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Alan García and the Fatal Compromises of the Latin American Left

The former Peruvian president, who killed himself on Wednesday, was among a broader trend of leftist leaders drifting toward the center—and toward corruption.

Former Peruvian president Alan Garcia and former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (AFP/Getty Images)

On the morning of April 17, the former president of Peru, Alan García, locked himself in his home office and shot himself. Police on the scene, who had come to arrest him, but had let him go to his office to call his attorney, rushed him to Hospital Casimiro Ulloa in downtown Lima. He died a short while later.

On a personal level, García’s suicide is obviously tragic. The circumstances leading up to it, however, have as much to do with the broader disordering of Latin American politics in recent years as with the desperate plight of a single disgraced politician.

The police came to García’s house to arrest him on several counts of corruption tied to the Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht, accused of bribing politicians from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela, among others, in one of the most sweeping scandals in modern history. It’s the latest development stemming from a deal Odebrecht struck in 2016 with American and Swiss authorities, in which the company admitted to orchestrating a vast transnational network of corruption in order to secure construction rights for many of Latin America’s largest infrastructure projects. Since then, dozens of politicians in several countries have been ensnared by ongoing investigations, with Peru one of the most deeply implicated. Odebrecht has admitted to paying $29 million dollars in bribes over three presidential administrations, including García’s second stint in office from 2006 to 2011. The man most recently elected president of Peru, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, was arrested earlier this month after resigning in 2018 amid corruption charges related to Odebrecht. For his part, García was facing two separate allegations. The first involved illegal campaign contributions to the tune of $200,000 during the 2006 presidential election, presumably helping ensure García’s victory. The second involved rigging bids for construction on Line 1 of the Lima subway. On February 19, 2009, García convened an emergency cabinet meeting on the same day that he met with an Odebrecht operator, Jorge Barata. In 2017, Odebrecht admitted to paying $8 million in bribes to secure the construction bid. The day before he died, García “emphatically” rejected the charges against him, The Guardian reported, calling them “speculations” and “moral assassination.”

García got his start in politics as a member of the Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (American Popular Revolutionary Alliance, or APRA), founded in 1924 with the explicit aim of forming a continent-wide front against foreign exploitation and imperialism. After many years of military rule in Peru during the 1960s and 1970s, García, then a charismatic young lawyer, was elected to Congress in 1980. Two years later, he became the head of APRA, which had evolved into a moderate center-left party, abandoning the transformational ambitions of its early years even as it preserved a generally progressive discourse and a strong labor base. In 1985, García was elected president at the age of 35, the first member of his party to reach the country’s highest office. Some called him the Latin American Kennedy. Contending with hyperinflation and other severe economic challenges, along with the emergence of a violent Maoist insurgency known as the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), García’s first stint in office was widely considered a failure.

Sixteen years later, in 2006, he successfully rebranded himself as a centrist pragmatist who took pains not to identify too closely with the so-called Pink Tide, the wave of leftist governments that swept Latin America from the early twenty-first century until about 2016. In an interview at the time with the Washington Post, García declared that he could be “useful to Peruvian society, to its middle class, to its small businesses, to its people who have democratic ideas, who do not like [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chávez, who don’t like Evo Morales and feel that I am useful to do things differently.” He dismissed what he called the “Chavez phenomenon” as “militarism with a lot of money.” Asked if he had any intention of pursuing a larger role for Peru in the region as a counterpoint to Venezuela and, implicitly perhaps, in honor of the historic aspirations of his party, García told the interviewer that that was “the last thing I want, to be South America’s sheriff. I want to accomplish things in Peru.” Asked to describe his political inclinations at the time, he said: “I see myself between Chile and Brazil—both have been successful. [Brazilian President] Lula is a realist. And the Chilean governments have had good technical teams and have devised intelligent policies like credit for small businesses.” In retrospect, it’s clear that while often considered an inept populist by many in his country and beyond, García in 2006 was trying to signal his willingness to engage in a more practical manner with international financial institutions and politics as usual—which, as we now know, was rotten to the core.

