Sunday, April 30, 2006

Villa Ecologica

Driving up through the suburb of Alto Selva Alegre towards the flanks of El Misti, the basic but tidy houses of brick and concrete peter out, and the sealed road comes to an end. You're now entering the zone of the "pueblos jovenes" ("young towns"). These are the Peruvian equivalent of the Colombian comunas or the Brazilian favelas - new, informal settlements populated by the poor and marginalized who have often migrated from rural areas in search of a better life.

On Monday morning we headed up in Hugo's 4-wheel drive to visit one of the newest and poorest pueblitos, called Villa Ecologica. It's common for these shantytowns to bear unrealistically optimistic names, such as the "City of God" depicted in the Brazilian film of the same name. "Villa Ecologica", however, does bear some relation to reality, the name coming from the one-time designation of the terrain in and beyond the settlement as a provinical park.

My introduction to the case of Villa Ecologica was thanks to Ilona, a Polish postgraduate sociology student who came to Arequipa through an AISEC (international student organisation) exchange programme, hoping to work in social projects. Hugo is registered with AISEC to provide work experience to students, and Ilona was put in contaact with him.

As can be Hugo's way, he hadn't been entirely straight with Ilona about what she would be doing, and she ended up involved in boring tasks in the agency office for most of her first couple of months. But Hugo did manage to introduce her to contacts in Villa Ecologica, where he had delivered some of his own well-meaning though sporadic projects, such as organizing a Christmas party and presents for the children of the settlement.

Ilona explained the results of her investigations so far. The one thing which came absolutely on top of the list of areas where Villa Ecologica needed help was, unsurprisingly, water. In a city which scrapes a bare 100mm annual rainfall, water supply is always going to become a problem. The greenness of the valley which so attracted the Incas and the Spanish is largely a result of irrigation from the river Chili, which wends its way down from the sierra.

But as Arequipa has sprawled out the north, uphill towards the slopes of El Misti, the new areas are cut off from the river, and have no easy access to water. Misti, the city's icon, itself supplies no water. At present, the inhabitants of Villa Ecologica make do with communal tanks which are filled once a week by water which is trucked in and costs 48 soles (about $15 USD) for a tankload. They then have to fill up buckets and carry them several blocks to their own dwellings to supply their needs.

Ilona told me that she had gone to talk to an engineer at the Municipality of Selva Alegre about the possibility of connecting the town water supply to Villa Ecologica. She said she was told that this would be a very costly project to supply just Villa Ecologica; the pueblito holds around 3,500 families, of whom less than 2,000 are resident now. The municipality would prefer to undertake a project that could benefit a greater number of people.

There was another possibility. Villa Ecologica backs into a steep hillside. On the other side of the hill, at the bottom of a steep quebrada, is the river Chili. If this water could be pumped the short distance uphill and held in a medium-sized reservoir, it could then be distributed downhill to Villa Ecologica at a moderate cost. Hugo said that while bringing the water from the main Arequipa supply would run into the millions, pumping it over the hill could be done for an estimated $200,000 USD.

Essential to any progress with such a project were proper topographical plans of the area. Hugo said they had already commissioned studies of the hillside from the river to the top of the hill. Two masters students in civil engineering from La Catolica University were also interested in doing a project on the area. In addition, it was thought that a detailed mapping of the township had been commissioned, if not already completed.

Such plans would be vital to any proposal for a project to supply water. Hugo and Ilona understood that money had been collected from the community residents for the studies. But when they had asked Vladimiro, the president of the community association, about the existence of the plans, he had been vague and evasive.

For Villa Ecologica, water was the priority on which everyone could agree. But Ilona had also talked to people such as the señora Beti, teacher at Villa Ecologica's kindergarten, who had different perspectives on the problems of the pueblito. Many of the residents are single mothers who face enormous difficulties bringing up their young children amidst grinding poverty. Ilona was also looking into the possibility of getting La Catolica to run a health campaign in the settlement.

