A CONVERSATION WITH ALAN GARCIA Interview by Michael Shifter

A Conversation With Alan Garcia

Sunday, June 4, 2006

Alan Garcia was dubbed the Latin American Kennedy when he was elected president of Peru in 1985, promising to reform a stagnant country and improve the lot of the poor. Yet when he left in 1990, Peru's economy was in ruins, a Maoist insurgency was terrorizing the country and Garcia's popularity had plummeted. Now, the charismatic Garcia is running for president again; he goes into today's runoff a slight favorite over anti-U.S. nationalist Ollanta Humala. Garcia recently spoke in Lima about his second act in politics with the Inter-American Dialogue's Michael Shifter.

I was an eyewitness to your first administration, which wasn't exactly a great success. Some have called it the worst government in Peruvian history. Why should Peruvians believe that a second Garcia administration would be different?

We did not understand how to deal with a subversive, clandestine war. Perhaps my government should have emphasized a more direct and repressive approach in fighting the Shining Path insurgency. Our focus was more sociological. We offered interest-free credits to poor peasants, so they wouldn't be recruited by Shining Path. Our approach to poverty increased inflationary pressures. In retrospect, it would have been more intelligent to put restrictions on finance capital and not take over the banks. This mistake had political consequences, since in addition to Shining Path and communism, we ended up fighting the business class.

And you were young, only 35 years old.

Those mistakes could have been made by a man of 50. I don't attribute them to my youth.

Has Alan Garcia evolved since he left the presidency in 1990?

I now realize there are no magic bullets. Change happens incrementally. . . . Not only has a lot of time passed, but the world's economic structures, information technology and communication have changed. . . . What before seemed like a threat is now a virtue. . . . We are not against private property, but rather monopoly control. Businesses should compete among themselves. What my friend Evo Morales [Bolivia's president, who nationalized the natural gas sector] just did is kill the goose that lays golden eggs.

In the late 1980s, [Peruvian writer] Mario Vargas Llosa was your chief opponent, yet today he urges Peruvians to vote for you as the "lesser of two evils."

I don't think there is a single president on this planet who did not get votes as the lesser evil. . . . When they voted for Nixon and not for McGovern, wasn't it the same thing? I think this happens everywhere. Ultimately, it is not about the lesser evil -- it is being useful. Today I am useful to Peruvian society, to its middle class, to its small businesses, to its people who have democratic ideas, who do not like [Hugo] Chavez [the anti-American president of Venezuela], who don't like Evo Morales and feel that I am useful to do things differently.

You mentioned Chavez, who has become a big issue in this campaign.

The Chavez phenomenon is militarism with a lot of money. Mr. Chavez poses risks for Peru. First I thought Fidel [Castro] was behind him, but Fidel no longer has the force he used to, so I suppose he now depends on Chavez. Chavez is using his millions of dollars to try and extend influence in the Andean countries, first Bolivia, now cloning a commandante in Peru, then Ecuador, to surround Colombia, where he sees U.S. imperialism as strongest in Latin America. . . . Peru tends to appreciate people in the world with high intellectual and cultural levels. There is little to appreciate about President Chavez. He is only relevant because of oil money. Soon Chavez will be burning out in Venezuela. Everyone who strays too far from his own space ends up burning out.

Do you see yourself playing a larger regional role, perhaps to stem what you see as Chavez's adventure?

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