Peru’s new president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski seems universally popular. This Sunday in Arequipa, Peru’s second city, demonstrations accompanied the celebration of the city’s foundation by Spanish conquistadors 476 years ago. Miners in green and red hard hats clashed with riot police, the metal of the police guns flashing bright in the relentless afternoon sun. The melee dispersed, however, when Kuscynski, visiting the city for the anniversary, appeared on a balcony in the main square, waving to the throngs below. In a smart suit and light blue tie he looked every inch the Wall Street banker – for that was his profession – his appearance met with supportive cheers from the crowd below, including the grubby ranks of the striking miners.
This is Kuscynski’s honeymoon period. PPK, as the slogans daubed on city walls refer to him, won the narrowest of majorities against the populist female politician Keiko Fujimori in last month’s general election. Kuczynski was the candidate whom Peru’s liberals and leftists congregated behind in a last gasp effort to prevent Fujimori, daughter of disgraced former president Alberto Fujimori, from gaining power.
Many feared a return to the rather toxic mixture of neoliberalism, authoritarianism and corruption of Fujimori senior if Fujimori junior triumphed. But PPK is a limited leftie and the victory of this fInance capitalist represents another nail in the coffin of the Latin American left wing, of whom Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez was the standard bearer, a political phenomenon which now seems to be receding after a decade plus of populist left wingers taking power across the continent. It remains to be seen how PPK’s term will play out and what directions he’ll take on important issues considering his power is compromised by a hostile congress. But he’s certainly more popular then his predecessor Ollanta Humala, a military man whom everyone derided, and still derides, because, so people say, his wife wears the trousers.
Kuczynski, a cool grandpa who looks good despite his 78 years, goes out of his way to prove he’s still with it. He and his ministers do physical exercises in public before each Monday cabinet meeting. One of the most striking things about his ministry so far has been its liberal bent. This weekend Arequipa was also brought to a standstill by a parade of women activists, part of a nationwide and continent-wide campaign against domestic violence dubbed ‘not one more’ (death to male on female aggression). The campaign has won the backing of Ana Maria Romero, PPK’s minister for women, who challenged remarks made by the country’s most senior Catholic cleric, Cardinal Juan Luis Ciprani, archbishop of Lima, who tacitly blamed women for such attacks by dressing as if in a “shop window”.
This is an interesting clash because it pits state against church. If that is one of the courses PPK is to take, however, it will inevitably mean collision. And that, in a country traditionally marked by political populism, and for a man with the slightest of majorities, is a dangerous game.
Roderigo squints uncomprehending at the adults standing around him. Fifteen years old, but he looks about eleven thanks to malnourishment and only the wisps of pubescent lip hair suggest his age. His long thin nose supports red glasses with thick lenses. He shifts nervously from one foot to another and fiddles with the strap on his battered little green bag.
The school psychologist has asked Roderigo to take us to his house. And so we walk, our little group, a good twenty minutes through dust that brings a hacking cough, accompanied by flea-bitten local dogs. We finally come to a corrugated iron door and Roderigo shyly announces it’s his house. He seems embarrassed. The school psychologist, an assertive young woman in smart jacket and hat named Tarin, opens the door, noting that there’s no lock on it. Princesa, Roderigo’s mangy little dog, his faithful friend in a tough world, snarls and sniffs indignantly at the visitors. For Roderigo, who has learning difficulties, trusty Princesa is his pal – a familiar sight providing a little succour at home, his home, his little space now rudely invaded.
The unmistakable stench of piss and shit announces the flimsy outdoor toilet at the bottom of the dusty plot. The psychologist presses the reluctant Roderigo to open a black metal door and he eventually obliges by pulling a useless piece of string connecting door handle and door frame, revealing a miserable hovel of a kitchen, blackened from cooking, warm and dark and windowless. The adjoining room is the bedroom. A small bed, untidy, unmade, dominates this tiny space. It’s filthy, with an assortment of old sacks, clothes and other household items massed in one corner and the bed in the other. You couldn’t swing a cat here, but in this room and in this single bed sleep Roderigo, his fourteen year old brother, and their mother. Three people in a bed big enough for one. And these two rooms – kitchen and bed – are the extent of the place.
Mama is a cleaner, away and always working; the father is long gone, the elder sister (21) has moved out and has kids of her own, seldom finding the time or the desire to return home. Roderigo’s family are amongst the poorest in Arequipa and, hidden away in the sprawling shanty towns out past the city airport and in the foothills of a volcano, they reside, dirty and squalid, invisible to white tourists only acquainted with the white city of Spanish splendour. Seeing the Virgin mother on the wall and a solitary chicken clucking it’s way around the tiny yard, I can’t help thinking of the peasant hovels of the Famine Irish.
And who helps Roderigo, his mother, and brother? The church. Through helping his mother to provide him with a school uniform and a bag, thus giving them a scintilla of dignity, or hope, or just somewhere which provides a meal every day. And through raising money to buy them another bed and a table and a stove and a couple of chairs.
The assorted saints, their bright multicoloured pictures cased in flaky plastic coverings, adorn the inner walls of Roderigo’s miserable house. They, and the local school run by the church, provide hope. At the risk of sounding hackneyed, this is a powerful emotion indeed for the very poor.
More importantly, it is the sort of emotion which very few politicians – even the seemingly universally popular PPK – can hope to elicit.