I wanted to see all this for myself, so we decided to head up to the settlement. As we turned off the sealed road to bump our way into Villa Ecologica, we passed one-room houses made of large blocks of stone crudely plastered together and looking just high enough for a short person to stand up. In between were heaps of rubbly rock which may or may not have served as fences, or perhaps were intended for further construction. It wasn't hard to believe Hugo's comment that "this is probably the poorest part of Arequipa".

Most available wall-like structures carried some kind of political propaganda. Although I was assured that the majority of residents were supporters of Ollanta Humala, the dominant piece of graffiti was "Ollanta Asesino" scrawled on several walls, with a variation of "Ollanta Asesino de Policias". The latter seemed to refer to the actions of Antauro, Ollanta's brother, whose "rebellion" in Andahuaylas in New Year 2005, had led to the death of four policemen.

We were initially looking for Vladimiro, to ask him again about the plans of the settlement. But he wasn't at home, nor in the comedor where he is apparently often to be found.

We carried on out of the settlement and up the hill. On a bend of the increasingly rough track, about fifteen people were working in a little infierno of heat and dust, heaping together piles of shattered rock. Hugo said that they were collecting material which would be trucked downhill and used in various construction projects. Despite the conditions, the workers looked in good spirits, and several smiled and waved at us as we drove past.

At the top of the hill we found a spectacular view down to the river and green terraces on the opposite bank, and a small concrete reservoir. Hugo said the reservoir had been put there when the ecological park had been planned for the area beyond the current settlement; water was to have been pumped over the hill for irrigation. The plans were canned when the local government changed.

"But you see - it's obviously a logistical possibility", he said. Initial enquries had been made about whether the reservoir could be used to supply Villa Ecologica if the rest of the infrastructure were in place. Ilona said the council had said no; it was too close to some power lines, which ran just overhead. "Which begs the question why they put it there in the first place - or why they put the power lines there later", she said.

As we came back down the hill, the people working on the hillside waved at us again. One of the men made a drinking motion with his hands. "Did we bring any water?", I asked Hugo. He shook his head. We drove on, embarrassed that we hadn't even been able to offer some simple assistance.

Back in the settlement, we decided to look for the señora Beti. Not everybody in the township was ilooking so positive. A young woman lingering on a corner barely raised her head when we asked for directions. With something between a grunt and whimper, she gestured uphill.

We drove up the hill towards a new-looking building of brightly-painted concrete, which doubles as a chapel and kindergarten. It even had a slightly pitched roof - a definite indulgence in Arequipa.

Kindergarten was just getting out as we arrived. Young women smiled and greeted us, and there were kids laughing and playing with dogs in the dirt. We waited for the señora Beti, who was a tiny woman with a friendly but serious expression.

I said I was interested in writing something about community development in pueblos jovenes like Villa Ecologica, and the obstacles they face. She nodded, nd began to briefly enumerate the social problems of the community. "Domestic violence; solo mothers with no support; children shut in the house all day while their mothers go off to try and make money; alcoholism; children growing up without fathers; juvenile delinquency; lots of health problems", she listed.

Beti didn't have much time at that moment, but she said she would be happy to talk in more detail about life in the community and its problematic issues when she had the opportunity. We offered to collect her and bring her down to Hugo's place when she had more time.

We also agreed to keep chasing after the president, to try and discover the truth about the topographical plans of the township.

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Friday, April 28, 2006

Then There Were Two

The second round of voting in the Peruvian presidential elections is now almost certain to pit Alan Garcia against Ollanta Humala. Lourdes Flores' Unidad Nacional party hasn't yet given up, and are contesting the legitimacy of votes from some polling stations, but with all votes counted Lourdes is 0.6 percent, or 60,000 votes, behind Alan.

The two remaining candidates have already made proxy starts to their second-round campaigns, each making visits to the other's stronghold. Alan visited Puno, a region which voted heavily for Humala, while Ollanta appeared in Trujillo, the traditional base of support for Alan Garcia's party APRA.

