In Peru, Leftist Candidate’s Runoff Surge Sparks Fear, Recriminations

By Tyler Bridges

Published May 19, 2006, issue of May 19, 2006.
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LIMA, Peru — The decision by two leading members of Peru’s small Jewish community to support Ollanta Humala, a retired lieutenant colonel, for president has provoked outrage among other Jews here.

Humala, a leftist with links to authoritarian Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, led the first election round April 9 with 30.5%, and is given nearly even odds of winning the June 4 runoff against former president Alan Garcia, a social Democrat.

Humala is expected to get less than 10% of the votes of the 2,800 Jews in Peru.

He is an ultranationalist left-wing populist whose links to some outspoken antisemites worry members of the Jewish community. His younger brother, Antauro Humala, published a newspaper called Ollanta, which denounced Jews regularly. Antauro has been imprisoned since he led a failed military uprising 16 months ago, initially supported by Ollanta, that left four police officers dead. The Humalas’ father, Isaac, also has expressed a dislike for Jews. The candidate himself is not known to have done so.

Humala is seen as part of a growing wave of left-wing populism in South America that includes Venezuela’s Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales, who took office in January. The Bolivian leader has faced strong criticism abroad, even from traditional left-wing leaders in countries such as Brazil and Spain, since his May 1 decree giving the state control over parts of his country’s natural gas industry. A victory by Humala in Peru, South America’s fourth largest country, would greatly expand the influence of the leftist bloc.

Humala also has voiced praise for the last general who overthrew democracy in Peru, Juan Velasco Alvarado, a leftist who ruled from 1968 to 1975. More worrisome to many, Humala is accused of having approved, while he commanded a nearby military base, the forced abduction in 1992 of two people who later turned up dead.

It was this record that prompted Isaac Mekler, then president of Peru’s Jewish community, to call Humala “a sheep in wolf’s clothing” last November. At the time, Mekler criticized the Jewish owners of La Razón newspaper for slanting their coverage in favor of Humala.

“It’s surprising to us that a newspaper whose owners are Jewish praise a candidate who has an antisemitic mind and heart,” Mekler said, adding that a vote for Humala was a vote for violence and terror in Peru.

To the surprise of Mekler’s compatriots, he reversed himself three weeks later and announced that he was running for Congress as a member of Humala’s party.

Salomon Lerner, a prosperous businessman who served as the Jewish community’s official spokesman, also announced that he was signing on as an adviser to Humala’s campaign.

Both men threw their support behind Humala after a breakfast meeting with Jewish community leaders at Lerner’s home in early December 2005. The candidate sought the meeting to dispel his antisemitic reputation.

After endorsing him, Mekler and Lerner were forced to resign from their Jewish community posts and are now the target of many unflattering comments.

“The decision to side with Humala is appalling,” said Gustavo Gorriti, one of Peru’s leading journalists, who is Jewish. “At worst, he is a fascist. At best, he is a would-be dictator. Ninety percent of the Jewish community is firmly against Humala.”

Garcia, the other candidate, does not have strong backing among Jews either, Gorriti noted. He served as president from 1985 to 1990, overseeing a nose-diving economy, inflation that hit 7,000% per year and a burgeoning insurgency by the Shining Path guerrillas. Garcia, 56, now says he has learned from his mistakes.

According to Leon Trahtemberg, principal of Leon Pinelo School in Lima, many Jews fear that the decision by Mekler and Lerner to side with Humala while holding their community leadership posts has created the public misimpression that Jews support his candidacy.

“The community thinks this was a conflict of interest,” Trahtemberg said.

Associates say that Mekler was looking to run for Congress and turned to Humala only after leaders of other parties rejected him.

In a brief telephone interview, Mekler said he decided to support Humala “because he is a nationalist.” He declined to elaborate.

Mekler also declined to comment on the criticism sparked by his reversal, other than to say, “I don’t want to lower myself to the level of the trash talk.”

Lerner didn’t return phone calls. He is a political chameleon who worked with the Velasco military government that Humala now praises. He supported Garcia’s presidency in the late 1980s and backed current president Alejandro Toledo in 2001 after he became president.

Mekler and Lerner both worked for Jewish fishmeal magnate Isaac Galsky, who asked them to resign when they began supporting Humala. Galsky said he did not want senior employees openly working for any political candidate.

Humala was a political unknown only a year ago, having been recently forced to retire from the military. But he had a core group of supporters thanks to his brother Antauro’s newspaper, which was named for him.

Both brothers had made a name for themselves with failed military uprisings. But Antauro’s turned bloody and then led to his imprisonment, since he was trying to overthrow President Toledo.

Ollanta Humala’s failed coup attempt, in October 2000, left him with a heroic image. He said he was trying to encourage democratic forces to topple Peru’s elected but authoritarian president, Alberto Fujimori. After Fujimori resigned three weeks later, Peru’s Congress freed Humala.

Humala rose steadily in the polls this year by tapping into a widespread feeling among the poor — half of all Peruvians live on $2 or less per day — that the country’s economic gains under Toledo have bypassed them. At campaign rallies that regularly attract thousands of people, Humala attacks the wealthy, the political establishment, free trade and investors from neighboring Chile.

Humala calls for greater state protection of Peruvian industries, a protectionist line also championed by Chavez and Morales. He dismisses fears that his ultimate aim is to ditch democracy or govern with an iron hand, as Chavez increasingly has done in Venezuela.

Gorriti, the journalist, is among many Peruvians who remain unconvinced. He points to several links between Humala and Fujimori’s shadowy intelligence chief and right-hand man, Vladimiro Montesinos, who is now in prison for corruption and for subverting democracy.

“To elect Humala means the certain death of democracy in Peru,” Gorriti wrote recently in Caretas magazine. “We’ll fall into a dictatorship that, perhaps, will last a long time and be difficult and painful to defeat.”

Gorriti resigned as co-editor of La Republica newspaper in April, after raising alarms about Humala in his opinion columns while the paper’s owners were currying favor with the candidate through positive coverage.

Gorriti declined to discuss the reasons for his resignation.

Another Jewish media figure, Baruch Ivcher, is even more outspoken about Humala. The owner of one of Peru’s biggest television stations, Ivcher points to interviews in which Antauro Humala said that Ivcher is one of the leading Peruvians who deserves to be shot. Ivcher said he fears that candidate Humala harbors similar feelings.

Ivcher also worries aloud about Humala’s reputed ties to Montesinos. It was Montesinos who pushed the government to strip Israeli-born Ivcher of his Peruvian citizenship in 1996, after Ivcher broke with Fujimori and began airing hard-hitting investigative reports on Montesinos. Ivcher fled Peru, returning and regaining his television station only after Fujimori’s fall in 2000.

“Humala will do everything he can to leave me without a channel again,” Ivcher said. “Don’t forget one thing,” he added, and then referred to Mekler and Lerner. “Who were among the first people who helped Hitler? Some Jews believed in Hitler, thinking that he had good intentions.”

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