WikiLeaks cables: The great equaliser in Peru

Choosing between Peruvian presidential candidates Keiko and Humala has been described as opting between cancer and AIDS.

kieko and humala
In recent WikiLeaks revelations, Keiko has been accused of using drug money to fund her campaign, as well as seeking political amnesty for her disgraced father [EPA]

While WikiLeaks has had an extensive political impact upon the Middle East, the whistle-blowing group now stands to exert an influence on South America as well. Specifically, declassified US state department cables could shake things up in politically volatile Peru, a country which is fast approaching the second and final round of its presidential election on June 5.

Washington diplomats are most likely paying key attention to the race, which pits colourful populist and former army colonel Ollanta Humala against Keiko Fujimori, a young congresswoman and daughter of disgraced former president Alberto Fujimori. 

Keiko’s political story reads like something out of a surreal magical realist novel.

In 1994, Alberto named Keiko first lady after fighting with his wife Susana Higuchi. When the details of the acrimonious divorce were publicised, including inflammatory accusations that Alberto had even tortured Higuchi, Keiko sided with her father.

At 35, she has been the youngest presidential candidate in the political field and is currently running on experience – that is to say, the experience of her father. Not only does Keiko bring a lot of personal baggage to the table, but politically she would most undoubtedly follow unenviable conservative economic policies favoured by Washington.

In many ways, Humala could not be more different from Keiko. A populist, he has said he would rewrite Peru’s constitution and retool the economy in favour of the poor who have been left out of the recent economic boom in Peru. 

Humala is a nationalist and former lieutenant colonel. In 2000 he led a failed revolt against Fujimori’s electoral fraud and even kidnapped a general (he later received a congressional pardon). Humala would renegotiate contracts with foreign oil and mining companies and, according to the Financial Times, investors are nervous about the emerging candidate. If he wins, Humala would overcome his previous debacle, an unsuccessful 2006 electoral bid at the Peruvian presidency.

The Keiko cables

Behind the scenes, the Obama administration is probably hoping that Humala will lose the election, though WikiLeaks documents have caused a firestorm in Peru and could have unforeseen consequences for the race. 

For some time now, Peruvian newspaper El Comercio has had access to WikiLeaks cables and has been publishing selected documents emanating from the US embassy in Lima. Some of the cables are recently dated and relate directly to Keiko Fujimori and Humala himself.

Take, for example, a 2006 communication in which US diplomats in Lima disclose embarrassing details about Keiko. During a long meeting, both she and uncle Santiago Fujimori told the Americans that they sought to cut political deals with the government in exchange for an end to “political persecution” of Alberto (at the time, such an idea may have made sense as Fujimori forces headed up a 13-member congressional bloc).

Santiago and Keiko sought “impartiality” in the legal treatment of the disgraced former president, and hoped the government would abandon its extradition and criminal cases against Alberto. 

For those who do not cherish fond memories of the Alberto Fujimori years in Peru, this particular cable may fuel suspicions that Keiko is a crass and shameless operator. At the time of the cable, the former president was under arrest in nearby Chile, his legal fate unclear (Alberto was eventually extradited to Peru and is currently serving a 25-year sentence for embezzlement and directing death squads).

The cables raise suspicions that if elected president, Keiko might use her power and influence to gain political amnesty for her disgraced father. The bad news doesn’t stop there for Keiko, however, as other WikiLeaks cables have resulted in further damage to the young candidate’s political prospects. 

In 2006, the US embassy in Lima expressed concern about the influence of drug smuggling money in Peruvian politics, and in a cable linked one of Keiko’s political associates to illicit earnings. Keiko has defended her colleague, remarking that he had never been investigated for money laundering stemming from drug trafficking.

WikiLeaks: Boosting Humala’s fortunes?

In light of all the WikiLeaks revelations, it’s little wonder that Keiko has publicly expressed regret about the “interference” of the cables in the presidential campaign. Given the negative press, one would expect Humala to benefit. 

Indeed, Keiko herself recently stated that she believed Humala’s lead in the polls had a lot to do with the release of sensitive WikiLeaks cables. What is more, further documents released by the the whistle-blowing outfit suggest that the US saw Humala as a threat, which may help Keiko’s opponent amongst Peru’s more nationalist set.

In 2005, writes Peruvian paper El Comercio, the minister of the interior met with US officials at the Lima embassy. At the time, the authorities were keen on halting in advance the political progress of upstart Humala for the 2006 election. 

Humala, claimed officials, was gaining popularity in southern Peru by exploiting nationalist sentiment. In particular, the government was concerned about Humala’s support in coca growing areas, and asked US diplomats if they could help in a disinformation campaign designed to discredit the rising populist. 

Ambassador James Struble shared the minister of interior’s fears about Humala, who the diplomat viewed as “fascistic”. At the end of the day, Struble came out against the Peruvians’ proposal, but nevertheless remarked fearfully that Peru was becoming “fertile soil” for Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who could form an alliance with Humala.

US officials continued to fret that leftist Chavez could export his “Bolivarian revolution” to Peru via Humala. In 2005, the Americans suspected that Venezuela was even providing funding to Humala’s organisation, the “fascistic” Nationalist Peruvian Party. 

The following year, US diplomats paid a visit to the poverty-stricken province of Puno in order to assess local Humala support. On the ground, embassy staff interviewed “a variety of local contacts”. 

The Americans then followed up by interviewing a former Humala political adviser, who warned that his old boss was secretly “favouring the far left”. In one of the more ridiculous cables, diplomats even investigated claims that tuna cans featuring labels of both Chavez and Humala had been distributed in towns devastated by a local earthquake. 