At present, almost nobody is willing to predict the outcome of the second round, largely because, of the 45 percent of Peruvians who didn't vote for either Alan or Ollanta, many would be loathe to support wither candidate.

For all that Humala is feared for his authoritarian tendencies, there are a lot of people who could never bring themselves to back Alan after his disastrous first presidency. My friends Hugo and Lizbeth are an example. They both voted Lourdes in the first round, but, though they don't have much confidence in what an Humala presidency would mean for tourism, they will be voting for Ollanta in the second round. "We can't stand Alan", they both said. Among other things, they blame him for terrorism getting out of hand in the late 80s.

Another friend of mine and her cousin are taking a different strategy. "Word is that Alan is likely to win", she told me. "If so, they say APRA party members will probably get good jobs. So we've joined the party and signed up to be election observers for the second round. Though of course we aren't apristas - we both voted Lourdes".

Author Mario Vargas Llosa - who really should decide whether he's going to be a public intellectual or a politician - announced his opinion that Unidad Nacional and APRA should form a "democratic alliance" to keep out the authoritarian Ollanta Humala. This would effectively mean handing Lourdes' votes to Alan.

Most commentators think this is a silly strategy that would likely backfire. On the one hand, it would strengthen Humala's battling outsider status. On the other, it does look rather like an attempt at majoritarian strategy to continue the exclusion of the marginalized 30 percent of the population whose vote for Ollanta was more than anything a cry of protest at the status quo. And most simply, it's not exactly in the best interests of democracy to tell people how to vote.

Meanwhile, international figures continue to stick their beaks into Peru's domestic politics. Bolivian president Evo Morales recently called current Peruvian leader Alejandro Toledo "a traitor" to Andean solidarity for his decision to sign a free trade agreement with the US (it still has to be ratified by Congress in both countries).

Toledo responded that Morales' compadre Hugo Chavez himself had betrayed his avowed "Bolivarian" ideals of Andean integration by retiring Venezuela from the Comunidad Andina (CAN) alliance, a move which looks to be matched by Morales and Bolivia.

Yesterday in a press conference Chavez himself had his say. He blamed Colombia and Peru for the erosion of CAN because they had signed free trade agreements with the US. To continue in CAN would allow "susbsidised American goods" into Venezuela through the back door. "Unless", said Chavez, "the next president of Peru - and let's hope that's Ollanta Humala - throws out the free trade agreement".

Chavez had a parting shot for Lourdes Flores. "The candidate who made the free trade agreement a platform of her campaign is now on the sidelines", he said. "Well, Doña Lourdes - five more years".

It remains to be seen what effect this sniping from foreign leaders will have on the Peruvian campaign. Perhaps it will give Ollanta Humala a boost. Or maybe Peruvians will actually summon some of their famed patriotism and decide that no one foreign - be they American or Venezuelan - will tell them how to vote.

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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Nothing Is Ever Quite the Same

April is close to the best time of the year in Arequipa. The skies are permanently sunny - the intermittent cloud and very occasional rain of January - March is gone - but the nights aren't yet as bitterly cold as in June and July. The heat of the day keeps the drifts of breeze warm until even a little after sundown, unlike some times of the year when it starts to get chilly by 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon.

Best of all, the mountains still have a decent amount of snow from the rainy season. On the volcano El Misti there's barely a streak or two, but 6,075-metre Chachani has an almost Alps-like covering, and even the smaller Picchu Picchu range to the east has a layer of snow.

I spent almost six months in Arequipa during my last trip to South America. I fell in love with the place shortly after arriving; in addition to its natural beauty it seemed to have a combination of dignity and joie de vivre which especially appealed to me.

About two hours after arriving from Lima on Friday morning, I felt like I'd never left. A short tour round the workplaces of friends and acquaintances, and I'd received more hugs and kisses than in the entire previous year. My friends Hugo and Lizbeth immediately demanded that I come and stay at their place, and on Saturday night organized a "welcome barbeque" with marinated pork steaks, papa a la huancaina and lashings of sangria and beer.

