state-planned model had run its course in Peru. When Fujimori edged Vargas Llosa, he implemented what turned out to be almost an identical economic program.
Fujimori’s return to the table of international finance to settle its debts and the privatizations of the massive public sector put Peru on the path to where it is today, the economic star of the region. All economic indicators show belief-defying improvements. Two friends from Colombia who recently visited told me that Lima is more expensive than Bogota!
You can debate whether Fujimori’s economic reforms are what led Peru to where it is today, or whether or not he personally drove those reforms. But there is one thing you can’t argue with Peruvian voters at the macro level, and that is when the change started in Peru.
Dictator or not, Peru’s change started in 1990. The trend changed with Alberto Fujimori, and he is beloved to this day because of it.
Imagine you have a crystal ball, a real one which shows the future, and you use it present the following choice to Venezuelans today.
This candidate for president will dissolve congress and appropriate the judiciary. After consolidating power, he will ultimately authorize death squads and steal hundreds of millions of dollars, and even lead a forced sterilizations campaign among the poorest communities. But he will also make Venezuela a safe place almost overnight, and he will implement market reforms which will lead to Venezuela becoming Latin America’s top economic performer in 25 years. Poverty will be cut by almost two thirds, and Caracas will be the most-visited city in Latin America (which Lima is currently, with almost 50% more visits than Mexico City and almost double those of Sao Paolo).
Will you vote for that corrupt dictator?
My guess is that most Venezuelans would give such a leader $1 billion and let him kill 1,000 civilians to change their country’s fortune. And that is why Alberto himself would have made the 2016 runoff if he were allowed on the ballot.
Whatever you think about the man as a murderer or corrupt president of epic proportions, remember the choice you could present Venezuelans today.
Not all Peruvians agree. In fact I think Keiko will lose precisely because there are so many Peruvians who will vote for anybody but Fujimori.
But now you understand Fujimorismo.
There is also something to say about Alberto Fujimori’s patronage scheme. I have not yet found hard numbers, but he used money which today would fund regional governments to buy food, clothes and appliances for Peru’s rural poor.
You would actually find many economists who agree with that strategy in a country where about one third of public expenditure is siphoned off by corruption. In such a system, giving the money directly to the poor will achieve a greater economic utility than allowing the elites to squander it on luxury.
That’s called vote-buying in modern countries. And Fujimori bought a lot of votes from people who still love him for what he did for Peru.