Elected president four years ago in June 2011, Ollanta Humala promised what he called the ‘great transformation’. Many, particularly among the business elites, feared there would be a dramatic change in the business and mining-friendly economic policies pursued from the start of the millennium, and indeed since the early 1990s when Alberto Fujimori first introduced neoliberal reforms.
What was transformed were not the policies but the views of the president and those around him like his wife Nadine Heredia, seen by many as the power behind the throne. Humala opted to maintain the economic status quo in his macroeconomic strategy, privileging the interests of the investor community.
However, he did give greater emphasis to social programmes promised in the campaign and designed to alleviate poverty. ‘Pension 65’ was established to provide the elderly with an income upon retirement. ‘Beca 18’ was designed to allow talented youngsters from the provinces and living in poverty to gain access to university education in Lima and abroad. ‘Quali Warma’ granted poor children access to decent school meals.
Like the Juntos programme introduced by President Toledo before them, most of these programmes were based on conditional cash transfers (CCTs) first pioneered in countries like Brazil. Compared with other countries in Latin America, though, these programmes have been quite limited in their scope and impact.
The Humala administration’s greatest success has been in education, where two very competent ministers have radically improved matters through targeted investment tackling both poor infrastructure and teacher training. There has been clear evidence of improvement in educational levels, albeit from an extremely low base.
Despite some significant achievements, the vast majority of people who voted for Humala feel disillusioned by his government’s record over the past four years. Some polls put his popularity rating as low as 10%. Many feel that the reforms carried out have been timid at best and that Humala has accepted far too much by way of compromise in response to pressures from business elites.
Nowhere has this contradiction been clearer than in conflicts over mining. As was the case recently with Tia Maria in Arequipa, local communities continue to reject large projects they consider threatening to their livelihoods. Many such conflicts arise from access to scarce water supplies and fears that mining companies will pollute water sources. In the Amazon region too there is strong opposition to oil companies that have left a trail of destruction and contamination in their wake.
As with previous administrations, the Humala government’s pro-mining stance has led it to permit the use of force to deal with protest against new mining ventures. Laws have been changed to prevent the prosecution of police officers who wound or kill demonstrators. The human rights situation in Peru remains a matter of serious concern.
Arguably, the president has become the main defender of those who feared his election most, but it is these elites which, through the country’s conservative media, criticize his government the most. Nowhere is this clearer than in the attacks on Humala for not taking more draconian action in dealing with “terrorists” that protest against mining projects.
The political climate has become more conflictive (and Humala’s popularity has fallen further) as the economic boom of the last ten years comes to an end. With little more than a year left in office, Humala is routinely criticized for failing to respond to the challenges facing the country. In particular, the policy of promoting mining development at the expense of economic diversification is becoming ever more evident as exports slump and growth slows. And not much of a change of heart is likely in the short period remaining before a new government is elected next year.