LIMA, Peru — When I asked Peruvian-born Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa whether he fears that Peruvians may elect a radical populist leader as a reaction to the recent corruption scandals that have rocked this country, he shook his head and said, “I don’t think so.”
“I think that Peru is vaccinated against that,” Vargas Llosa told me during an extended weekend interview in Lima. “But,” he conceded, “there’s a great uncertainty” about the 2021 presidential elections.
Indeed, Vargas Llosa was one of the very few people I talked to during a visit to Peru who is optimistic about the continuation of this country’s nearly three-decade-old economic stability.
Peru has been one of Latin America’s fastest-growing economies over the past 20 years and among those that have been the most successful in reducing poverty. Despite a recent slowdown in economic growth, Peru’s poverty rate has fallen from 52 percent in 2005 to about 22 percent nowadays, according to official figures.
But the Odebrecht corruption scandal has badly tainted Peru’s political class. All living former Peruvian presidents are in jail, house arrest or facing corruption charges. Most of them facing charges of having received bribes from the giant Brazilian construction firm.
Former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo (2001-2006) was arrested in California earlier this month and is fighting an extradition request from Peru. Another former president, Alan Garcia (2006-2011) committed suicide in April as he was about to be arrested. Former President Ollanta Humala (2011-2016) is facing corruption charges in connection with the Odebrecht scandal, and former President Pedro Pablo Kuckzynski (2016-2018) is under house arrest while facing an investigation into his links with Odebrecht.
There is a big debate in the country over whether Peruvian prosecutors are heroes who have done a better job investigating corruption than any of their peers elsewhere in Latin America — or if they are abusing their powers.
Most of the former presidents who are in prison or under house arrest have not been sentenced. They were arrested under a law allowing defendants’ pretrial detention so that they don’t flee the country.
Those who support the jailing of the former presidents say that Peruvian judges are notoriously corrupt. Unlike in the United States and other countries with strong justice systems, Peru’s former presidents may have fled the country or bribed a judge into being allowed to travel abroad if they were freed on bail, they say.
Both arguments are partly true. But the net result of Peru’s anti-corruption crusade has been a growing — and unfair — perception that all traditional politicians are hopelessly corrupt.
That’s fertile ground for any populist charlatan with an anti-corruption platform to win the 2021 presidential elections. It’s exactly the way that late Venezuelan demagogue Hugo Chávez won his first election, and the way President Trump — another political outsider — won the 2016 elections with his promises to “drain the swamp.”
The irony is, of course, that in most cases — Trump’s included — the outsiders who promise to eradicate anti-corruption usually preside over the most corrupt governments. They erode democratic institutions, weaken the system of checks and balances and try to silence the press, which in turn allows corruption to spread even further.
And, ironically, while Peru is the Latin American country where the Odebrecht corruption scandal has landed the most former presidents and opposition leaders in jail, Peru received much less in Odebrecht bribes than Venezuela, where no major figure of President Nicolás Maduro’s dictatorship has been investigated or jailed in connection with bribes.
According to the U.S. Justice Department, Odebrecht paid $98 million in bribes to the Venezuelan regime between 2006 and 2015, compared with $29 million in bribes to government officials in Peru during the same period.
How to prevent a populist demagogue from winning Peru’s 2021 elections? Reminding people on a daily basis that there’s more corruption in totalitarian countries such as Venezuela than in messy democracies like Peru’s. In Venezuela, there are no independent prosecutors or free press to denounce graft, much less put former presidents in jail.
When Peruvians vote in 2021, let’s hope Vargas Llosa turns out to be right.
Watch Andres Oppenheimer’s interview with Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa in “Oppenheimer Presenta” on Sunday at 8 pm ET on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera