Don't Try to Predict. This Is Peru.

New York Times -- 27 May 2001

by Clifford Krauss

LIMA, Peru -- Peru is the kind of place where reality never quite seems real.

Take, for example, the now-you-see-it, now-you-don't career of Alan García, a former president who suddenly leaped 10 points in public-opinion polls two months ago, letting him win a place in the presidential run-off election set for next weekend. This happened a decade after he left the presidency in disgrace, having run a government plagued by ineptitude, corruption, leftist terrorism and massacres of civilians by the army. Last week, Mr. García was again in the voters' doghouse, to judge by the polls. But he was inching up, making the outcome anybody's guess.

Governments come and go elsewhere in Latin America, and civilian and military regimes historically alternate in cycles of public trust and disgrace. But that is usually explained just by the weakness of legal and political institutions.

What makes Peru unique, and the fortunes of Mr. García a case in point, is its ability to astonish and its utter unpredictability. Changes in public opinion can be instantaneous; heroes become goats, or the other way around, within weeks or even days. This is a mark of weakness, not just in institutions, but in the political convictions of the people themselves.

"Peru has no limits," noted Guillermo Nugent, a sociologist at the Peruvian University of Applied Sciences. "Peru is simply unfastened and normal rules just don't apply."

The country's last elected president, Alberto K. Fujimori, is another example. He was ethnically Japanese, spoke imperfect Spanish and fought publicly with his wife. But the public elected him 10 years ago, when he had almost no political platform, then gave him its loyalty when he subdued terrorists. It overlooked the facts that he dismissed Congress, suspended civil liberties and presided over eight years of authoritarian rule.

But then, in a matter of weeks, his rule collapsed last year amid scandals ranging from bribery, vote fraud and gun running to accusations that the real power had been his shadowy intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos (whose Marxist father named him after Vladimir Lenin many years before the son became an asset for the C.I.A.). Mr. Fujimori fled to Japan.

The fragility of heroes is not all that sets Peru's political landscape apart. The country also can be astonishingly divorced from the political trends all around it. In the 1960's and 70's, when right-wing rule was the norm in Latin America, Peru had a military dictatorship, but it was left wing. It took land from the rich and gave it to the poor. Later, when guerrilla movements elsewhere still looked to Fidel Castro, Peru had the Shining Path, which evoked Pol Pot. It hung dogs from telephone lines to terrorize workers and peasants, rather than cultivate their loyalty.

What's going on here? Nobody wants to dismiss a whole country's political traditions as impossible to fathom. But even Peruvian scholars are hard pressed to find the logical links to explain Peru's unpredictability, and its writers and artists often marvel at its idiosyncracies.

"It would take all the analytical skills of all the social sciences combined to explain the way Peru acts," says Sinesio López, a sociologist at the Catholic University of Peru.

Still, a few brave souls have tried. "No people, or country's history has ever approached our blend of excess, miracle and legend," the aristocratic essayist Ventura García Calderón wrote in 1935. "What is Peru?" his essay asked. "A labyrinth and a synthesis, a being in the process of becoming, as the theologians would say, an alloy of races, gold, silver and copper where nobody can identify or recognize the final form."

As early as the 16th century, during civil wars between the conquistadores, Gonzalo de Carvajal, a notoriously brutal, if literary, commander, commented: "Here there are no loyalists or traitors. All are turncoats."

Today Max Hernández, Peru's leading psychoanalyst, has another theory: that Peru has a serious identity problem. He likens Peru to an emotionally troubled person, constantly struggling to reinvent itself and find a moral spine because its history is so full of pain -- in this case, racism and exploitation. Like a person, he says, a country can lose its way if rules and boundaries are not set at an early age.

"This is a country of unresolved traumas," he said, and perhaps he has a point. The Spanish conquest decimated the Indian population with European diseases and then re- formed it into a new racial majority of mestizos, most frequently through rape, forced marriage and other forms of involuntary mating. The result was a mixture of smoldering resentment and surrender to fate. Indian revolts were violent, but the colony was not declared independent until an Argentine army invaded, supported by Britain's navy

Even today, Peru's Indian masses, though desperately impoverished, are the most quiescent in the Andes. And the government doesn't improve their welfare, or assure that order will prevail. That is why, Dr. Hernández says, Peru so often keeps trying something new and unconnected to its past.

"The absence of a social contract," Dr. Hernandez said, "is the permanent leitmotif of all the governments and opposition forces over the last several decades that arose with a call to remake the country. Continuity is rejected."

Mexico went through a similar process of conquest and colonial formation, and suffers its own lasting ordeals. But in the last century, Mexico at least found a more sturdy identity through the Mexican Revolution, which ushered in social change during seven decades of stable, if corrupt and authoritarian, government.

The closest Peru has come to that kind of transforming experience has been the land reform of the military government in 1968. But the new peasant cooperatives were starved for funds, which went to buy Soviet arms. So the land reform failed, and millions of peasants flooded the cities seeking work. This only burdened Peru more.

"A society that goes from a peasant society to an urban society so abruptly has to reconstruct its identity and try to reintegrate, but you can't do that quickly," said Romeo Grompone, an Uruguayan sociologist who has lived in Peru for the last 20 years. "The fear I have is that future governments will find the need to recreate Fujimori's control mechanisms."

Given Peru's penchant for surprise, an eventual comeback even for Mr. Fujimori is not out of the question. But first it is Mr. García's turn to seek a comeback -- and he is doing so in true Peruvian style, having reinvented himself as a fiscally responsible manager, in contrast to the free-spending Alan García who ruled before.

Can he win? Well, the frontrunner, Alejandro Toledo, leads in the polls, but he has been hurt by media reports that he tested positive for cocaine use in 1998 and regularly visited hotels that cater to prostitutes. He has refused to take a DNA test to prove he is not the father of a teenager. Maybe Peru's voters will think Mr. García looks like a statesman by comparison.