Humala’s Foreign Policy: More Continuity Than Change?

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As has been the case with other presidencies, the success or failure of Ollanta Humala’s will depend on its performance in addressing Peru’s critical problems. Humala has a mandate for moderate change – not for a revolution and for an upending of the country’s impressive economic progress in recent years, but rather for a better distribution of the benefits of growth, serious social reform, and a reduction in corruption and crime. National challenges undoubtedly will -- and should -- take precedence over Humala’s foreign policy agenda, which got little attention during the campaign.

Yet the Humala government’s relations with other governments will be important not only to the extent that they will affect its ability to successfully pursue a domestic agenda. Foreign policy also helps define a government’s strategic direction and priorities and its political position on the regional and global stages.

Humala and his foreign policy team could do a lot worse than to follow and build on the excellent record of the Garcia government, led chiefly by its very able foreign minister Jose Antonio Garcia Belaunde. Naturally there is a temptation for one administration to set itself apart from its predecessor’s, but sometimes a departure from continuity can be costly, and can result in damage control. Garcia Belaunde managed Peru’s relations with its closest neighbors, as well as with the United States and China, with admirable skill.

Humala will, of course, have to deal with a rapidly changing regional and global context that will pose new tests and force difficult decisions and choices. Beyond consideration of the declining influence of the United States in the region or the rising power and enlarged role of China, Latin America has changed in fundamental ways since 2006, when Humala came close to winning the presidency.

Perhaps the most notable shift has been the declining regional influence of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Chavez’s illness has only added to his profound political problems in Venezuela, reflected in Latin America’s highest inflation, electricity and food shortages, and crime that is out of control. Though Chavez hasn’t lost his charisma and retains popularity, his governance has been dismal, which makes him more politically vulnerable as Venezuela moves towards its presidential election next year.

Sensibly, Humala distanced himself from Chavez in the last campaign and instead embraced and identified with the successful model of governance fashioned by former Brazilian president Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva. Thanks to advisors from the Workers Party, Humala’s positions on some issues were so moderate that it would be hard to describe them as coming from the left. The consensus of Brasilia combines economic growth with an emphasis on the social agenda and democratic politics.

In that context, it was not surprising that as president-elect Humala made his first visit to Brazil, and met both with Lula and the current president Dilma Rousseff. Since she became president in January, Rousseff, who is more pragmatic and businesslike than charismatic, seems likely to pursue a foreign policy less grandiose and ambitious than Lula’s. She will, of course, maintain commitments in South America, such as UNASUR (as well as global associations as a member of the BRICS and G-20, and aspiration to be permanent member of the UN Security Council), but will probably be more restrained when it comes to forays into sensitive Middle Eastern geopolitical matters. Her overriding objectives are, like Humala’s, on the domestic front.

Humala can be expected to intensify and deepen the already strong economic relationship between Peru and Brazil. This was one of the notable accomplishments of the Garcia years, exemplified in the bilateral Strategic Agreement, and Humala will probably seek to enhance integration through the development of energy infrastructure projects and increased levels of trade and investment.

At the same time, while Humala is unlikely to reject or withdraw from the recently formed Pacific Alliance involving Peru, Colombia, Mexico and Chile, he almost certainly will be less enthusiastic about the initiative than Garcia, who was instrumental in getting it off the ground. Humala has consistently and wisely said that he intends to maintain good relations with all of Peru’s South American neighbors, and his post-election visits have reflected that desire. His meeting with Chilean president Sebastian Pinera in particular helped ease some concerns of a possibly more hard-line position towards a country with a pending case in The Hague and one with substantial investments in Peru. Nonetheless, given the range of choices and options Humala may well end up emphasizing and favoring Brazil over some of the region’s Pacific nations.

In this context, Colombia could play a more significant regional role in coming years, which would be a striking shift from the presidency of Alvaro Uribe (2002-1010), when Colombia was marginalized from much of South America and was perceived as closely aligned to Washington. To illustrate, under Uribe Colombia had deep reservations about even joining UNASUR, and today the organization’s secretary general is former Colombian foreign minister Maria Emma Mejia.

