By Mark Loyka and Sandra Zuniga Guzman
Today, July 6, 2011, Peruvian President-elect Ollanta Humala is making his first diplomatic visit to the United States to meet with influential policy-makers such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon. The meetings focus primarily on economic and security issues, including the renegotiation of the current Free Trade Agreement, as well as discussions for joint policy measures to curtail cocaine production in the Peruvian Amazon. Furthermore, the visit will mark an instrumental diplomatic opportunity for Humala and Washington, and will set the tone for both U.S.-Peruvian relations and U.S.-Latin American relations in general. Now, Humala will have the opportunity to prove that he is not the Chávez-like caricature Washington was eager to fabricate. Similarly, the Obama administration and Secretary Clinton can capitalize on a propitious opportunity to make a strong statement of the U.S.’s commitment to re-evaluating its Latin American policy, by cordially accepting the new Peruvian leader with an open agenda, as well as an open mind.
A former military leader, Humala was associated with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in the 2006 elections; however, he made a concerted effort to move toward the center-left in 2011. His far-left image has instilled fear among right wing and centrist Peruvian members of the political spectrum. To counter such fears, Humala hired técnicos from former-Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s administration, and pledged his allegiance to democracy while reassuring the business community that he will maintain the economic policies that have contributed to Peru’s strong economic growth of the past decade.
Over the past decade, Peru has proven to be a strong and close ally to the United States. The administrations of Alejandro Toledo and Alan García established a conciliatory as well as increasingly friendly relationship with U.S. business and security interests. Yet at the same time, Peru was becoming a regional outlier under the Bush administration’s inane foreign policy, which strained relations with the rest of Latin America. The rise of left-leaning governments across Latin America has resulted in a new regional dynamic where the United States is no longer top dog. Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, influenced by Cuban leader Fidel Castro, has formed a leftist regional political and economic bloc that perpetually rejects U.S. influence: the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA). Today, it became of the utmost importance for Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration to not categorize Humala as the next Chávez, but as an ally for the creation of progressive U.S. policy in the region. If Washington is truly prepared to enter into a relationship with the region’s left-leaning governments, including Cuba as well as the new government in Lima, it needs to understand that Humala holds many cards in his hands, including Peru’s very strong economy and the support of several South American leaders.
Peru, the fifth most populous nation in Latin America, is one of a diminishing number of countries with which the U.S. maintains positive relations. With the U.S.’s influence in Latin America being on the decline, Washington would be wise to acknowledge their new role in the region. The best policy toward Peru would be one in which the national interests of both the U.S. and Peru are being satisfied. If Washington formulates a smart, respectful relationship with Humala, it could be a harbinger for a new direction of U.S.-Latin American policy. It is time for the State Department to break from the Bush administration’s “you are either with us or against us” mentality. A Latin American country no longer needs to choose sides between the U.S. and Cuba. Instead, Washington must acknowledge that Peru, like all sovereign nations, has the right to forge its own path and destiny.