On President Bush’s visit to Peru

By M. K. Wong

When President Bush made his first visit to Peru last month, it reminded me of my own first visit to that vibrant country just this past December. In my month-long stay, however, I had time to experience a bit more of Peru than the president did, exploring the country from the Pacific coast to Lake Titicaca, from the Nazca Lines to the Inca Trail, where, with a team of nine, plus two guides and 11 porters, I made the three-day hike up Machu Picchu to the legendary lost city of the Inca.

During that upward trek, and while crisscrossing the country by train, small plane, bus, and on foot in December, I had numerous opportunities to chat with locals about life in that Andean nation, how things could be better, and how they perceive the U.S. Looking at what Mr. Bush said during and after his visit, I have to wonder if he really got a sense of any of that while he was there.

Mr. Bush seems to think that two of the top items on Peru’s agenda should be the war on terrorism and the war on drugs. But as I traveled throughout the country, I found that terrorism and drugs weren’t foremost on anyone’s mind—except inasmuch as they assumed that I, as a North American, would be familiar with both of those matters on a first-hand basis.

What I found, without exception, was that ordinary Peruvians believe the U.S. is a far more violent and dangerous place than Peru. Although conversant in Spanish, I could barely convince some of them that U.S. cities weren’t all drug-infested war zones in turmoil at all times, or that it is actually safe for me to travel within and between U. S. cities. “I’d rather live here, where it’s calm,” said a local boatman, who took me on his hand-made reed watercraft between the floating Uros Islands on Lake Titicaca.

Their perception of life in the United States has probably been distorted by American movies and news. But what they see in our movies and news shocks them because, although there are terrorists and drug traffickers in Peru as well, such matters don’t play a role in the daily lives of most Peruvians. Indeed, the common Peruvian citizen has other problems to worry about—like getting proper legal title to his property so he can make long-term investments, or better work opportunities with less restrictive government red tape.

Unfortunately for the Peruvian man-on-the-street, President Bush didn’t seem much interested in those particular propositions. The president did talk about free trade, which would benefit Peru’s economy by creating more jobs. But is Mr. Bush really dedicated to free trade? Back in May last year, he did say that “open trade is not just an economic opportunity, it is a moral imperative.” Those words sound encouraging. But the week before, on the same day that he preached in Mexico on the importance of free trade in our hemisphere, Mr. Bush raised tariffs against Canadian softwood lumber because of “unfair trade practices.” He also recently supported higher protectionist tariff barriers for agriculture, steel, and textiles. If I were a Peruvian, I’d consider those points before getting too optimistic about the potential effects of the visit from the President of the United States. This is because whatever Mr. Bush may say, his real message seems to be: We’ll give you the benefits of free trade with the U.S., but don’t try to compete with any of our politically influential industries or we’ll take it all away from you, regardless of any “moral imperative.”

As for the war on drugs, that’s one U.S. export that Peru could do without, because with it will come collateral damage and minimal, if any, benefits. For an example of how the U.S. fights the drug war in Latin America, Peru needs look no further than Columbia, where the Bush administration supported, with over a billion dollars in military aid, the notorious “Plan Columbia,” which has eradicated thousands of acres of drug crop – along with thousands of acres of legal crops belonging to poor peasant farmers. Who’s been stopped from using drugs as a result of this program? How have Columbia’s citizens benefited? And how is anyone actually safer or better off as a result? It’s understandable that we don’t like drug traffickers, but will escalating this sort of “war” within Peru’s borders help its citizens in any meaningful way? What rational reason is there, anyway, for Peruvians to want to fight a war to stop some North Americans from getting high?

Even if Peru does need to combat terrorism, the U.S. might not provide the best example of how to do so. U.S. citizens are watching their freedoms evaporate as increased “security” measures take away various aspects of their rights to speech and privacy. Perhaps the only reason our government has shown any restraint at all is because of a longstanding tradition of individual rights and the rule of law. But what about Peru, where no such tradition exists? Should we encourage wars on terror in countries where the government has never been at all trustworthy? Most Peruvians don’t deal much with their own government in their daily lives, and where they have done so, with the exception of some public works projects created during former President Alberto Fujimori’s administration, they have found it to be characterized by corruption and favoritism. With a history like theirs, Peruvians have good reason to look askance at any government promises.

On Christmas Day and on the night before, I was a guest at the home of a Peruvian family in Cuzco. Over the holiday dinner, the mother, Mary, explained to me that in Peru, children don’t believe Santa Claus brings them presents. I suspect that the Peruvian people will be skeptical of politicians from the north playing Santa Claus, and rightly so.