When I returned to New Zealand, my life here quickly started to seem like a dream. But having returned, the minor changes only serve to underline the familarities.

Some people have put on weight, others have died their hair. One or two have changed jobs. There's been a couple of pregnancies. Ulises, the owner of the Casa la Reyna hostel where I stayed when I first arrived here, was stripping the layers of plaster and paint off the stone facade of his hotel. "It's being naturalised", he said. "Without the plaster the stone can breathe, and it lasts better". My friend Blanca had modified the entrance to her popular internet cafe, put in a new counter, and painted it in bright colours.

Hugo and Lizbeth's house which they share with the families of Hugo's brothers and his mother, has been substantially modified, with new rooms occupying space that was an outside terrace, and an attractive back patio. Their adventure travel agencies have been slowly gaining more business in a static market, and they now also have t-shirts, stickers and sandwich boards featuring the flying-condors design which I used for the Incaventura web page I put together last year (me, a logo designer? Few things have left me more chuffed).

More notably, Hugo and Lizbeth's son Gerardo has undergone a remarkable change. He's still an anxious child, but after a couple of visits to a psychologist, a change of school, and getting his own room, he seems to have conquered the tendency for constant screaming and crying fits, can now speak more or less normally, and can play happily with other kids.

But only one thing is drastically different. As some who read this blog will know, much of my time in South America last year was spent in a long and involved relationship with a girl from Arequipa. It was at times fraught and turbulent but (for me at least) seldom boring

That all finished some time ago, but inevitably colours how I see the place now. Almost everything is infused with memories of the things we did together During the first couple of days here I was hit a couple of times by a wave of sad nostalgia, and a feeling that the way things have turned out changes not only the present, but also how I view the past.

On the other hand, I realised even at the time that I was living in a reality that was romantic, but a little one-dimensional. So distracted was I by the ups and downs of el amor a la arequipeña that a lot of the more interesting concrete features of the place passed me by. Already in my few days here, I've done things that I never managed to get around to when I was with Paola. In a way, I feel like I'm getting to know Arequipa all over again.

Sadly, my travel plans, which I set in stone before coming, mean I don't have much more time here.

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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Learning to Love Lima

The sense of being in Peru rushed back as soon I got off the plane. With large queues waiting at immigration, the staff were backlogged because one of their machines was "malograda". As the crowds threatened to back up to the air bridge, the decision was made to open up a couple of extra counters.

"Señorita! Close off that gap between the lines so people don't come through there" one of the immigration officials shouted at a harried assistant. She started to rush off but then stopped. "It is closed" she said in frustration..

When I finally got my turn, the woman at immigration confirmed my flight number and started filling out my form. I noticed she had written "30" on my entry form. "You're only giving me 30 days?", I queried. "Why, how many do you need?", she asked. "Ah, maybe 35, to be on the safe side", I replied. "Hmm, ok, we'll go for 90", she said, proceeding to change the 3s to 9s.

So why didn't I get 90 in the first place? On all the other occasions I've come into Peru I've been given 90 automatically. Something to do with having come in from Chile? Note to Peru: generally you want to at least give gringo tourists the option of staying longer and spending more money.

Driving out of the airport though the port suburb of Callao, the air blowing through the taxi window carried a familiar thickness of humidity, tar, petrol, and fish. The driver steered in wide arcs around potholes, as the odd person wandered aimlessly into the poorly lit streets. I was definitely back in Peru.

In previous conversations with Peruvian friends in MSN Messenger, without exception they emitted cybernetic groans when the elections were mentioned. They had all voted for Lourdes Flores, and were despressed by the prospect of a choice between Alan Garcia and Ollanta Humala. Perhaps not surprising, given that my friends are all middle class, including a language teacher, a law student, a designer, and a number who work in or rely on touism.

However, it seems that in Lima the pro-Lourdes sentiments go beyond the upper crust. I asked my taxi driver Carlos, a native of working-class Callao, who he wanted to win in the elections. "The woman - Lourdes", he said. The young guy on the nightshift at my little family-run hostel in Miraflores? "Lourdes", he confirmed without hesitation.

