State of Democracy: A Conversation with former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo

By Robert Valencia

Robert Valencia:  Do you have hope President Obama will change or improve U.S. Latin American relations? Why or why not?

Alejandro Toledo: I have hope that President Obama, after four years of experience, and after having been absorbed by all of the issues in the world such as Afghanistan, China, and North Korea, will take a closer look to the South, although Secretary of State [Clinton] has traveled around Latin America. I have a particular position and let me be straightforward: Latin America is no longer the backyard of the United States, so we have to do our own job instead of blaming [them]. They do their job, so let us do our own job, and Latin America is ready to take over its own destiny, perhaps we need to sit down and redefine the items of the agenda to the future, but we’re not expecting any paternalistic attitude from the U.S. We are closer geographically and are natural partners but things have changed dramatically. The U.S. is no longer the main investor in Latin America; it’s Europe–particularly England and Spain. The U.S. is not the main trade partner in Latin America but [rather with] China, so we have diversified our relationship and it’s healthy for both of us. We should have any resentment but we should not also be waiting for the U.S. to do what we have to do ourselves.

RV: You asked four years ago if democracy can reach the poor. Is this still possible in a region as unequal as Latin America today?

AT: Democracy can reach the poor, provided that we define democracy not only as an act of going to Election Day and vote, but rather a democracy that delivers concrete, measurable results, particularly with the poor. A democracy that will prevent the emergence of authoritarian and populous regimes will depend to the extent to which we – the Latin American democratic countries – are able to grow and to distribute the benefits of growth. We need a more inclusive growth; we need more social inclusion, and we need more and better distribution of economic growth, particularly with social services, like potable water, sanitation, health care, quality education, and reducing the rates of malnutrition. I think that democracy can be deepened, and could be stronger to reach the poor.

RV: Speaking of populous regimes, we have the other spectrum in Hugo Chávez, who has sworn in as Venezuela’s President for the fourth consecutive time. What’s your take on Venezuela’s future? 

AT: Let me reveal for the first time something that I have been holding out on for so long. Had I known the authoritarian and populous direction that Hugo Chavez has taken, maybe in 2003 in Costa Rica I should have probably not defended him as I did. I did it because I thought – and still believe – that we signed the Inter-American Democratic Charter, and on that basis, I protested against a military coup against him. But now, he has utilized the democratic mechanism to kidnap all of the institutions in order to go into multiple re-elections.

RV: You pointed out that in order for democracies and human rights to thrive, institutions and civil society organizations must be stronger. How can they reclaim their legitimacy in governments like Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Bolivia?

AT: Well, that’s the challenge of democracy. This is a very important question. If democracies have the capacity to deliver concrete and measurable results beginning with the poorest of the poor, there will be no space for authoritarian populism, because the poor are poor but [they also] have dignity. They don’t want a fish to be given away, but rather they demand the right to learn how to fish. To the extent that democracy does not deliver, and to the extent that some countries have some natural resources whose prices are high at the international market, they can subsidize them by their will, in turn insulting the dignity of the poor by “giving fish away” because they are afraid to give them the right to learn how to fish. So it depends if we build stronger democratic institutions that are accountable to the citizens about their decisions, the lesser the possibility of an emergence of a new authoritarian regime.

RV: Let’s talk about Mexico. You have denounced authoritarian governments in Latin America as stated in this interview. Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, 20 years ago, has also made the claim of a “perfect dictatorship” in Mexico by way of the Industrial Revolutionary Party (PRI). Now that this party is backed by President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto, do you fear that this party will re-establish itself as the perfect authoritarian regime in Mexico?

AT: I’d like to be cautiously optimistic in the case of Mexico. I think that though it’s true the party has an enclave of people who have the management of “an old machinery,” I have hope that this new generation with Peña Nieto will understand that they cannot go back to the past. In 2000, former President Vicente Fox of PAN [National Action Party], was able to bring the PRI down. External factors, such as crime and insecurity might contribute to the change, unless old members of the party are part of these factors. And this is why I’m saying I’m cautiously optimistic because I want to give the PRI the benefit of the doubt. Furthermore, crime in Mexico, with narco-traffic and civil insecurity, is no longer a monopoly of Mexico; it has gone throughout Central America, like in Peru and Brazil. The latter, [for instance] has increased not only the amount of drug trafficking but also its consumption. So it’s a challenge confronting the region. I hope that with the new generation within PRI will provide a new era, and therefore change will take place.

