When the Peruvian Prime Minister Salomon Lerner Guitis resigned from his post as Prime minister early in December, it generated a reaction of panic, both among government supporters and among the opposition. 

Fear was focused mostly on the potential instability Lerner’s resignation could generate. Lerner had been praised by members of the opposition who thought he had done a good job because he had succeeded in generating business confidence and had secured the continuous flow of investment.

Lerner’s resignation is widely attributed to differences of opinion between him and President Ollanta Humala. This seems to be based on the resignation letter Mr. Lerner wrote Humala on December 9th.  However, members of Humala’s own party defined Lerner’s resignation as “a pity” because had succeeded in creating a consensus between all the sectors. Yet, other reports indicate that Ollanta Humala grew tired of Lerner’s continuous hesitation and inability to make decisions. Meanwhile, the relationship between Humala and his Minister of Interior, Oscar Valdes, grew stronger. Valdes was later appointed Prime Minister to replace Lerner.

In general Lerner’s resignation caused surprise and anguish since he was considered to be the most trusted man by Mr. Humala and a guarantee for others that Humala would not follow Mr. Chavez’s anti-business policies. The situation was further aggravated by the fact that eight out of 18 cabinet members were also replaced.

Even though the new cabinet members are business technocrats rather than revolutionary socialists (which calms investors fears), the situation still raises some other questions that could have significance for the future of Peruvian governance as well as for the rest of the continent. 

Some analysts and public figures including former President Alejandro Toledo expressed concern that placing Mr. Valdes as Prime Minister could lead to the militarization of Peruvian politics.

Indeed, Mr. Lerner resigned in the aftermath of the so called “Project Conga” crisis. This was an event where virulent protests erupted forcing the suspension of a proposed gold and copper mine project in an area of Cajamarca in the northern highlands of Peru. The project, called “Conga”, is made possible thanks to a foreign investment of $4.8 billion. Marchers protested the effect of the project on the environment, and particularly on its effect on local water resources.

Lerner tried to seek dialogue and conciliation by talking to locals. He tried to build a new relationship between local communities and the mining industry which thus far have been characterized by mutual distrust. In addition, Lerner asked the gold-mining company, Yanacocha, to suspend its project until a solution was reached. Yanacocha responded positively to the request. He also offered the government’s guarantee that mining projects will have to take place in coordination with the local population.

 In addition, Lerner issued a statement suggesting that water is to be viewed as a product destined for human consumption and not major projects. He also called on both sides of the conflict to hold a civilized dialogue and maintain the respect for the rule of law. In spite of this, the community of Cajamarca, through the leader of the movement called “Tierra y Libertad” (Land and Freedom), rejected Lerner’s appeal and threatened to initiate legal action against the government and Yanacocha. The leader of “Tierra y Libertad”, Mario Arana, rejected the Conga project altogether. Protests continued until finally Humala declared a state of emergency in Cajamarca.

 Although those who feared Humala’s shift to the left can breathe with relief now, the episode reveals another problem of political culture that could have negative effects in the long run. Arana, the leader of the protesters is a former Catholic priest in the tradition of Liberation-Theology and a sociologist who spent some time in Washington DC. The fact that he rejected any possibility of dialogue exposes a radical view of politics which is typical of the many indigenous and grassroots movements that emerged in the 1980’s. These groups and their leaders, who seek enfranchisement after having been at the margins of society for a long time, have opted for rejection rather than negotiation as a political strategy. If this rejectionist approach is perpetuated by a resentment over a sense of “500 years of repression” (as the indigenous Bolivian president Evo Morales constantly points out), no problem will ever be solved by democratic means. In this case, we can only expect permanent confrontation, the kind of fight that Bolivarians tend to capitalize on. Potentially, this can bring a Bolivarian to power or have Hugo Chavez supporting social protests with the goal of overthrowing a government. We have seen in Latin America both mass protests overthrowing governments (like in Bolivia and Ecuador) and social protests supported by Chavez (like in Peru when ironically, it was Humala, himself, the one who encouraged those protests against former President Alan Garcia).  