Campaigning on this platform in the second round of voting in the 2006 elections, García narrowly defeated Ollanta Humala, who was running slightly to García’s left in the mold of Brazil’s progressive titan Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.* (Humala would go on to win the presidency in 2011, serving until 2016. He too was arrested in 2017 on charges of corruption related to Odebrecht).

García’s attempt to reassure markets, wary middle-class voters, and international observers that he was not interested in radical social change was in line with the compromises many formerly-radical leftist leaders and political parties were making across the continent during the years of the Pink Tide. The classic example of this strategy, which sought to accommodate rather than challenge capital, was Brazil under Lula’s Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabablhadores, or PT)— “often hailed as a triumph of pragmatic social-democratic governance in the developing world,” Sabrina Fernandes wrote in Jacobin in 2017. But that pragmatism gradually drove the party’s leadership away from the grassroots movements that had been its lifeblood in the 1980s and the early 1990s. Increasingly implicated in backroom deals with corporations, the party lost its luster, and in 2016 its last elected president, Dilma Rousseff, was removed from office amid a host of competing accusations.

Such a worrisome trend was not limited to Brazil. The model of moderate-left governments pursuing greater distributions of wealth (often with unprecedented success, improving the lives of millions) without contesting entrenched elites was emulated in several countries. Once the macroeconomic and political conditions sustaining this delicate balance were thrown off in the long aftermath of the global economic crisis of 2008, progress stalled (and has now begun to be reversed). The political dynamics that over a decade ago seemed to be pushing Latin America in a fairer, more equitable direction have broken down dramatically in recent years, exposing the seedy underbelly of a mode of politics that progressive forces must confront and challenge if they want to rebuild a popular base to resist the rise of the radical right wing. García’s political career, now being considered anew in the wake of his death, is the latest example of a pattern the next generation of progressive leaders must overcome.

García’s demise, however, also fits within another uncomfortable tradition—that of presidential suicides. Brazil’s Getúlio Vargas in 1954 and Chile’s Salvador Allende in 1973 both took their lives while still in office in reaction to their imminent removal. Historically, suicide has enabled political actors to exert some control over the circumstances of their departure from the political scene. Vargas’s suicide, which came amid swirling accusations of corruption and rampant criminality, reset the chessboard of Brazilian politics at the time, benefiting his political heirs by sparking widespread outrage against his opponents. Allende’s self-inflicted death was a solemn act of defiance against the brutality of General Augusto Pinochet, who violently seized power on September 11, 1973, ushering in a long, bloody military dictatorship. “Dead bodies in Latin America are as likely to speak the language of social protest or to urge resistance to foreign exploiters as to celebrate national greatness,” historian Lyman L. Johnson argued in a 2004 work on the culture of death in Latin American politics. In the case of García, death speaks also the language of shame. “We Latins have a more romantic and more historical sense than Saxons,” García said in his 2006 interview while running for president. “Perhaps because we are less practical and more religious . . . We think of glory; we think of how countries recall us later on. That weighs heavily.”

García’s death will be remembered as another sad episode in the dark melodrama that has consumed much of Latin America after a decade or so of hope and optimism. It comes at a time when distrust in institutions, despair, and cynicism are sweeping the globe, even as his story of gradual compromises to placate entrenched elites, deepening corruption, and a sudden outburst of violence (in this case, self-inflicted) resonates in a more particular way on his home continent. The very sense of history García spoke of should remind us that, in Latin America as everywhere else, enduring political change more often than not comes from popular organization and collective, sustained effort, rather than the offices of powerful politicians.

*A previous version of this article misidentified a quote from novelist Mario Vargas Llosa as being about the 2006 election between Alan Garcia and Ollanta Humala. Llosa’s description of the vote being a choice “between AIDS and cancer” in fact referred to the the 2010 election between Ollanta Humala and Keiko Fujimori. We regret the error.