García faces battle in winning over Peru’s highlanders

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At the mention of Alan García, Peru’s president-elect, Juan Marca grimaces and draws his finger across his throat in an “off with his head” gesture.

Mr Marca, a 32-year-old primary school teacher from the highland department of Ayacucho, has joined thousands in the tiny town of Pampa Galeras for the annual chaccu.

The chaccu ceremony – the communal herding and shearing of vicuña, the camelid whose wool is so fine that in Inca times it was worn only by royalty – was revived in 1992. For many, it represents the rebirth of cultural life in a region that suffered most in the conflict between government troops and the Maoist guerrillas of the Shining Path, an organisation started in San Cristóbal de Huamanga university in Ayacucho.

Memories of that violent conflict, during Mr García’s first stint as president between 1985 and 1990, explain this region’s hostility towards the man who will be sworn in as president for another five-year term next week. Across Ayacucho, Mr García won just 17 per cent of the vote.

“We suffered terribly here during Alan’s government,” says Mr Marca. “Puquio was practically controlled by the Shining Path.”

Such antipathy could be a headache for the new government. Unlike in 1985, when Mr García was swept into office on a wave of adulation, he will be forced to act quickly to show he is serious about extending the benefits of Peru’s economic boom, particularly to the impoverished highlands.

Although victory for Mr García – seen as more moderate than Ollanta Humala, his radical nationalist rival – was greeted with relief in Washington, in European capitals and in the offices of multilateral lenders in much of Peru it was a let-down.

Mr García won by a margin of some 700,000 ballots, and the vote exposed deep geographical splits: Mr Hum-ala won 15 of Peru’s 25 de-partments, achieving a near clean sweep of the highlands and the jungle. His nationalist party also won 45 seats in Congress, while Mr García’s Apra won 36.

Moreover, the principal motivation cited by those who voted for Mr García was that they saw him as the least worst option, according to a survey by Apoyo, Peru’s leading pollster.

On declaring victory, Mr García moved immediately to reach out to the south. “The south voted for another option,” he told supporters. “I will respond by working for the development of southern Peru.”

But he faces an uphill battle in Ayacucho, where locals say Omar Quezada, the regional president of Mr García’s party, has failed to tackle a lack of infrastructure, combat an illiteracy rate of 29 per cent, or help the 73 per cent of the population living in poverty.

“We feel completely abandoned by the regional government, and that really harmed Alan in the election,” says Jim Espinoza, a 28-year-old from Lucanas, a village about 170km south of the departmental capital.

José Urquizo, the regional vice-president, says he understands the resentment. He blames a lack of re-sources from central government, pointing out that 97 per cent of Ayacucho’s budget goes towards running costs, leaving little for infrastructure.

Mr Urquizo, who has broken with Mr Quezada and will take up office on July 28 as a congressman in Mr Humala’s nationalist bloc, fears destabilising anti-government protests should the government fail to meet local demands.

“We don’t want to reproduce here in Peru the political instability they have had in recent years in Bolivia and Ecuador,” he says.

The first flashpoint may be a trade treaty between Lima and Washington that Peru’s Congress approved last month. During the election campaign, Mr García said he regarded the treaty as “a draft” and vowed to revise it “chapter by chapter and point by point”. Immediately after the election, he dropped such talk and allow-ed Apra’s congressional bloc to vote for the treaty.

There is likely to be a backlash from small agricultural producers who fear the consequences of the immediate opening up of their sectors. Farmers and agricultural workers clashed with police this month in protests against the treaty. In the wake of those protests, Mr García suggested he would “renegotiate” sections of the trade agreement, something most analysts see as nigh-on impossible.

“Saying he was going to revise the trade agreement was Alan’s first big lie,” says Héctor Huerto, a former Apra congressman for Huánuco, in the central highlands.

A serious test of how Mr García is faring will come with regional elections in November. In Ayacucho, he will have to overcome decades of neglect. “This is the most isolated part of an isolated region,” says Mr Marca. “We have terrible poverty here, no jobs and no prospects for our children. We don’t have any confidence that Alan García will make any difference to any of that.”

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