In the morning I talked with Juan, the young guy who manages the hostel, about travel into the jungle. He had travelled quite extensively in the "ceja de selva", the area between the Andes and the jungle proper, and had gone downriver for one day, but not as far as Iquitos.

He dismissed the dangers of drug traffickers and terrorists. "Really, the provinces are tranquil", he said. To be honest, there's much more danger here in Lima than in out there" (almost certainly true).

"Forget about being robbed or whatever", added Juan. "What you really have to watch out for in the jungle regions is the women".

My plan for the day was to secure a ticket to Arequipa for the following night, and make a visit to the Mueso de la Nacion, which houses many of the archeological treasures of the pre-Incan and Incan eras.

On the way out to the bus station, my taxi driver was a jovial guy named Leo. "Watch out for las charapas (women from Iquitos and around)", he warned me when I told him of my travel plans.

I asked him how business was. "Hmm, some days good, some days bad", he shrugged. It's hard making money. We have the cheapest taxis in South America. And the most expensive gasoline in South America. Everything here is expensive", he grumbled.

Leo was my first encounter with a non-Lourdes voter. "Alan Garcia's the man", he said, giving the thumbs up. "Ollanta would be a disaster. Nationalisation? That's crazy. It'd scare away the foreign capital. You're a foreigner, you want to invest here; you're not going to do it without security, guarantees".

But didn't Alan already have his turn at being president, I asked cautiously. "Ah, he's changed. He's matured" said Leo confidently.

Later, on my way out to the Museo de la Nacion, I saw a piece of graffiti scrawled in big, awkward letters on an underpass. "Alan hasn't changed", it proclaimed.

The musuem had a fantastic collection of artefacts, particularly from the pre-Incan cultures. By then the jet lag was kicking in a little, so my stamina waned, and I'll probably go back on my next trip to Lima. I was already enamoured of the extraordinarily lifelike and expressive ceramics produced by the 7th-century Moche culture, which I had seen in Chiclayo. But what grabbed me most on the museum visit were the carved stone pillars and feline heads from the BC-era Chavin de Huantar de culture.

With a centre in the Huaraz area, this was the first "horizon culture" in Peru which unified people over a significant area through government and religion. Its stone artwork shows great skill and control, revealing a striking, almost demonic, iconography.

The musuem was a somewhat surprising place to meet my first Ollanta Humala voters. I got to talking to two women in the forties, Rosa and Cristina, who were also looking at the artefacts. Rosa lived in London, and had ended up teaching continuing education classes on Peruvian culture. She said she was "catching up"; she'd never taken that much of an interest in her country's cultural history until she found herself teaching it to foreigners.

Cristina said she lived in the poor shantytown area of Comas and was a trained physiotherapist. I asked if physiotherapy paid reasonably well. More or less, she said, but she also worked in preventative health, and that was definitely on a voluntary basis. I imagined that such work must be really necesary and valuable. "That's right", said Cristina. "That's why we're very much supporting Ollanta".

"Oh yes, she's in love with Ollanta", said Rosa. She even has a picture of him" she said, searching in her own purse. Unfortunately the picture of Ollanta was nowhere to be found.

Politely, I didn't press them on the question of what specific actions they thought Ollanta Humala would take to improve life for people in the pueblos jovenes.

From the bus station to the musuem and back to the hostel, I travelled in kombis, the mainly antiquated minibuses and vans which roar along the streets, stopping wherever there are passengers to pick up. They dominate Peruvian cities, and Lima in particular, to such an extent, that I feel if you're not confident travelling in them you'll never really get a feel for daily life in the city. You can't take taxis forever.

I didn't do that great on my way out to the musuem, and it took me three tries to get to the right stop. Lesson learned: if you want someone to point out your stop, you really need to remind them more than once. But on the way back to Miraflores (minimum two kombis), I got it right first time.

