Peru’s former charismatic president, Alan García, once hailed ‘the John F. Kennedy of Latin America,’ killed himself with a pistol this past Wednesday. What a tragedy and waste of a brilliant man.
In 1985, I flew to Lima to interview García for New York’s Wall Street Journal. He had just assumed office; I believe I was the first non-Latin American journalist to interview him.
García was successor to the nationalist firebrand Haya de la Torre, founder of the militant APRA party, whose aim was to nationalize foreign holdings across the Americas and send the Yankees home.
Lima, Peru’s capital of 9.8 million, was founded by the Conquistador Pizarro in 1535, almost a full century before my own hometown, New York City. Peru’s capital was dark, dusty, cold and spooky. Millions of native Quechua-speaking Peruvians had flocked down to Lima from the impoverished high Andes. The streets teemed with beggars and pickpockets.
The crime situation in Lima was so bad that as I was being driven to the president’s palace by his chief of staff, he warned me to remove my watch and glasses. Why? “We can be attacked even on the steps of the palace,” he replied.
I was finally introduced to Alan García, the new president. He couldn’t speak English; my Spanish was awful. But we found we were both graduates of French-speaking universities, he the Sorbonne in Paris and I the University of Geneva. So we settled into comfortable French, which relaxed the amiable president and me. I quite liked him.
Our interview was his first chance to address Americans, and, notably, Wall Street. Peru was up to it ears in foreign debt and unable to exploit its vast minerals industry without new foreign loans. The country’s 19.5 million people were seething with misery, poverty and hopelessness.
Up in the high Andes, rebellion was underway, led by two indigenous Marxist outfits, the Túpac Amaru and larger Shining Path. The latter crazies adopted Maoism and actually sought to turn Peru into a second Stalinist Albania! Nutty as they were, the Shining Path wild men inflicted grave damage on Peru until the next president, the iron-fisted Japanese Peruvian Alberto Fujimori, crushed them. (Fujimori is currently in prison for murder and kidnapping).
In the course of our interview, I got García to admit that, yes, he was a socialist, but of the soft European type. After I reported García’s comment in the Wall Street Journal a big furor erupted in the US, where few knew anything about Peru.
Headlines: ‘García admits he is a socialist’. There were hysterical claims Peru was to be a beachhead for Moscow and Havana. All nonsense of course, but red alarm bells went off in Washington and New York and the bankers took fright.
I felt badly. My editors were looking for sensations, not factual news. What García was, in fact, was a poor economic administrator and an academic ivory tower dreamer with no idea how business worked. Under him, inflation hit 7,500%.
He was a forerunner to Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.
At the end of his first term in 1990, García left in semi-disgrace and went to hide out at his old sociology faculty in Paris. In my view, sociology is the biggest quackery in academia except for gender studies. Phrenology is more reliable. García and I discussed the tedious works of French sociologist Émile Durkheim well into the night.
In 2006, Garcia managed to get himself re-elected in Peru, this time promising financial rectitude, honesty, and sound economic strategies. His successors were deposed or jailed for corruption. Garcia started well but soon got himself into a peck of trouble.
The principal source was Latin America’s largest engineering/energy conglomerate, the Brazil-based leviathan Odebrecht that ignited the region’s largest ever corruption scandal. The Brazilian firm paid out at least $788 million in bribes to heads of state and politicians in 12 Latin nations to secure lucrative business contracts.
So far, the monster scandal, known in Brazil as ‘Lava Jato’ (car wash) has brought down former presidents of Brazil, Collor de Mello, Dilma Rousseff, Lula da Silva; three Peruvian former presidents, and leaders in Ecuador, Venezuela, Panama and Dominican Republic. The Mother of all bribery cases.
Alan García was facing arrest in this scandal. As Peruvian police arrived, he shot himself in the head and died soon after – the true man’s way out. He was a charming man and I will miss him. Adiós, el presidente!