On Thursday, in front of Peru’s parliament, Alan García is due to hand the presidential sash to Ollanta Humala. But in a major breach of protocol – not to mention a serious fit of pique – Peru’s outgoing president has said he will not attend the event.
Mr García’s lack of appetite for mixing with his leftwing successor is understandable. Mr Humala, a former army lieutenant colonel, owes his rise to power at least in part to his tough-talking on corruption, with some of his supporters now calling for criminal investigations of Mr García’s administration.
Yet the ceremonial snub may be the least of it. By refusing to show up at Mr Humala’s inauguration, Mr García has also sidestepped the traditional presidential farewell address, in which Peru’s outgoing chief executive is expected to offer congress an oratorical balance of accounts of his five years in office.
Democratically-elected, staunchly pro-Washington and having signed “free trade” agreements with everyone from the European Union to China, Mr García usually receives favourable treatment from foreign media. Yet many in Peru view his presidency as a squandered half-decade in Peru’s battle against poverty and corruption.
Under Mr García, Peru’s economy has continued to top Latin America’s growth charts, with GDP expanding around 8% in 2010. Yet, the benefits have not been shared evenly among Peruvians. Indeed, the city-slicker president’s disinterest in impoverished Andean and Amazonian communities has been palpable – and tragic. And while business leaders have had an open door at the presidential palace, citizens with complaints about the environmental and social impacts of mining, oil and gas drilling, and other major infrastructure projects, have been ridiculed as unpatriotic, anti-development and just plain envious.
Mr García’s haughty, Lima-centric vision reached its nadir in June 2009 with the Bagua massacre. Just hours after dismissing indigenous Amazonians as “not first class citizens”, Mr García found himself presiding helplessly over a bloodbath in which dozens of police officers and indigenous protestors died at each others’ hands in an unnecessary confrontation sown by his government’s refusal to listen to any questioning of his export-oriented economic model.
“Peru advances,” runs the official slogan of Mr García’s administration, in keeping with the triumphalist tone of the outgoing president’s frequent rhetorical flights of fantasy, which give the impression that this South American nation has development indicators rivaling those of, say, Switzerland. Earlier this month, to widespread incredulity, he even hosted a major function in Lima to announce the end of illiteracy in Peru.
That event came amid a hectic schedule of inaugurations of public works, many of them unfinished, as Mr García has used his final weeks in power to position himself for the 2016 presidential contest (Peru’s constitution prohibits immediate reelection). These include a metro line in Lima with no trains and a hospital with no equipment or even running water. Challenged by reporters about the latter, Mr García truculently responded: “This hospital will start to function when people become sick … journalists will be the first to be treated here in an emergency.”
During another hospital visit last year, Mr García hit a personal nadir when, in front of dozens of witnesses, and surrounded by a phalanx of bodyguards, he slapped a hospital volunteer who had dared to shout “corrupt” at him. Mr García initially denied assaulting the heckler but one of his close allies, Javier Villa Stein, publicly justified the attack by warning that “only in a country of poofs” would the president allow himself to be insulted in public. Mr Villa Stein was, it bears noting, head of the judiciary at the time.
Clearly, the law has not applied equally to all in Mr García’s Peru. But was the heckler correct? Mr García certainly has a dismal record of publicly condoning corruption. Last year, for example, when it was revealed that a police general had received an unexplained payment of $100,000 into his personal bank account, Mr García’s response was to insist that it was “not such a great sum”. And according to one former public prosecutor, most of the 5,000 recipients of presidential pardons during Mr García’s administration are drug traffickers and crooked public officials.
So, has Mr García personally benefited from acts of corruption? Arguably, the most famous quote of his five-year term was his alleged private assertion that for presidents “the money arrives on its own”. Yet Mr García has successfully dodged the fall-out, and evidence, from a string of scandals exploding around him within his cabinet and party – so far.
The question many Peruvians are now asking is whether Mr García’s Teflon-skin will withstand the intense retrospective scrutiny of his administration that Mr Humala’s government may unleash?