Ollanta Humala: 'Everyone in Peru wants change, a new message and a new messenger'

The Monday Interview: Peruvian presidential candidate

You have to get up early to catch Ollanta Humala. Four o'clock in the morning. I'm in Lima, trying to arrange an interview with the Peruvian presidential candidate and current front-runner. His advisers say he will be on the 6am plane to Cusco, the ancient Inca capital 3,500m up in the Andes. If I travel with him, he will talk to me. A few minutes before take-off, Humala, his smiling young wife and a dozen aides - all dressed in red T-shirts bearing the words "Love For Peru" - bound on board. They look like workers at a theme park, fit, healthy, muscular.

"Don't talk to him now," an aide warns. "He needs sleep." I turn to an educated, middle-class Peruvian lady next to me.

"The red shirts," I wonder. "Is he a socialist?"

His precise political affiliation is hard to pin down. Humala is regarded as the newest recruit to what for George Bush has become the Latin American "awkward squad" of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Fidel Castro in Cuba - or, possibly, he might join the more amenable soft left governments now in power in Brazil, Argentina and Chile.

"Socialist?" the woman replies, puzzled. "No. He's a Nationalist. Red and white - the colours of Peru." She detests him. Humala - a former military commander - tried to overthrow the Peruvian government a few years ago.

The guidebooks say the worst thing you can do is fly from sea level in Lima to 3,500m in Cusco and then do something strenuous. It brings on altitude sickness. Humala has obviously never read the guidebooks. He trots out of the airport, begins a tour, a series of speeches and walkabouts. The big rally is at dusk on the steps of Cusco's Catholic Cathedral. It's raining hard. The crowd is many thousands strong, almost all indigenous people, almost all poor. Humala bounds across the stage, his T-shirt sodden, telling Peruvians there's a difference between the wet weather and the world economy. With the weather, when it rains, everybody gets wet. With globalisation, the rich get everything and the poor get nothing. The crowd goes wild.

I meet Humala in the Spanish colonial hotel where he is staying. There's a chess set on the bar. I suggest a game. The chess men are Incas and Conquistadors. He chooses the Incas.

So how would it change Peru, I ask, (moving my Conquistador King's pawn) if you become president? "Peru has been robbed of its democracy," he says, moving a pawn towards mine. "There's a dictatorship here headed by the economic powers that just hasn't allowed my country to develop. The economic model that's been followed has given economic growth but it hasn't allowed the country to develop. We're going to ... concentrate on policies that look toward development."

This is a neat but vague response to those who point out Peru's GDP has risen strongly and consistently in the past few years. Maybe, Humala concedes, on growth. But life for the poor is no better.

"Everyone in Peru wants change. They want a new message as well as a new messenger." He moves one of his pieces. I move a bishop, then suggest that his rhetoric scares off investors. The Bush administration has already had a bellyful of Hugo Chavez' antics in Venezuela - Chavez has begun to take over foreign-operated oilfields.

"My responsibility as a Peruvian has nothing to do with George Bush," he says. His bishop is supporting the llama attack on my left. "I am not at all anti-American. I think Peru has to work on policies in hand with the US. We need to agree on issues like the farming of the coca leaf, drug trafficking and bio-diversity ... defending development in my country doesn't mean I am right-wing or left-wing. These definitions are meaningless since the end of the Cold War. What we have to do is make a better system by building on the institutions we have. We need to make sure the natural resources we have here benefit the Peruvian people. I am not saying that multinational companies should be stopped from making a profit out of them, but there should be a ... re-distribution of wealth." The woman on the plane told me Humala's wife has a degree in media studies and coaches his answers to make them non-threatening. He has clear political skills.

So, do you agree with President Chavez in Venezuela who suggests George Bush is worse than Hitler? "I'd just say the situations in our two countries - Venezuela and Peru - are completely different," Humala says. "The fact that we have an important agenda of change here doesn't mean that we want to join in the ideological conflict between Venezuela and the United States."

In the past century, the US has undermined or overthrown about 40 Latin American governments. George Bush's father invaded Panama in 1989 to arrest the drug-running gangster Manuel Antonio Noriega. The following year US proxies in Nicaragua - the Contras - undermined the Sandinista government of Daniel Ortega. Now Washington is more preoccupied with Iraq and Iran, but the Bush administration has begun to wake up to increasing anti-Americanism in their own back yard.

"What worries me as a decent human being is how a government like the US government can pass the boundaries of international law and interfere both physically and militarily in the development of other countries."

The chess game has become chaotic. I am sure Humala moved one of my knights by mistake, and I moved one of his pawns.

So, why do you keep going on about the evils of globalisation, I say, when Peru has to trade with the outside world to raise everyone's living standards? Humala answers in a way which explains why the Lima Stock Exchange plummeted since he emerged as the presidential front-runner.

"I think that ideological confrontations of left and right in Peru are over," he says. The Maoist insurgency of Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) faded away years ago. As a military commander Humala helped defeat them, though some accuse him of direct involvement in human rights abuses.

"That all came to an end when the Cold War finished but the (American) empire that won that war has built up a process of capitalist globalisation. We need to defend our country from being totally globalised. They're breaking into our sovereignty, weakening our national industries, and most importantly the application of the neo-liberal model hasn't benefited normal Peruvian families."

Humala is through to the second round of the presidential elections. Win or lose he represents two great themes in Latin America in 2006 - profound discontent that a rising tide of economic prosperity is not helping the poor, and the perpetual South American hope that a strong man might be able to solve their problems.

Will he win? Well, when our chess game was over he promised me a rematch, inside the presidential palace in Lima.

Gavin Esler is a presenter on Newsnight

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