RV: We’ve seen students claiming respect for basic rights such as education in Chile and Colombia, as well as transparent elections in Mexico and Venezuela. Are we seeing a new breed of Latin American leaders who can change the fate of Latin American politics?

AT: Absolutely.

RV: Even in the midst of several populous and authoritarian regimes?

AT: The motor and fuel that can bring down dictatorships are the conscience and empowerment of the youth. The youth today are not only becoming more aware of their own responsibility, but also of taking their future into their own hands, because if they don’t play their own game someone else will. Secondly, the youth are empowered with new instruments like digital platforms, technology, and social networks. In the case of Peru, I would have never been able to bring down former President Fujimori had it not been for the youth, women, and people from different ends of the country. But especially the youth embodied energy and commitment; the youth are people who are not afraid of change and are not contaminated. The youth still has the capacity to dream with their eyes open. The youth can manage the world much more easier thanks to digital platforms. They still dream, and I think more sooner than later, Venezuela will recuperate democracy to a large extent thanks to them.

RV: Speaking of Fujimori, you set a precedent by bringing him, a former president, to justice in your own country, comparing his government to the likes of unsavory governments in the region. Should authoritarian regimes also face the same fate like Fujimori? If so, why?

AT: They will; history has shown us. [Serbian President] Slodoban Milosevic was brought to [International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia]. Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was brought to justice in his country. Dictators sooner or later will fall. Now, the probabilities that authoritarian regimes will last longer are less so in terms of time than before because technology is such a huge weapon. In Peru, after 19 death threats against my life, we took action. Fujimori had everything: he had the weapons and his parliament judicial system, and military were by his side. Yet with the strength of democracy, Peruvians were able to bring down this dictatorship. I was just a soldier in the frontline. The fact of the matter is that now it would be easier to bring down someone like Fujimori if democracy is strengthened, accountability demanded, stronger democratic institutions created, and states have the capacity to deliver concrete results to the poor so that they won’t be receiving fish away because they’ll have a job and education.

RV: At the 2011 Oslo Freedom Forum, you said you’re no longer the president of Peru yet you haven’t lost your democratic values. How can you impact the conscience of Latin American youth and the population in general even when you’re not in power?

AT: Power is a transitory and fragile capacity when you’re president. I have to confess today that I have greater capacity to move friends, youth and the continent than when I was president of Peru because I was involved with day-to-day government issues. Now I have a foundation called Global Center for Development and Democracy that has an office in Latin America, and we have just created a few weeks ago a Latin American institute for new leadership and implementation of public policies. The world is changing so the leadership profile needs to change, so we have created this institute along with 21 former presidents with the support of the World Bank, the Inter-American Development, the Ford Foundation, and the United Nations. We need to look forward to training new young people who will be the new leaders, because the world is changing rapidly. I as president already had my time, and I have the capacity to influence more young people in my continent. Africa is interested in following this model, but I’d rather for the moment concentrate on my region in order not to stretch too thin. I’m writing a book on social inclusion, youth, education, empowerment, and fight against inequality and discrimination. That gives validity and legitimacy to democracy and therefore youth will not be disappointed and disillusioned about democracy.

RV: Anything else you’d like to add?

AT: The leaders of the region must have the capacity to encourage economic growth and to include those who have been excluded politically, economically and socially. We must be able to include indigenous population who has been marginalized for many years—I’m the first indigenous president who has been elected democratically in 500 years in all South America. If I did it, there’s a lot of people who can do it and even better than I did. I’m encouraged by the enthusiasm of youth but at the same time we need to provide them with the most powerful weapon that there is the world: stronger democracy that leads to equality and quality education that is interrelated with health. If kids are brought up with good health care and nutrition, sanitation and education, Latin America will be by the year 2050 the world’s most promising continent.


Robert Valencia is a Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs and is a contributing writer for Global Voices. He also has a personal blog called My Humble Opinion.

Photo courtesy of World Economic Forum.

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