You might think that the elections in Peru would shed little light on current events in Mexico. I suggest that they do. And I bet Humberto Moreira, head of Mexico’s PRI, would agree with me. Here’s why.
The solid frontrunner to lead Peru is Ollanta Humala, a leftist former military officer who promises to redistribute wealth. With around 69 percent of the vote counted, Humala has 28.8 percent of the vote while Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of jailed former President Alberto Fujimori, comes in second with 22.6 percent of the vote.
Peru has had an extraordinary last decade on the back of a global commodities boom. It’s rich Andean mines make it the world's top producer of silver, second in zinc, third in copper and tin, fourth in lead, and sixth in gold.
But despite average economic growth of 6 percent a year since 2000, the boom hasn’t trickled down fast enough to the poorer end of the social scale.
The proof of that is that Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a savvy economist and former prime minister who would be most likely to continue the policies that brought sustained growth, is running in third place, fighting for a chance to displace Keiko Fujimori in a runoff with Humala.
I haven’t spent much time in Peru since 2001 when Alejandro Toledo was president. But I distinctly remember the economic debate around poverty, which at the time affected 53 or 54 percent of the populace.
Remarkably, today Peruvians living in poverty amount to about 30 percent. And that 30 percent is an electoral gold mine for Humala. A lot of people have been lifted from poverty. But many -- too many -- remain left behind.
A few weeks ago, I and other foreign reporters got an invitation to go to a “coffee break” with Humberto Moreira, the newly installed leader of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled Mexico for seven decades until 2000.
Much against my expectations, I found Moreira to be mesmerizing, very smooth but in a non-unctuous way. Dismiss him at your peril. Here he was in a roomful of foreign journalists, some of whom were old hands and had resided in Mexico when the PRI was all-powerful, presiding over what writer Mario Vargas Llosa called “the perfect dictatorship.”
The questions came quickly. The tenor was: Why should we believe that the old, corrupt PRI has changed at all? What is different now?
There were questions about the raging war against organized crime and drug cartels. But Moreira kept bringing the talk back to economic issues. And I quickly realized this will be the electoral strategy for the PRI in 2012 presidential elections. Mexico is immersed in terrible drug-related violence. Some 35,000 people have died since late 2006. But when elections come, the PRI will appeal to voters’ pocketbooks.
Here is his argument in a nutshell: More Mexicans live in poverty than ever. Under President Felipe Calderon of the ruling National Action Party, some 10.1 million more Mexicans have fallen into poverty.
“Every day, 7,014 more Mexicans are poor. Each minute, five more are poor,” he said. Mexico is the only major Latin American nation that over the past decade has not reduced levels of poverty, he added, citing the U.N. Economic Commission on Latin America.
He talked about the eight million young Mexicans of the “ni-ni” generation, who have neither opportunities for schooling nor jobs, and said that addressing their situation was critical to battling organized crime.
The questions kept coming back to PRI’s history of corruption, and the privatization policies in the 1980s and 90s that allowed moguls to obtain parts of the Mexican economy at fire sale prices. Moreira used a skillful turn of phrase to bat away the questions, saying that the PRI of before was “so last century.” Today the PRI is different, he argues.
Whoever is the standard-bearer for the PRI in 2012 is the odds-on favorite to win. Conventional wisdom is that Mexicans are weary of Calderon’s drug war, and will send any candidate packing who doesn’t change strategy and cut the pace of deaths. But Moreira’s focusing on economic issues suggests how powerful those issues are even in a country with grave public security challenges.
You can bet that Humala in Peru would concur with that.