Andres Oppenheimer

Peru’s president-elect demands freedoms in Venezuela

Presidential candidate Pedro Pablo Kuczynski celebrates from the balcony of his headquarter in Lima, Peru on June 5.
Presidential candidate Pedro Pablo Kuczynski celebrates from the balcony of his headquarter in Lima, Peru on June 5. AP

Peru’s pro-business President-elect Pedro Pablo Kuczynski won his country’s elections by a hair with the last-minute help of a leftist party, but — judging from what he told me in an interview — he won’t budge on his criticism of Venezuela and other repressive regimes.

Kuczynski, a former Miami resident better known by his initials PPK, had been very critical of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro during his campaign, though there was speculation that he would tone down his rhetoric once elected. But when I asked him if he still intends to call for the release of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez and other Venezuelan political prisoners once he is inaugurated on July 28, he responded, “Absolutely!”

“I continue to maintain that these are political prisoners, and that the Maduro government should release them immediately,” Kuczynski said.

In response to a follow-up question on whether Venezuela should hold a recall referendum this year, as demanded by the opposition, Kuczynski suggested that he supports that option.

Noting that Venezuela’s opposition won the Dec. 6 legislative elections by a landslide and now controls the National Assembly, he added that such victory “should translate as soon as possible in the management of government,” suggesting that Maduro should accept the Venezuelan Congress’ constitutional right to pass laws.

Kuczynski, 77, is an odd man in Latin American politics. He studied at Oxford and Princeton, has spent much of his life in the United States, was a World Bank and International Monetary Fund official, and for a time was a successful banker in New York and Miami. In Peru, he has served as prime minister, economy and finance minister, mining minister and head of the Central Reserve Bank.

Often labeled a Renaissance man, he plays the flute and piano, and has a jovial personality, in sharp contrast with other presidents in the region who often bang on the table and seem to be permanently angry. He gave up his U.S. citizenship in November, and joked that he lamented losing his medical benefits.

Asked about where he sees a political shift in Latin America, he told me that “there is a cycle that is coming to an end,” referring to the radical leftist trend led by late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, which thrived during the 2000s with the help of high world commodity prices. Today, Latin American economies are hurting, and “voters are looking for more pragmatic, less ideological people,” he said.

He added, “The greatest priority in Latin America should be to make our economies grow, because we account for 8 percent of the world’s GDP, the same as in 1900. We haven’t changed [for the better] a bit.”

And to make things worse, Latin America’s population is growing older, and the region’s number of senior citizens needing social security and health services will double over the next 20 years. “If we don’t start preparing for that now, in 15 or 20 years we will be facing crises such as the one Greece is facing now,” he said.

My opinion: Kuczynski won’t have it easy. He will face an overwhelmingly hostile Congress, where he has only 18 of 130 seats, compared with opposition leader Keiko Fujimori’s 73 seats.

(When I asked him about this, Kuczynski said that while it’s true that Fujimori has a majority in Congress, it’s also true that many of her legislators are not officially affiliated to her party, and that their provinces “will need things from the central government.”)

In addition, Peruvians are unusually severe with their presidents. While Peru is perhaps Latin America’s most successful economy — it has reduced poverty more than any other country in the region, from 55 percent to 23 percent of the population over the past fifteen years, according to U.N. figures — the last three Peruvian presidents have had popularity rates of less than 20 percent during their terms.

Kuczynski will need Fujimori’s help to get congressional approval for his economic plans. If she denies it, she will be as responsible as him for allowing Peru’s success story to fizzle.

But if she allows him to govern, she will prove her often-questioned democratic credentials, and Peru could become an even bigger success story, with a steadily growing economy and a courageous commitment to defend democracy in Venezuela and other authoritarian countries.

Watch the “Oppenheimer Presenta” tv show Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español.Twitter: @oppenheimera

Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español