No Shining Path
by Bill Hartley
In Peru, the latest accessory for a high profile police detainee is a bullet proof vest. A recent edition of El Comercio, the country’s main broadsheet newspaper, carried a front page photograph of David Cornejo Chinguel, mayor of Chiclayo, a city in the north of the country. Chinguel was flanked by two police officers, his vest bearing the word detenido. Predictably enough the mayor was being investigated for corruption which is endemic in this country among the political classes.
There is a bribery scandal brewing across the South American continent which has gone largely unreported in the British media. According to a recent Reuters report, the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht has struck a deal with Peruvian authorities to pay a multi-million dollar fine that will allow it to continue operating in the country in return for providing evidence on the officials it bribed. Odebrecht has been at the centre of Latin America’s largest graft scandal since admitting in a 2016 plea deal with US, Brazilian and Swiss authorities that it had bribed officials in a dozen countries, including $30 million distributed in Peru alone.
Senor Chinguel’s bullet proof vest may have been prompted by events in neighbouring Colombia. A few weeks ago, Enrique Pizaro, an auditor for Grupo Aral and Odebrecht, was found dead on his bathroom floor. A heart attack was assumed to be the cause until Pizaro’s son drank from a water bottle on his father’s desk, complained of a foul taste and then also died. The water had been laced with cyanide. Latin American assassins are evidently more efficient than those in Russian intelligence.
It is a sad irony that whilst improvements can be seen from the bottom upwards in the Peruvian economy, its senior politicians are tainted by corruption. At one time, the Peruvian black economy was estimated to be 25% of GDP: private motorists often operated as taxis and there were money changers on the streets. Now, with the growth in supermarkets, unregulated street level retailing has reduced. Even the money changers have been brought into the fold. They are still on the streets but wear bright yellow tabards to denote their licensed status, a useful facility in a country where the US dollar is a parallel currency to the Peruvian sol.
Whilst the gap between rich and poor in the capital Lima is obvious, it is more blurred than in some Latin American cities. For example, upmarket locations such as the neighbouring coastal town of Miraflores sit alongside less salubrious but still vibrant and developing districts. Although metal mining and fisheries are the natural resource staples, new hotels belonging to international groups are under construction suggesting a growing future for tourism. In addition, the urban infrastructure is well maintained and is coping with the expansion. There are, however, idiosyncrasies. Power transmission is at street level and occasionally cables may be found strung diagonally across the street to reach the top of a medium rise apartment block, leaving one wondering how a high sided vehicle or more importantly a fire tender with a ladder might get in close.
For a visitor from Europe, one of the most notable domestic features is the design of apartments with the Peruvian middle classes in mind. A modern apartment in Miraflores comes complete with accommodation for a servant. Looking across the street at the typical mid-rise block opposite, one is struck by the amount of domestic employment. At ground level there are servants cleaning cars, walking dogs or shepherding toddlers. Further up, windows are being cleaned, beds made and floors swept in a concentration of domestic activity like a modern split level version of Downton Abbey. This kind of employment or in some cases under employment is to be found throughout the more prosperous districts. Whilst the apartment dweller is out at work, servants may be seen interacting on the streets with knife grinders or vegetable sellers: the sort of trades long since vanished from Britain but which bring vibrancy to the suburbs of Lima.
Peru has illegal gold mines in the Andes and the profits from these operations need to be disposed of. This prompts money laundering activities and in an effort to prevent those under suspicion escaping justice a legal device called prision preventida has been introduced. Essentially a judge orders the detention of a suspect for a fixed term whilst investigations are under way. As we shall see, this method is not without its problems. In the sphere of political corruption it has been used to detain Keiko Fujimori, leader of the Fuerza Popular Party: she was the unsuccessful candidate in the presidential election of 2011. On October 31stlast a judge sent her to jail for three years whilst he investigates the claim that she received $10,000,000 from Odebrecht for her campaign.
