Garcia the ‘lesser of two evils’ in Peruvian presidential race

AT 6ft 3in, former Peruvian president Alan Garcia strikes an imposing figure in his bid for re-election. But he also casts a long shadow of dark memories.

To Maria Teresa Chavez, a 46-year-old housewife, Garcia’s 1985-90 administration was a time when she would stand in line for hours, shopping basket stuffed with wads of devalued currency, to buy two pounds of sugar and a can of milk for her children’s breakfast.

Raul Zegarra, 55, a clothing vendor, remembers car bombs that terrified his children and constant blackouts from rebel attacks on Lima’s electrical grid.

Ana Casanova, 50, a clerk in a public school, recalls losing her hard-earned savings because US dollar accounts were frozen and converted to a national currency that would devalue from 12 to the dollar to a million to the dollar in just five years.

A record like that would seem certain to doom a presidential candidacy. Yet polls are giving Garcia a lead of more than 12 points over nationalist ex-army officer Ollanta Humala.

It is the present — and the changing face of Latin American politics — that has made Mr Garcia the unexpected front-runner. He has profited handsomely from getting into a verbal slugging match with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Mr Chavez’s intervention in support of Mr Humala has scared many Peruvians, as well as many other Latin Americans, who fear the Venezuelan’s radical ideas are taking the continent’s leftist surge too far.

Mr Garcia has also demonstrated the right degree of contrition, blaming his first-term disasters on an intoxicating mix of youth and power. He swears he has learned from his errors, especially the 3,000% inflation rates forever linked to his name.

“The person most interested in inflation rising no higher than 1.5% is Alan Garcia, because that is the test I must take in the face of history,” Mr Garcia told reporters.

“The principal rival Garcia has is Garcia himself [and] his past,” said sociologist Santiago Pedraglio. “Garcia is betting he can win as the lesser of two evils, and up to this point he’s doing a better job of that than Mr Humala.”

When Mr Garcia returned five years ago, many economists predicted an exodus of capital from Peru if he became president again.

Now, that same fear is heard more frequently about Mr Humala, who has spooked many upper and middle-class Peruvians with pledges of state intervention in Peru’s free-market economy to benefit the poor majority.

Mr Garcia has adroitly turned the race into a referendum on the Chavez factor, depicting Mr Humala as an aspiring authoritarian who would fall into lockstep behind the Venezuelan leader’s populist economics and anti-American rhetoric.

He has focused much of his campaigning on voters too young to remember his presidency first hand, with snappy, hip-hop songs and TV commercials featuring a dancing cartoon red star — the symbol of his centre-left Aprista party.

But older Peruvians may prove harder to crack.

“He left the country in ruins,” said Mr Zegarra. “There was misery, desperation. It was a tragedy. Why repeat that?”

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