Cancer and AIDS

Trip Start Jan 15, 2006
Trip End Sep 05, 2006

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Flag of Peru  ,
Thursday, May 18, 2006

Don't be alarmed by the title, nobody (that I know of) has recently come down with either affliction. (Although, some strange Peruvian respiratory virus seems to have ended our remarkable string of good health. Nothing serious, but it has slowed my blogging efforts.) This entry's title actually refers to one local wag's description of the choice between the two presidential candidates in June's election.

The first candidate, Alan Garcia, is a moderate leftist who actually was president during the late 1980's. Unfortunately, his prior tenure does not seem to be helping his candidacy as his previous administration saw a 20% decline in GDP, a 22,000 fold increase in the Peruvian CPI and the emergence of the Luminero Sendero (Shining Path), a violent Maoist terrorist group.

The second candidate, Ollanta Humala, has no political track record to weigh him down. Humala is a populist very much in the mold of Chavez and Morales who is threatening to kick out the imperialist capitalists and strengthen ties with Venezuela and Cuba. He also has announced plans to pull a Chavez-style rewrite of the constitution that would likely further entrench his power. Most educated Peruvians seem very concerned with the future. (Next time folks complain about the two US presidential candidates, remember, it could be a lot worse.)

Peru's economy seems to be at least moderately functional. (Not as strong as Argentina, Chile or even Brazil, but far better than Bolivia.) The tourist infrastructure is quite good, foreign investment appears plentiful and Peruvians seem to have an entrepreneurial attitude. In Peru, one is constantly besieged by beggars trying to sell goods or services. In Bolivia, the same people just have their hand out looking for money.

Much of the economic strength can be traced to the administration of Alberto Fujimori, who was president from 1990 to 2000. He was able to set the economy back on track and to wipe out the Shining Path. Unfortunately, in order to do this he had to rewrite the constitution and he was forced to resign in a major corruption scandal. (He actually faxed his resignation in from Japan where he holds dual citizenship. I guess he couldn't count on Gerald Ford for a pardon.)

Comparing Peru and Bolivia highlights the importance of strong leadership. The two countries were equal basket cases in the late 1980's, but Peru elected a strong leader who was willing to administer some tough medicine. Bolivia tried to do the same, but couldn't make the reforms stick. Today, Peru's per capita GDP is more than twice that of Bolivia, despite Bolivia's large natural gas reserves.

There was a recent article in The Economist that made a similar point with respect to the French and Italian economies. Conventional wisdom holds that these countries (and to a lesser extent, Germany) are in a long-term secular decline due to the strength of their trade unions, agriculture and bloated welfare states. The article's point is that conventional wisdom for the US and UK circa 1980 was not much better. Strong leadership (Thatcher in the UK and Reagan/Volcker in the states) was able to turn the tide pretty quickly. Hopefully, the article continued, things will get bad enough in France and Italy that voters will demand this type of leadership.


We have spent the past few days seeing the Nazca Lines, the Islas Ballestas and greater Lima. The Nazca Lines are pretty interesting, but not worth going too far out of your way. (It is very surprising that anyone could look at these and see signs of extra-terrestrial life as a few crystal gazers did in the 70's.) The Islas Ballestas are sometimes called the poor man's Galapagos and they did not disappoint. A major upwelling creates abundant marine life and the islands house a vast population of fish-eating birds and sea lions. Some cormorants spotted a school of fish, told their buddies and for 20 minutes the skies were darkened with wave after wave of birds headed out for lunch.

Lima seems to get an unfairly bad rap. We found the city far cleaner and more pleasant than we expected. Of course, we are so culturally deprived that any city with a movie theatre will put a smile on our faces. There is no need to go out of your way to visit, but spending a day or two in town does not need to be unpleasant.

Next, we are headed up the Peruvian coast towards Ecuador. We will be staying in a few small beach towns and visiting some ecological sites (including near the recent warrior girl that was profiled in the NY Times.) Even at low altitudes, the weather is pleasantly mild (high 70's) due to a very light marine layer that hangs in the sky. It is not dense, chilly fog like San Francisco, but just takes the edge off of the sun.
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