All of this corruption is a having corrosive effect on public opinion according to Latinbaromentro. In a poll, fewer than 50% of Peruvians see democracy as their preferred form of government. Only 25% are satisfied with democracy, the third lowest in Latin America. Evidently in a continent once best known for its dictators Peruvians still aren’t getting the kind of government they had hoped for.
As the economy develops, so the demand for apartment blocks in some districts has risen, gradually squeezing out the more traditional houses which tend to occupy a large amount of space. One senses that with the inevitable loss of light which comes when a private residence is overshadowed by taller buildings, the householder will eventually give up and sell to developers. This is a pity because the equatorial climate has encouraged extravagant floral displays in gardens, augmented by banana trees and palms which bring tropical greenery to the city; something that cannot be replicated by apartment blocks even when they come with balconies
Crime or at least the fear of it remains prevalent. No bank opens its doors without posting an armed guard outside and customers are often checked by a metal detector before being allowed to enter. Most houses have ground floor doors and windows fitted with bars. Although the car is king here motorists are generally forgiving of pedestrians on suburban streets. Travelling from Miraflores to the centre of Lima by taxi along an urban motorway (the equivalent of £3.60 for a 45 minute journey) the driver felt in need of refreshment. Since traffic was moving slowly he was able to catch the eye of a vendor who slithered down an embankment to offer a selection of cold drinks. Surprisingly the drivers behind tolerated the taxi coming to a halt. However, their patience evaporated when the driver required his change, causing a further delay.
The list of former Peruvian presidents accused of corruption is embarrassing. Much hilarity was caused when ex-president Alan Garcia recently attempted to seek asylum in the Uruguayan embassy. Garcia, twice president of Peru, had been banned from leaving the country. Garcia entered the Uruguayan embassy on 17thNovember last and on 3rdDecember his request for asylum was refused. A newspaper cartoon depicted Garcia leaving the building on a zip wire desperately seeking another embassy. Garcia and five of his former ministers are under investigation. He is accused of accepting millions of dollars from his friends at Odebrecht for the 2006 presidential campaign.
Former president Ollanta Humala (2011-16), previously an army officer, is also in trouble. At one point his home was sequestered by the courts though he has since managed to get it back. He was the man who defeated Keiko Fujimori (see above). The Brazilian police have implicated him in the Odebrecht scandal alleging that he was a recipient of bribes. Humala was arrested in 2017. Getting his property back was helpful since he and his wife remain there under house arrest. The authorities are also interested in another ex-president, Alejandro Toledo (2001-06), who was recently teaching at a university in the United States. According to Brazilian police, he is alleged to have taken bribes from Odebrecht which was looking to build a transoceanic highway through Brazil to the Peruvian coast. A Peruvian court has already sentenced him to 18 months prision preventida and is seeking to extradite him. Toledo was the man who led street demonstrations against the corrupt rule of former president Alberto Fujimori (Keiko’s dad) who is currently serving a 25 year sentence for human rights abuses, embezzlement and bribery.
However, there are questions about the use of prision preventida. When Judge Richard Conception sent Keiko Fujimori to prison he was accused of being in cahoots with the government. It has been alleged that she was deprived of her right to an impartial judge, something which may assist Toledo’s lawyers when a US court considers the application for extradition. To complete the list, so to speak, the last president Pedro Kuczynski resigned in 2018. Having escaped an impeachment attempt but then facing further scandals and a second vote, he decided to step down announcing that he didn’t want to be ‘an obstacle for the nation’s search for a path to unity and harmony’. It’s not only the Peruvian congress who had little confidence in Senor Kuczynski. His wife, an American, is reported to have to have given him a vote of no confidence too, by returning to the States.
When the new president Martin Vizcarra was sworn in, his face was reportedly unfamiliar to 81% of Peruvians. But at least he is trying to do something about corruption. In the December 2018 referendum, the public accepted most of his proposals, notably audits and scrutiny of donations to political parties. He cautiously described this as the first step towards eradicating corruption. However, a columnist in El Comercio was sceptical, maintaining that tinkering with the constitution is unlikely to make much difference. Hopefully he is wrong; Peruvians are a hardworking people who deserve better governance.