Fried pork rinds, fish, potatoes and eggs were sold by street vendors outside polling stations on election day in Lima, Peru. By nightfall, thousands of people gathered in a central plaza waving the white flags of Ollanta Humala’s political party.
Ollanta is an Incan name meaning “the warrior everyone looks to.” Indeed, all eyes were on the leftist president-elect as he greeted the crowd just before midnight with the words, “We won the elections!”
Humala, a former military officer who led a failed military uprising in 2000, lost the elections in 2006 to Alan Garcia. On the June 5th presidential elections this year, he narrowly defeated Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of ex-president Alberto Fujimori, who was jailed in 2007 for corruption and crimes against humanity. If elected, Keiko would have likely worked to release her father from jail, and carry on his administration’s capitalist and repressive policies.
This election puts Humala among a growing number of leftist presidents in Latin America and offers hope to the poorest sectors of Peruvian society.
The poverty rate in Peru is just over 31 percent; in the countryside, two in three people live under the poverty line. In Sunday’s elections, it was the impoverished rural areas that went for Humala over Keiko Fujimori.
“You cannot speak of Peru advancing if so many Peruvians live in poverty,” Humala said in his victory speech, explaining that he would work to make sure that the government functioned “above all for the poorest people in the country.”
Peru’s economy has been booming for the past decade, with 7 percent growth expected this year – one of the highest growth rates internationally. Sixty five percent of the country’s export income comes from the mining industry, and investors are expected to provide over $40 billion in the coming decade for mining operations.
Yet many Peruvians have not benefited from this growth. This is partly because former administrations have not been interested in redistributing wealth to the poor through social and development programs.
Humala wants to change that. He plans to redistribute wealth by increasing taxes on the lucrative mining industry. The new government funds will go to expanding access to water, electricity and homes, and providing free school lunches and preschool care. The president-elect has also pledged to expand pensions and healthcare for the poor, and lower gas exports to reduce the cost of this resource for Peruvians.
Such plans for economic and social reform contributed in Humala’s victory on Sunday. Yet his first months in office will likely be anything but peaceful. Over 230 protests, road blockades and strikes took place in Peru during the month of April alone. Most of these occurred in poor and rural areas of the country, and were focused on social and environmental issues.
Walter Aduviri, the president of the Front for the Defense of Natural Resources in Southern Puno, has been active in protests against the government’s licensing of Canadian Bear Creek Mining Corp’s silver mining in Peru’s border region with Bolivia. The protesters believe the mining would lead to the contamination of land and water, and that local communities would not benefit from the private operation.
While protests and blockades were postponed for election day, activists have threatened to restart the mobilizations. Aduviri told reporters, “The election of Humala was positive, but the promises of the candidates should be reflected in documents and agreements.”
Benjamin Dangl is the author of the new book Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America (AK Press). He edits TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events, and UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America. Email Bendangl(at)gmail(dot)com