It’s still too soon to tell whether Peruvian president Alan Garcia can deliver on his election promise of “responsible change” to help reduce poverty and develop a more inclusive economy. But one area where he’s already broken with the recent past is in his promotion of closer links with Chile. If he can drag public opinion along with him, Peru’s and Chile’s increasing economic integration could eventually be joined by a long-overdue warming in their social and political relations.
When Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez openly endorsed nationalist candidate Ollanta Humala during last year’s elections, it gave Garcia an opportunity to argue for his own approach to foreign policy. He pointed to Chile and Brazil as examples of social democratic governments he admired, and was particularly effusive about the “Chilean model” of development.
Post-election, one of Garcia’s first international visits was to Chile. He proposed an “axis of economic integration” that has already led to Chile rejoining the Comunidad Andina trade bloc as an associate member and to a seminal free trade agreement between the two Pacific nations.
Peru – Chile relations have had a lingering bitterness ever since Chile annexed chunks of Peruvian and Bolivian territory during the War of the Pacific, 120 years ago. Touchy issues in recent times have included an ongoing dispute over the maritime border, intrigue over whose port would be the point of export for Bolivian gas from Tarija, and accusations that Chile sold arms to Ecuador during its border skirmishes with Peru in 1995.
In Peru, suspicion of Chile runs genuinely deep. But this has often been manipulated by politicians and the press as a useful distraction from the country’s internal difficulties.
Even when there’s no issue of substance, something always seems to crop up to heighten tensions. When disgraced former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori chose Chile as his re-entry point to South America after years of exile in Japan, he must have known that the legal processes to extradite him would become politicized.
And the two Chilean youths who were arrested for painting graffiti on a section of original Incan stonework in Cusco in January 2005 could hardly have created a better opportunity for grandstanding on both sides, had this been their explicit intention.
Away from the rhetorical clashes, economic ties between the two countries have been inexorably strengthening over the last few years, as globalization does its work. Trade grew by 140 percent between 2001 and 2005, with much of the increased volume coming from Peruvian exports.
This is no surprise to anyone who has witnessed the bustling traffic across the border between Arica and Tacna. Yet some Peruvians see this increasing integration as economic imperialism, and are wary of Chilean investment, which is almost ten times more than Peruvian investment in Chile.
Perceptions are influenced by the high-profile presence of Chilean multinationals like LAN airlines and Saga Falabella in Peruvian markets. LAN in particular suffers from the perception that it was favored by governmental machinations which forced Peruvian carrier Aero Continente off both countries’ domestic routes.
It’s also received wisdom that the increasing numbers of Peruvians working in Chile face constant discrimination. However, a survey by Chilean newspaper La Nacion found that although around one-third of Peruvians living in Chile had on “at least one occasion” experienced discrimination, 93 percent would make the decision to move there again.
With this background, nationalist candidate Humala predictably took several opportunities during the elections to play the anti-Chilean card. The “etnocacerist” movement, started by Humala’s father Isaac, takes part of its name from Andres A. Caceres, a Peruvian hero of the Pacific War who led resistance to the Chilean occupation. During his campaign, Humala criticized Chilean arms purchases, promised to revise the Peru-Chile open skies agreement and warned Chile that a nationalist government would “not let anyone tread on its poncho”.
The neutral observer, who tends to see more similarities than differences between the nations of Latin America, is left bewildered by the depth of nationalistic feeling in the region. He also can’t help wondering why Peru nurtures historical grievances against Chile rather than copying some of the things its neighbor has done to reduce poverty and sustain economic growth over the last fifteen years.
Alan Garcia seems to agree, and Hugo Chavez effectively handed him an opportunity when he declared: “let’s hope [the next president of Peru] is Ollanta Humala”.
Most Peruvians were unimpressed by what they saw as Chavez’s bullying attempts to intervene in their domestic affairs, and had no desire to become a satellite of Venezuela. They also watched Evo Morales’ somewhat heavy-handed nationalization of Bolivia’s gas resources with a sense that, though this may be something Bolivia needed to do, it wasn’t the path Peru should go down.
For Garcia, these events were useful in crystallizing what was at stake in the elections. An avid scholar, it’s certain that he read former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castañeda’s article in Foreign Policy magazine, which identified the emergence of “two lefts” in Latin America: the progressive social democracies of Chile, Brazil and Uruguay; and the authoritarian populism developing in Venezuela, Argentina and Bolivia.
The reality is a bit more complicated than that, but Garcia was quick to position himself on the side of “responsible change”, stating that he “preferred the governments of Lula in Brazil and President Bachelet in Chile”.
Following his win in the June 7, 2006 run-off against Humala, Garcia didn’t waste time before putting his foreign policy into action. A visit to Brazil just one week later was followed by a trip to Chile on June 22nd.
In a speech at the Council of the Americas meeting held in Lima on July 7, 2006, Garcia had warm words for Peru’s southern neighbor, promising a “very deep and solid relationship with Chile, whose economic, technological and commercial progress [offers]… a model of struggle against misery and poverty”. He spoke of “brotherly and transparent links which will allow us to look forward without fear, mistrust or resentment”.
He also proposed that Chile return to the Comunidad Andina economic alliance, which it left in 1976. Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia later formally invited Chile to become an associate member, and this status was confirmed in September 2006. Meanwhile, in August 2006 Peru and Chile became the first South American nations to sign a bilateral trade agreement – principally an extension of the two countries’ 1998 economic complementarity agreement.
Garcia’s Third Way reformism seeks to emphasize education and economic development, and move debate away from zero-sum arguments about territory. He has underlined what seems clear to the outsider – that Peru already has more land and resources than Chile, and that these are much less important to the wealth of a country than the capability of its people. In one campaign speech, he neatly turned the traditional rivalry around by saying that, if Peru can govern its own affairs better, in ten years time “our Chilean friends will look at us with envy”.
If anyone can convince Peruvians to change their views, it’s Garcia. A consummate rhetorician, he managed to persuade a majority of the electorate that he had matured and changed since his disastrous first term from 1985-1990. But a recent poll run by the Universidad de Lima demonstrated how far public opinion has to shift. Asked to nominate which of Peru’s five immediate neighbors was its closest regional friend, 55 percent of respondents chose one of Alan Garcia’s favored allies – Brazil. Chile came a distant last, selected by just 2.2 percent of respondents.
And even at government level, snags are already reappearing, as indicated by recent suggestions that Peru will take the maritime border dispute to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. This could be a sensible decision to let an objective third party clarify an intractable legal issue. Or it could be a sign that the recent political progress will once again be derailed by territorial squabbles.
In the long run, improved relations with Chile will probably only happen as fast as the rest of the “responsible change” agenda. As long as a majority of Peruvians need to find scapegoats for their economic difficulties, sentiments like those expressed in the accompanying photo (above) are unlikely to disappear. Not that the tensions are all created by one side. Chileans could also afford to be more generous in their attitudes towards Peru, and less dismissive about Peruvian insecurities than they sometimes have been.
Even with the best will in the world from Peru’s silver-tongued president, it may take a while before Peru and Chile consign the War of the Pacific to where it belongs – in the history books.
by Simon Bidwell