Eleven years ago, he was an army colonel plotting to overthrow the president of his country. Today, Ollanta Humala is the president-elect of Peru, and just days ago he visited President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Washington. In Peru’s 2006 presidential election, which he lost, Humala closely identified with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. This time, his model was Brazil’s former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who sent advisers to Peru to help with the campaign. The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth spoke with Humala in Washington on Wednesday. Excerpts:
You just met with top U.S. officials today in Washington. What did you accomplish?
Today we met with Secretary of State Clinton, President Obama and his national security adviser, Tom Donilon. . . .
[We agreed on the importance of] respecting the environment, fighting drug trafficking, the importance of education and technology for transforming a country. It was a cheerful conversation in which we agreed that the best period for a president of a country is the electoral campaign.
A lot of businessmen were apprehensive about your election because of your previous economic plan, which advocated state intervention. Now I understand you have a different economic plan, which is more friendly to business. Why should businessmen believe you are friendly to business?
First, Peru has changed. It is no longer the Peru of 2005. It is the Peru of 2011, and it is different from when I campaigned in 2005. Obviously, we politicians have to adapt to these changes.
In other words, you have to be more friendly toward business?
In 2005, we didn’t have free-trade agreements. Now we have more than 15 free-trade agreements. In 2005, many [foreign] businesses that are now operating in the country had not signed agreements. What hasn’t changed is that economic growth in the country continues to create more inequality. The problem in Peru is not so much poverty — it is inequality. The essence of the discourse in 2005 and 2006 is the same one that we have maintained in 2010 and 2011. My macroeconomic policy is to strengthen and ensure economic growth, but with social inclusion.
Last year there was a growth rate of nearly 9 percent in your country. This year it is estimated to be between 6 and 7 percent. How do you make the policies more inclusive without killing the growth rate?
National elections have shown the model as it was being applied by the [current] government was not approved of by the population. That’s why the Peruvian population has punished the current government by reducing its participation in the next government to four parliamentarians out of 130. The Peruvian population has put its trust in the proposal by my party, Gana Peru, the nationalist party, on the subject of inclusion through public policies. For example, we have a school dropout rate between 20 to 25 percent. We are creating social programs so that families commit themselves to taking their children to school.
Like President Lula’s program, Bolsa Familia, which has lifted so many out of poverty and into the middle class?
It is similar to that. We have a program called Juntos [Together], but we have to improve it. We have to focus on the women heads of households, not the fathers. We have to create economic incentives for those who save money, and incentives for those who invest in productive businesses or to those who have children that get good grades in school. We are going to have a child school-nutrition program including breakfast and lunch at school. We are going to create a non-contributing pension scheme for people over the age of 65. We have to create an infrastructure connecting different parts of the country to incorporate rural people into the market.
The mining sector in Peru has been enormously profitable. You talked about a windfall tax on the mining companies in your campaign. What do you intend to do?
What we want to do is to get on well with the mining companies, but we also want them to get on well with the country.
What does that mean?
Today, a large part of Peru’s revenues come from mining. Many big mining companies only pay income tax, but they extract minerals, they pollute the water. They don’t give any form of compensation to the regions where those minerals are extracted and where they do the damage, forcing the state to help those regions. What we are stating is that the mining companies will have to pay that compensation, that is called a royalty.
The state is paying for the mining companies; it is doing a favor to the mining companies for the last 10 years, equivalent of half the income tax the companies pay. The income tax is 30 percent of the profit. The state collects that amount, and half of that returns to the region. That is why we have 12 states that are rich in the sense that they receive money from the state, another 12 states that are poor.
Because there are no mines?
They have no mines, and also because the state has to spend 50 percent of the income tax on compensating the regions for the damage done by mining companies, instead of building hospitals and schools. The windfall tax is different. That consists of seeing the level of profits that they have and having a technical conversation with the mining companies so as to preserve their competitiveness.
As president, will you have that conversation yourself?
Yes, yes. I am going to meet with the owners of the mining companies to have that conversation. It is one thing to talk to the managers of the mines, who are not the owners and it is not their money. It is quite different to talk to the people who are the owners. It is easy to speak to them because they understand. They have investments in Africa, Asia — they understand cash flow. It’s an issue of corporate social responsibility.
I read your personal history, which is quite astounding. You are only 49 years old. You mounted a coup against President Alberto Fujimori in 2000. Your brother led a coup against President Alejandro Toledo in 2005. Can you talk about yourself? In South America there is a military tradition of nationalism and pride in one’s country — is that the tradition you come from?
I come from a military background. I was in the Peruvian army for 25 years, and I served in all the emergency zones and border zones. When I was a commander in 2000, Mr. Fujimori wanted to govern for 15 years, against the constitution. I staged a military uprising — to defend democracy, not to interrupt it.
When Fujimori escaped to Japan, I recognized the new constitutional president, Valentin Paniagua. I put down my arms and voluntarily went before a military tribunal. The military justice system detained me in a military prison, and the prosecutor asked for 25 years in prison. The Congress of the republic gave me amnesty. After that, I denounced the heads of the army who had signed a secret document supporting the Fujimori government.
Their response was to exile me. I was sent as a military attache to France and then as a defense attache to South Korea. Then they invited me to retire.
They invited you to retire?
Yes, in that fight with the generals of the army, I abandoned my intention to be promoted from lieutenant colonel to colonel because these were generals that I considered immoral. So they asked me to leave the army.
That was not your decision?
No, that was their decision. Then I founded the nationalist party of Peru in 2005. In 2006 I ran for president, and now I am the president-elect.
In your first campaign, you identified more with President Chavez, and in this campaign, you identified more with President Lula. Is that a correct interpretation?
What is true is that we have established friendly relations with a number of leaders in Latin America — President [Rafael] Correa of Ecuador, President Chavez of Venezuela, former president Lula of Brazil, President [Evo] Morales of Bolivia, President [Fernando] Lugo of Paraguay, President [Jose] Mujica of Uruguay. It is not true that it was first with Chavez and then with Lula. In 2005, it was easier for my opponents to use my relationship with Chavez against me. Now, we are going to solve our problems under a model that is unique, new.
A free-market economy emphasizing the strengthening of the domestic market. Fighting against today’s corruption. Having a state that caters to the whole of the national territory and not just the coast.
You feel strongly about the growth of coca. I understand that Peru’s production of coca leaves rivals that of Colombia. The United States, of course, wants coca eradication. What is your position?
I think the coca grower needs an alternative to stop growing coca. We need to have a comprehensive policy, which means separating the coca-growing population from the drug-trafficking networks through more presence of the state in the fields of health, education, infrastructure. We need to fight against money laundering and the exporting of large amounts of cocaine through our ports.
Is it true your wife, Nadine Heredia, who is here today, might follow you in office?
No, we are not worried about 2016. Our concern is today. We are focused on how we can satisfy all the expectations the Peruvian people have today. We are thinking about solving those problems, and Nadine is committed to working with me.
Now you return to Peru to pick your cabinet?
Yes, we haven’t much time left, we have to appoint the cabinet.
It is very rare for a president-elect to meet with a U.S. president.
Yes, this is what we call starting the relationship with the United States on a good foot.
Do you find that you and President Obama have something in common?
Yes, we both want change.
Lally Weymouth is a senior associate editor at The Washington Post.