Humala’s tarnished image

On the other hand, if Humala thought that WikiLeaks could tilt the election in his favour, the former army officer may be sorely disappointed that other embarrassing cables have recently been declassified. 

For years, Humala has been dogged by allegations of human rights abuses. The charges, none of which have ever been formally proven, stem from Humala’s stint as a commander in a remote jungle army post during Peru’s civil war, and allege that the army man participated in abductions, torture and even murder. 

Humala acknowledges that he operated out of the base in question but denies the accusations.

However, a recent El Comercio article quotes a WikiLeaks cable in which US ambassador Struble touches upon the human rights controversy involving Humala. According to a US army officer who had befriended Humala, the former Peruvian army colonel used to discuss killing rebels and torturing suspects with electro shock. Humala, said the official, “did not have the stomach” for rape but knew it was happening on the base.

Further cables reveal Humala as a crass political player, perhaps even more so than opponent Keiko. In 2006, when he first ran for president, the former army man was a political ally of Hugo Chavez. 

Indeed, a former Humala adviser told the US embassy that his boss depended financially on Chavez and at one point “so much money was coming in from Venezuela to finance Humala that the candidate had to purchase a large safe for his house.”

At the same time, however, Humala played a clever double game. Prior to the election, the candidate met with ambassador Struble. Hardly combative, Humala “assumed a low key and friendly manner throughout, [and] opened by saying that he wanted to have good relations with the United States, which he considered an important partner on issues like coca and biodiversity.” 

As if that were not clear enough, Humala said he “did not believe in left/right axis… he was not part of any bloc, (and) was not… anti-American.” 

Humala’s chameleon-like political evolution

During the 2006 election, the Peruvian right exploited Humala’s ties to Chavez and such links, according to the US embassy in Lima, may have even cost the former army colonel the election. Following his debacle, Humala seems to have developed second thoughts about Venezuela and backtracked from the leftist “Pink Tide” sweeping Latin America. 

The following year, Struble paid a “cordial farewell” call on Humala. During the meeting, the defeated candidate “expressed concern that his reputation had become entangled” with the fate of Puno’s regional president who had strongly embraced Hugo Chavez.

Humala then declared to the ambassador “that his own identification with Chavez was exaggerated”. The Peruvian added that he was not anti-US and “recognised the preeminent role the US plays in Latin America.”

Michael McKinley, the new US ambassador, met with Humala and wife and political adviser Nadine Heredia shortly thereafter and encountered a similarly pliable attitude. During the get together, Humala said he favoured corporate free trade and defined himself as “a nationalist, not a leftist”. 

In a follow up discussion, the US ambassador asked Humala how his party “dealt with more radical political groupings in Peru”. When Humala responded that he had dealt with them directly, McKinley expressed surprise. 

How could such coalition-building be reconciled with Humala’s efforts to cultivate a more moderate image after the 2006 election, the ambassador asked? Displaying his true populist stripes, Humala corrected McKinley, explaining that “he was moderate on national, political and economic issues”. 

Continuing, Humala noted “he was the one in the driver’s seat. He was the one with political legitimacy; he was the one with leadership capability; he was the one with a national programme. The other actors had none of the above.” 

In effect, Humala added, it was “better to have them [radicals] inside the tent rather than outside… When it came to the national platform, however, it was he and the Nationalist Party that would decide what policies were. Humala had no doubt he could control the messaging of the coalition.” 

When McKinley expressed concern that “working with radicals nonetheless had implications”, Humala obediently agreed to take the ambassador’s suggestion “on board”. 

Moving in to Sunday’s election

Perhaps political chameleon Humala continued to play both sides of the fence however. In yet another recent cable dating to May 2009, McKinley claimed that Humala’s wife Heredia had “indirect” links to Venezuela via thinks tanks and non-governmental organisations. 

“Though not quite a smoking gun,” McKinley states, “the evidence provides further support for the widely-held belief that Chavez has funded Ollanta Humala.” 

Peer a little deeper however and it would seem that the US has little to fear from Humala. Indeed, the Humala of 2011 bears little resemblance to the military man’s previous political incarnation. The brash candidate no longer sports red campaign shirts, instead opting for grey suits and dark blue ties. 

What is more, Humala speaks warmly of free markets, has pledged to support investors’ rights and cites World Bank reports when making his points.

These days, Humala has been doing his best to run from controversy. Determined to avoid the red baiting pitfall, Humala has bent over backward to prove that he is a responsible statesman. When Chavez described Humala as a “good soldier”, one of Humala’s own congressional candidates even threatened to launch a lawsuit against the Venezuelan president. 

Humala chimed in for good measure, telling Chavez to butt out of Peruvian affairs. “The Venezuelan model is not applicable in Peru,” commented a tamer Humala.

In a wry but macabre aside, novelist Mario Vargas Llosa recently remarked that choosing between candidates like Keiko and Humala is like opting between cancer and AIDS. 

In light of revelations stemming from WikiLeaks cables, Vargas Llosa may not be too far off base. Though Humala is the only leftist candidate in the field, he surely lacks something to be desired. Perhaps, as they read the WikiLeaks cables, Peruvians will come to distrust not only Keiko but also Humala and the US embassy in Lima. 

In this sense, WikiLeaks has become the “great equaliser”, encouraging people across the globe to be wary of authority and those seeking high political office.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution!: South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008). Click here to visit his website.

Source: Al Jazeera