Polling Day

By Nicholas Asheshov

With polling day on October 3 the campaigns for regional and municipal elections are heating up and this is not just a spectator sport in Peru. Hundreds of people in every district, thousands in every province are running for office and to judge by Urubamba, Cuzco and Lima, which I follow with attention, the democracy-count runs the gamut from vicious to ferocious.

Half-a-dozen candidates have been murdered, one would-be alcalde in the backwoods of Huanuco is in jail for organizing a who-can-drink-most competition with wood-alcohol at which the three winners died, and the alcaldesa of Santa Anita, a Lima district which includes a main foodstuffs wholesale market, escaped when her car was fire-bombed.

There are even aviation connections. In Lima the front-runners are Lourdes Flores, on my Right, and Alex Kourie, in the misty Middle. Lourdes, a 50-something lawyer, has run for President of the Republic two or three times and had always seemed to me to be jolly, too talkative but nice. Few, including me, now think this because the TV and newspapers have forced her to own up to working for years for a fellow called Cataño whose name is really something else but he changed after being nabbed years ago with 100 kilos of cocaine. Lourdes has for some time been Chairman of Peruvian Airlines, owned by Mr. Cataño, at $10,000 a month plus exes.

Lourdes also does not chat freely about another client and friend, Jose Luis Sanchez, the Spanish spinner who collected $3mn from Fujimori’s master-fixer Vladimiro Montesinos, now doing life in a Callao prison, during the 2000 general elections. Sanchez was in charge of the dirty tricks section.

Lourdes has also been legal advisor to the people, many of them from Pakistan, who import tens of thousands of second-hand cars, trucks and buses from SE Asia to come and gasp their last smoky, fumy breath on Lima’s clogged streets. Many of them, to add injury to insult, started off as right-hand drives from Japan, Hong Kong and the conversion to left-handers is often poorly done meaning dreadful crashes and buses going over Andean precipices. It’s all illegal, but Lourdes has shown the importers how to get local magistrates to slap amparos, laissez-passez orders thus circumventing the laws. Mr. Cataño, though not from Pakistan, is also a leading importer of pre-owned vehicles and the drugs police are pressing him for details on his finances.

Alex Kourie, mayor of Callao, has had problems with a tiny one-mile section of the only road to Lima’s Jorge Chavez International Airport where he was charging a $1 toll; for years it was easily the most profitable venture in town, making infinitely better margins than LAN, COPA and TACA combined.

An unfancied outsider, Susana Villaran, has come up fast on the loopy Left. Susana, one of those expensively-brought-up caviar socialists, as they’re known in Lima, has a collection of convicted terrorists on her aldermanic lists and spat furiously at my friend Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, the banker and former PM, when he mildly commented that foreign investors were “keeping an eye on”–some such– her swift rise in the polls.

The present mayor of Lima, Luis Castañeda, a close associate of Lourdes, is running for President in next year’s elections, but has been dogged by connections with a $20mn scam involving garbage collection and some Brazilians.

For us in the provinces this is all entry-level shenanigans. At the moment the mayor of Cuzco is the third since the elections four years ago. The first two achieved the impossible by getting caught with their fingers in the cookie jar. The way that crooked alcaldes actually get caught, though rarely, is what is politely known as nepotism; no one can resist having their cousins, children, domestic servants and mum and dad on the payroll. Actually, none of the voters objects -they’d do the same; noblesse oblige. But they only get accused of it when there are more serious matters that can’t so easily be proven.

Here in Urubamba we keep up with the metro crowd. Our alcalde, Benizio Rios, one of the vaguely-lefty NGO people who infest Peruvian and Bolivian provincial life, has just been booted out of the town hall for nepotism. Items like sewage infecting the municipal playground, gross potholes in the streets are not criminal offences. But you’ll be glad to hear that because of a judicial technicality, which may have nothing to do with Benizio being friendly with the appropriate magistrates, he is running for our alcaldia again. His slogan is “Honradez y Experiencia.”

Benizio has the backing of the well-heeled Hugo Chavez —come in, Caracas--party, whose symbol is a simple “O” for Ollanta Humala, an ex-army commandante and wanna-be Chavez whose wife has problems explaining where all her money comes from. On top of that Benizio has the support of the Machu Picchu bus drivers, to whom he awarded a 30-year monopoly, worth $10mn+ a year for 20 creaky buses between the train station and the ruins. This is totally, believe me, illegal but Machu Picchu is a no-rules zone, off-limits even for SUNAT, Peru’s tough IRS.

There are 13 candidates for Urubamba mayor and it’s not only Caracas and the bus people but the government budget that makes it worthwhile. Eduardo Guevara, a three-time mayor here, and a good friend, tells me that in his day it was a million or two. Now it’s $20mn. Eduardo, who’s running again, was round for a coffee the other day together with a candidate for mayor of one of our districts, a Catholic priest, an excellent young chap who we’ll call Arturo. As we were talking, I found that a lady had come in and was physically attacking Padre Arturo, spitting, hitting, swearing. It was a comadre of mine, a schoolteacher and it turned out that Arturo was the father of her one-year-old baby, a frequent visitor but we’d never been told and, of course, never asked about daddy. But there I was, like one of those referees in a wrestling match on the telly, trying to separate the contenders. Naturally, my comadre’s family is running one of her many brothers, also a good egg, for the alcaldia of the district against Padre Arturo. Try as one may it’s not easy to stay out of local politics and now you see what I mean about it being not just a spectator sport.

Letter from Urubamba, Sept 30, 2010

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