Race Is Wild Card in Peru Runoff
As Election Nears, Humala Distances Himself From Family's Views on Ethnicity

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 3, 2006

LIMA, Peru, June 2 -- Isaac Humala says he values the diversity of ideas. So he immersed his children in an ideology he created, known as "ethno-nationalism," which argues that a Peruvian "copper race," the Incan descendants, should have political supremacy in a region stolen away by lighter-skinned outsiders.

Now that one of his children, Ollanta Humala, is vying for Peru's presidency in Sunday's election, facing former president Alan Garcia, many are trying to figure out exactly which ideas might have been passed from father to son. In a melting pot of a country where racial tensions are often considered omnipresent but understated, the 75-year-old patriarch's teachings have all the subtlety of a poke in the eye.

"We are racists, certainly," he said during a morning commute this week to the downtown office of his Peruvian Nationalist Movement, the political organization which he created. "We advocate saving the copper race from extinction, disintegration and degeneration. Everyone is a racist, because nationalism is something that is in the blood, just like it is with the Japanese in Japan and the Germans in Germany."

In the months preceding this weekend's runoff, and with polls showing him running behind, Ollanta Humala has publicly distanced himself from his family's views, emphasizing that his government would not favor any ethnic group over another. But the early success of his campaign -- he finished first among more than 20 candidates in April's first round of voting -- has shone a spotlight on a philosophy that holds that bloodline descendants of a region's native population deserve a stronger share of that region's power.

That belief has raised questions: Who could claim such a blood bond to Peru centuries after the arrival of large waves of European, Asian and African immigrants? And does it mean that race will take more a leading role in Peruvian political discourse?

"There has been a lot of racial mixing here, and the census does not catalogue people according to racial background," said Wifredo Ardito, a law professor who specializes in discrimination issues for a Lima-based human rights organization. "It has created a myth that we are all mestizos, that everyone is considered equal, that there's no racism. It's not true, of course."

Newspapers on Friday reported that a Lima disco was fined for discriminating against dark-skinned mestizos, people of mixed-race parentage. The Air Force places a height limit on officer candidates, which critics often condemn as indirect discrimination against indigenous applicants. At the same time, being associated with Lima's white economic elite is a burdensome political label that candidates are eager to shed, fearing the type of backlash that helped Humala defeat the early favorite, Lourdes Flores Nano, in April's first round.

Unlike countries such as Bolivia and Ecuador, modern indigenous political movements have not taken strong hold in Peru, which helps explain why the subject has not risen to the same public pitch here. Any two Peruvians might not think of the subject of race in the same way, but that doesn't mean they don't think about it.

"It's an extremely complex subject in Peru," said Cynthia McClintock, a George Washington University professor who specializes in Peru studies. "Many Peruvians don't like to think of themselves as non-white, yet there's also a tendency, especially in the southern highlands, to distrust people who are considered white. There's even tremendous disagreement over how you determine a person's race in Peru. It's not just skin color -- for some people, poverty levels or where a person grew up matter more."

The country's two most recently elected presidents -- Alejandro Toledo and Alberto Fujimori -- descended from Peru's indigenous and Asian populations, respectively. But their public images illustrate the shifting concept of racial identity. Fujimori -- the son of Japanese immigrants -- successfully campaigned under the slogan "A President Like You" in the largely indigenous highlands of southern Peru. Toledo, though he emphasized his indigenous roots in his 2001 campaign, later was pounded by critics for representing the nation's white ruling class.

"Anyone who isn't blind and thick knows that, from the outset in Latin America, the notions of 'white' or 'indian' (or 'black' or 'yellow') are cultural rather than racial," wrote Mario Vargas Llosa, whom Fujimori defeated, in a recent editorial attacking the Humala family's beliefs. "A Latin American whitens as he becomes richer or acquires power, while a poor person darkens and becomes a 'cholo' or an indian as he descends the social pyramid."

Isaac Humala said he believes a person who is 100 percent indigenous has a deeper claim to his homeland than someone of mixed race. But he said his movement in general advocates more political sovereignty for all "copper" race members, regardless of purity. He argues that they suffer more than the descendants of Europeans, who he believes hold too much influence in Peru and throughout the Andes.

"It's definitely true that the indigenous population pays a higher price in terms of demographic indicators than do other ethnic groups," said Nelson Manrique, a sociologist at the Catholic University of Peru. "Whatever the indicator -- health, education, basic services -- the population that always has the worst indices is the indigenous population."

All of this helps create a complex web of race-based prejudices, analysts say, and it remains unclear what effect the wider proliferation of the Humala family's ideas will have. Many dismiss the family's "ethno-nationalist" movement -- sometimes also called etnocacerismo , in homage to 19th-century military commander who fought Chilean occupiers -- as an unfortunate eccentricity, and only a pesky hurdle for the candidate. But some followers have adopted the movement's ideas with ferocity. Antauro Humala, the candidate's brother, is in jail for leading a small group of adherents in an attempt to overthrow the government in 2005 that ended in six deaths. Responding from his cell this week, Antauro Humala said he considered his brother's candidacy a landmark for the movement. He said his brother is simply a nationalist -- not an ethno-nationalist -- but added that he supports his brother's candidacy as a close substitute. The move to electoral politics represents the third step in the movement's development, he said, following its recruitment of members throughout the military and its efforts to spread awareness of racial discrimination throughout Peru.

"When the movement became a political project being led by Ollanta, obviously his actions outside of the military barracks became more concerned with electoral politics and civilian matters, and he logically lost the original purity of the movement," Antauro Humala said. "But it was thanks to the work of ethno-nationalists that his party was able to collect signatures to register for the elections. So in the end, the triumph of Ollanta would be the triumph of etnocacerismo."

When Garcia was elected in 1985, he was considered an outsider to the European-descended elites who had traditionally ruled the country. Many of Humala's supporters now consider Garcia as part of that group. But Garcia has been able to connect with some indigenous voters, particularly in northern Peru.

Garcia's criticism of Humala has generally targeted his plans to nationalize the economy, but he has made indirect references to the Humala family ideology in the campaign's final days. During a rally in downtown Lima on Thursday night, Garcia railed against what he described as the Humala family's divisive militarism and intolerance.

"In the name of democracy," Garcia said to supporters, "we defeat hatred."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company