Miraflores and San Isidro might be what the women in the museum called the "snooty" parts of Lima, but they're still democratised by the endless stream of kombi vans belching smoke and bouncing frenetically along the worn streets, the young assistants leaning out the open doors and shouting out their destinations.

Lima is huge, incomprehensible, polluted and dangerous, and appalls even most people who live there. At the same time it's diverse, exciting, friendly, and especially in April while the sun is still shining, has an odd sense of hope. Once you settle into its rhythms a little, the dominant impression is of constant, frenetic movement. After it stops frightening you, it's an energizing place, and you may even feel that you're beginning to like it.

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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Layover in Santiago

If this trip is intended to be arduous and challenging, I guess I'm easing my way in. Right now, I'm ensconced in Lan Chile's VIP lounge in Santiago, during a 7-hour layover before my flight to Lima.

As everyone was moving into the transit lounge, someone from Lan was handing out fliers saying they've "extended their VIP access" to all their passengers, andfor only US $18, we too could enjoy the comfy surroundings, showers and free internet.

After having a wander round the transit area and figuring that I would probably spend close to that much on food and internet anyway, I decided to go for it. After just taking a hot shower and getting myself cleaned up, I've confirmed that it was a very good idea.

Didn't get much sleep the night before leaving, and then the trip to Auckland, check in etc took up the rest of the day. The flight to Santiago was, once again, sleepless, due to the overheated cabin (what is it with Chilean travel companies and wacking up the heating?), a bit of turbulence just when I was dropping off, and I think the fact that that the Airbus jets which seem popuar with all and sundry now, have significantly less space than the Boeings ("cattle class" seems appropriate).

Some of the sheer magic of travel seems to have gone for me now. I used to get a tremendous buzz just getting on any plane that was leaving the country, but up till now it's all seemed pretty routine. However, some of that may be due to the fact that I'm not yet on the way to my final destination.

On the way over, sat next to an Argentinian girl who had been coaching the junior Argentinian women's aerobic gymnastics team at world championships in Japan. She was a full-time phys ed teacher as well, and was heading back to start work again tomorrow morning, massive jet lag and all.

I thankfully will be spared any commitments to early morning activity for the present. I will try and make the most of my time in Lima by going to see the gold museum, so will be pushing though a bit until I manage to grab a night bus to Arequipa (hopefully Thursday). Then, dios mio, am I going to sleep. Perhaps a nice quiet double room at the Casa la Reyna hostel, putting off Hugo and Lizbeth's invitation to come and stay at their place for a couple of days...

I'm hoping that my posts will gradually get more interesting from here.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Peru Elections

The Peruvian elections went off without too much of a hitch last Sunday 9 April. As counting began, the early trends confirmed what the most recent polls had shown. While Ollanta Humala was looking to get a clear 30-31 percent of the vote and go through the run-off, things were super tight between Lourdes Flores and Alan Garcia.

Exit polls showed both would get about 24-25 percent, with the margin between them less than the margin of error. Lourdes led early, as the votes from the cities came in first. Then, after about 50 percent was counted, Alan surged into second place. He moved to 1.0-1.2 percent and stayed there. Then, when about 80 percent of the vote had been counted and the tension was rising....everyone went on holiday.

Yep, it's one of those things you've got to love about Peru. The most important political event for five years, but not a patch on the Easter church services and all day bbqs. Only on Good Friday itself did the vote count not progress at all, on the official site of the electoral commission, ONPE. But over the whole of the weekend, the total vote count has managed to rise from 84% to 89%.

To be fair, many of the later votes will be coming in from remote rural areas, and from overseas.

As the count slowly climbs, Lourdes has begun to make up some ground, and is now less than 1 percent behind Alan. A lot depends on the impact of the overseas votes, where she has about 60 percent support (as opposed to 24 percent overall). There's an estimated total of 185,000 of overseas votes to come in, but over half of these have now been counted. On my back of the envelope calculations, it won't be enough for Lourdes Flores to overtake Alan.