Arguably, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is the first South American leader to come to office since Chavez (1999) and Lula (2003) who has at least aspired to play an active and assertive regional role. Whether he will be able to do so remains unclear, and will depend in large measure on Santos’s success in dealing with Colombia’s domestic challenges, including security, which continues to be a serious problem in the only Latin American country that still has an internal armed conflict. Colombia, which will host the next summit of the Americas in Cartagena in April 2012 and is looking to become a member of the OECD and APEC, is likely to take greater direction of the Pacific Alliance. Border security cooperation between Peru and Colombia will likely continue.

Humala has also make it clear that he is wants good relations with Washington and the Obama administration. Although his original position on the 2007 Peru-US free trade agreement was highly critical (as contained in “the great transformation”), Humala has since considerably moderated his views. In his July 7 meetings with President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Humala stressed his interest in maintaining cooperation with the United States on a range of issues, from trade to drug trafficking (Humala’s position does not yet seem fully defined) to the environment, and even education and technology. Both the US government and president-elect Humala had a clear mutual interest in allaying concerns that the next government would signify any break in good bilateral relations.

Although such a visit surely served a useful purpose -- there was no discernible criticism either in Lima or Washington, DC -- it is hard to see that there is much room for new initiatives or an expansion in US-Peruvian relations. What can be expected, under the best of circumstances, is pretty much an extension of the status quo.

Of course, at least from Washington’s standpoint the relationship will ultimately depend on the nature of the Humala administration and in particular decisions it takes on economic policy and how it deals with democratic challenges at home. The narrative has taken hold in the US that Humala appears likely to be more like the moderate and pragmatic Lula than the more populist and authoritarian Chavez. (A Washington Post interview with Humala on July 10 was entitled, “Is Peru Emulating Venezuela or Brazil?) This formulation, however simplistic, has resulted in considerable goodwill and a wait-and-see attitude towards Humala in Washington.

Like the Garcia administration and many other Latin American governments today, Humala can be expected to look increasingly to Asia – China, in particular – for increased investment and trade, to generate the resources that will ultimately enable him to fulfill his promise of greater social inclusion in Peru. Relations with China could well become more complicated as issues of labor and the environment come to the fore, particularly as they affect some of the poor, indigenous communities that make up Humala’s base of support. How Humala deals with and navigates such challenges will not only affect the quality of Peru’s foreign relations but also will help determine the success of his presidency.

Less than a year ago it would have been tempting to affirm that if Ollanta Humala reached the presidency in Peru that would dramatically shift the regional balance and the nations of ALBA – in South America, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador – would be considerably strengthened.

Yet, the outlook today is much less clear. Chavez is in a weaker political position, aggravated by his recent illness, but fundamentally the product of his failed governance and deteriorating economic and security conditions. Morales, too, is much weakened, following an inexplicable and politically costly decision last December that resulted in major increases in the prices of gas. And even Correa, who remains popular, barely won a series of referenda measures on which he staked his political prestige. In that context, it is hard to characterize the politics associated with ALBA as being on the ascendancy.

Humala, too, has seemingly changed a great deal over recent years, and especially in the last year, when the circumstances imposed by a campaign for the presidency encouraged a marked move towards moderation and the political center. It is irresistible to search for parallels, whether in Lula or Chavez, or – in the case of another retired military officer elected to the presidency – Ecuador’s Lucio Gutierrez. But such analogies often obfuscate more than they illuminate.

Humala has his own distinctive personal history and will face very particular circumstances and challenges (for example, the situation in Puno) in Peru. These will necessarily shape and limit Humala’s room for maneuver and force a kind of pragmatism. When Lula became president of Brazil, and Chavez in Venezuela, the conditions were very different than they are today in Peru. If Humala can fashion the type of governance that enables Peru to continue to grow economically but that results in a fairer distribution and that is accompanied by serious social reforms -- all carried out in a democratic framework and adhering to the rule of law -- that will put the new administration in a favorable position in a changing and uncertain regional scenario.

Humala ran a formidable, highly professional campaign but his political skills are still unknown and will soon be put to a severe test. As Humala said in the Washington Post interview, he and Obama agreed that “the best period for a president of a country is the electoral campaign.” Humala and Obama are right. As the latter has discovered, governing is an entirely different matter.

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