LIMA -- When I interviewed Peruvian President Ollanta Humala last week, he struck me as a less articulate leader than most of his South American colleagues —but one who may be doing a better job than his more loquacious counterparts.
Unlike the populist presidents of Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, who spend much of their time making fiery speeches and promising utopian “revolutions,” Humala speaks softly and bets on continuity. Rather than changing everything, he says he wants to build on what he inherited from his most recent predecessors.
And the results are visible. While many populist-led South American countries are wrecking their economies and democratic institutions — often squandering their biggest commodity-driven economic booms in recent history — Peru continues to grow and to reduce poverty more rapidly than most of its neighbors.
This year, Peru’s economy is expected to grow by 5.4 percent, compared with a Latin American and Caribbean average of 2.7 percent, according to International Monetary Fund projections. More importantly, Peru economy has been growing steadily for the past 15 years.
Inflation is at 2.5 percent, compared with 25 percent in Argentina and 50 percent in Venezuela.
And poverty has been cut in half, from 53 percent of the population in 2000 to 26 percent in 2012, better than in most neighboring countries, according to government figures.
I asked Humala, a former radical army officer who was reportedly backed by the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez when he first ran for office, what made him shift away from “revolutionary” experiments.
He responded that after winning his election, he realized that “you have to be guided by a dose of pragmatism because people can’t eat speeches.”
While avoiding any direct criticism of the presidents of Venezuela and other “Bolivarian” countries, he said that, at least in Peru’s case, trying to change everything did more harm than good.
To him, pragmatism means building on what he inherited. “We can’t afford governments that don’t take into account what has been done, and that try to start everything from the scratch,” he said.
Asked about Bolivian President Evo Morales’ recent claim that the Alliance of the Pacific bloc — the ambitious economic integration group made up of Chile, Peru, Colombia and Mexico — is a Washington-orchestrated “conspiracy” aimed at dividing Latin America, Humala smiled and said, “It’s nobody’s conspiracy.”
But did he complain to the Bolivian president about that statement, or did he at least call him to convince him to the contrary? I asked.
“No, because if I have learned anything is that you have to stress the positive, what unites us, and statements of that nature must be set aside in order to continue moving forward,” he said.
On whether he may try to change the constitution to allow his wife Nadine — who is more popular than Humala and many say is the power behind the throne — to run in 2016, he said: “No.” Pressed about it, he said, “It’s a categorical No.”
But when I asked him whether that’s also true for the subsequent election in 2021, he suggested that she may run.
“We will make that decision at a later date. She is the No. 2 of the ruling party and not just the president’s wife. She is a top leader of the party, and she and I will discuss that with party leaders and members,” he said.
My opinion: I spent too little time in Peru to make a serious judgment on Humala’s presidency, but it’s clear from the economic and social figures that Humala’s pragmatism is helping Peru keep growing and reducing poverty.
Granted, many criticize him for not standing firmly behind his decisions, and sometimes backing away from them. And many also blame him for not running a more efficient government.
But what really counts is that poverty has been cut in half over the past decade, millions of poor are joining the middle-class and that Peru’s progress is based on solid economic foundations. Earlier this month, the Fitch rating agency upgraded Peru’s credit rating, placing the country above Mexico and Brazil and only behind Chile in the region.
While “revolutionary” charlatans in Venezuela and other “Bolivarian” countries are scaring away domestic and foreign investments, Peru is welcoming them, and will thus be much better positioned to face the ongoing slowdown in world commodity prices.
At the end of the day, Peru’s quiet “evolution” is proving to be much more effective to reduce poverty than Venezuela’s noisy “revolution.”