Interestingly, 137 Peruvians in New Zealand voted (for Peruvians, voting is compulsory). There were 112 in Auckland and 25 in Wellington. Overall, Lourdes Flores received 76 percent of the valid votes. However, in Wellington 17 out of 20 valid votes (85 percent) were cast for Lourdes, and no one at all supported rabble-rouser Humala. Who said Aucklanders were more right wing?

After bitching and sniping at each other in recent times, it now looks like Lourdes and Alan may be building bridges, in order to try and shut out Humala in the second round. El Comercio reported that their two parties are tentatively looking at some kind of front which sets "democracy against authoritarianism".

I'll try and squeeze in an opinion piece on all this amidst my snappy, regular (let's hope) updates on my travels.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Daily Minion

Unfortunately, over the last three weeks I haven't had a chance to add to or update the Daily Minion. I'll be in South America for the next six weeks, and it's unlikely that I'll be able to add anything during this time either.

But there's plenty more material in the pipeline, and when I get back I will make a big effort to get it finished and on the site. So for those of you who have visted the site and found any level of interest and amusement, don't worry - it will be carrying on after a brief interlude.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Corporate Reform 101

My recommendations for increasing productivity and output quality in the public and private sector:

1. Fewer meetings

2. More time spent doing actual substantive work

3. More time spent discussing and debating one-on-one with workmates, people in other parts of the organization, external clients, and people in the same or related fields.

4. More time (at least 10 percent) spent reading, understanding, critiquing, and learning from your team mates' work.

5. NEVER skipping scheduled exercise or other enjoyable, sanity-enhancing activities for routine or internal meetings.

6. Fewer meetings

7. Fewer meetings.

8. Fewer meetings.

In about five years, some Chicago business theorist will discover these simple rules and publicise them in a mega-selling book, which will be acclaimed throughout the developed world.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Peruvian Politics 102

The previous post introduced the three main candidates for the presidency of Peru and described something of the political dynamic between them. In the last couple of days before the polls, extra edge has been added to the campaign, with Ollanta Humala saying that if Lourdes Flores wins the election "she won't last a year in power".

To the protests that he was inciting a revolt, Humala added the clarification that "the people" would rise up because of the continuation of failed neoliberal policies under Flores. But he has been roundly condemned for these statements by the media and other politicians, including fellow presidential rival Alan Garcia, who said Humala "needs to learn some democratic manners".

To round out the picture of the Peruvian election, it's necessary to mention a couple of the minor candidates.

Valentin Paniagua

Interim president from 2000-2001 folowing the resignation of Fujimori. Peruvian writer Herbert Morote, in his acerbic lament Requiem por Peru, mi Patria, says while imagining the damning assessment awaiting each corrupt and incompetent Peruvian president when they reach heaven's gate:

"We'll pass over Valentin Paniagua, who had little to do in barely a year that he governed following Fujimori. Panigua was a transitional president and apart from calling elections didn't do anything else. I lie, he also named the Truth and Reconciliation Commission [on the Shining Path insurgency], whose work is the most important that has occurred in all Peru's republican history.

Praised be God! Thinking about it again, reflecting carefully, perhaps the best thing for Peru is to have presidents that only last a year and don't do anything"

Paniagua is a centrist candidate whose party is called Frente del Centro. In recent polls, he has maintained a steady 6-7 percent. This is irking the supporters of Lourdes Flores, who feel he is splitting the middle class vote. In the 2001 elections, he did a Ralph Nader and allowed Alan Garcia to pip Flores at the post for second place and a place in the run off. In 2006, as Alan's poll numbers make a late surge, the same may happen.

Martha Chavez

If the description of Peru's election so far seems like a soap opera of recurring characters seeking revenge or redemption, the one name missing is that which dominated the 1990s - Alberto Fujimori.

Martha Chavez is effectively Fujimori's candidate. Her party is called Alianza por el Futuroo, but she is also affiliated with Fujimori's Si Cumple party. Her running mate is Santiago Fujimori, Alberto Fujumori's brother.