In the case of the Conga Project, Humala’s reaction has been to imitate the way many Latin American political leaders have historically responded to social protests: by declaring emergency laws.

It makes sense to assume that Lerner was ousted from his position as Prime Minister because of Humala’s impatience with the democratic process. Executive decisions can always get immediate results because they skip the unnerving process of negotiation and compromise.  So, it is no wonder that some suspected militarization of politics.

 Indeed, after declaring emergency laws Humala announced that a substantial salary rise for the troops will begin in 2012. Later he announced the retirement of 20 army officers. Humala removed key high officers including the Army Chief Victor Ripalda and filled out the new vacant position with his cronies, many of whom he knew from his years of service in the military. The newly appointed army commander is Benigno Cabrera Pino, a man who served as military commander of Humala himself when he was in charge of anti-subversive activities. 

 Could Humala become an authoritarian ruler that seeks military backing for his government in order to carry out his projects without the hardships of democracy?

 There is no hard evidence to say that, however, this always remains a possibility, especially given the fact that it is not new in Latin America and certainly not new in Peru. Indeed, former conservative Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori (1992-2000) did just that. Another former populist-president General Velazco Alvarado (1968- 1975) sustained his populist-Nasserist-type government with the military. Outside Peru, the Bolivarian model conceives the military as the cornerstone and main source of support of a popular revolution.

 Mary Anastasia O’Grady, who writes a regular column on Latin America for the Wall Street Journal, pointed out that “Lerner’s resignation seems to have been set off by a Humala decision to defend the rule of law and ensure that Peru remains an important destination for foreign investment. The real lesson of the drama is about the risks to development coming from a hard left operating under the guise of environmentalism.” O’Grady also pointed out that Humala’s actions were positive since “setting a precedent that mining investments can be driven out of the country with violence could be damaging to his legacy”.

 Like Ms. O’ Grady, I am very concerned about the challenge of radical left militancy. However, I take issue with her approach. Even if what Humala intended was to maintain order to enable the continuation of foreign investment and even if this move is seen as a move against the left, the fact that dialogue was interrupted by emergency law at a relatively early stage of the negotiations is not necessarily a good indicator for the future of democracy in Peru. Because of Humala’s background and his previous connections to Chavez (which many believe included financial support from Chavez in the last two presidential campaigns), questions arise as to his motives and the direction he will take the country.

  In the region today, authoritarian actions and practices prevail (particularly in Bolivarian countries) including the application of emergency laws and enabling acts. That’s why Humala’s decision cannot be taken lightly.

In the long run, democracy is the only way to achieve legitimacy and stability. The political classes and the political parties in Latin America have lost legitimacy and given rise to revolutionary leaders precisely because of their detachment from civil society and because of their one-sided decisions signed by a presidential pen while bypassing public debate. 

Fortunately, Humala resumed negotiations with the protesters a few days after emergency laws were issued. This ended up being a smart move after the fact. Latin America’s future depends on the development of good institutions and democracy no less than on economic well -being. Democracy strengthens the rule of law. By the same token, the rule of law strengthens good governance and mitigates corruption. The way to achieve real democracy is by respecting these little steps that democracy requires such as congressional gridlock, long conflicts, and the use of reason rather than force. A political culture of democracy will arise out of these practices.

Anti-democratic moves should not be applauded even if those authoritarian rulers support free market policies, foreign investment or any other policy we agree with. Authoritarianism needs to cease being a political model in the region. It not only affects the freedom, liberty and the rule of law in countries where it is applied but also the geo-political map. Authoritarian regimes of the left and of the right can easily make alliances with China or with Iran. For example, China is intentionally seeking authoritarian states regardless of ideological inclinations as allies precisely because of China’s aversion to democracy. Democratic countries (even though not all of them) are more likely to be allies of the West. Therefore, in the current atmosphere of geo-political uncertainty, supporting and encouraging genuine democracy is a key card to play.



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