Fujimori himself tried to register as a candidate for the presidential elections, but the constitutional court ruled that this was not permissible, as there is a congressional ban on him holding office for ten years.

In November 2005, Fujimori, who has been in self-imposed exile in Japan, flew to Santiago in Chile, via Mexico. There, he was detailed by the Chilean police on request from the Peruvian government, and extradition proceedings have begun against him to face accusations of corruption and human rights abuses. These are no tlikely to be resolved for a good six months.

Meanwhile. Martha Chavez is maintaing 7 percent support in the polls, while her Alianza por el Futuro party has risen to 16 percent in the congressional election polls.

None of this entirely makes sense without the context provided by the incumbent president:

Alejandro Toledo

Toledo provides another version of the familiar Peruvian story of a leader arriving with great expectations but proving to be a big disappointment

Toledo's story is a rags-to-riches fairytale of an indigenous kid from an impoverished family in Chimbote who worked as a shoeshine boy before winning a scholarship to school in the United States and eventually to Stamford University. He got a PhD in economics and later worked for a range of international organizations, including the United Nations, World Bank, and OECD.

In the 2000 and 2001 elections, Toledo led the democratic opposition to the corrupt and authoritarian Fujimori regime. After eventually winning the 2001 election run off against Alan Garcia, he had a 59 percent approval rating; not only did he seem to have the technocratic credentials to run the country, he was also an indigenous "cholo" who had broken into the white-dominated world of Lima politics.

Since then however, it has all been downhill.

There have been scandals relating to the discovery of an illegitimate daughter whom Toledo refused to acknowledge; allegations that Toledo's party Peru Posible forged membership signatures before the 2000 elections (there's a rather odd law that political parties have to have a certain number of members to be allowed to field candidates); the appointment of a highly unpopular politican as foreign minister; criticisms of the presidential salary.

When I was in Peru it was de rigeur for everyone from politicians and the media, to striking street marchers, to the opportunist "rebels" in Andahuaylas, to demand the resignation of Toledo. His approval rating dropped at one stage to 7 percent, the lowest for an incumbent Peruvian president.

Yet to the outsider, none of the criticisms of Toledo seemed that damning. His sins seemed to have a touch of the Clintonesque - in the context of the country's history hardly the worst indicment.

Rather than especially bad or even incompetent, Toledo's main failings seem to be that he is weak, naiive, and out of touch. In his book, Herbert Morote tells an anecdote of seeing Toledo attend a conference in Madrid with international business leader; rather than promote the potential of investment in Peru, Toledo recounted his life as a child and how his suffering gave him solidarity with the poor. Says Morote, "it was like he was making an election speech in the town square".

Toledo's time in power is rather summed up by his reaction to the discovery of a fifth leak (within fourteen months) in the flagship gas pipeline from the Camisea field in Cuzco to Lima. Toledo said that if the international consortium which constructed the pipeline could be shown to be responsible for the failures, "they'll have to pay" -- conveniently overlooking the point that the time to play hardball on quality control with the consortium would have been while the pipeline was being built.

Nevertheless the dissatisfaction with Toledo probably has less to do with the man himself than with Peruvians' impatience with their lot in life. Overall, things haven't been that bad in the last five years, which have seen the return of democracy, a free and vibrant press, macroeconomic stability, and average economic growth of 4.7 percent per annum - close to the best in Latin America.

Unfortunately, this hasn't flowed through to provide much benefit to the population. Unemployment, high prices for basic goods such as petrol, rampant crime, poor infrastructure - these remain the realities for most.

Better can surely be achieved, though no politician will be able to deliver more than slow and incremental improvements - Peru's problems go muc deeper than quality of its leaders. Yet the flip side of the hero to zero complex suffered by Peruvian politicans is that the population still expects and demands transformative change.

In order to be successful, the new Peruvian president needs to not only convince the people that this is unrealistic, but that they themselves are a crucial part of any set of solutions. In about 24 hours, we'll have the first idea of who is likely to have that task.

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