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In Peru's high plains, Chavez is exalted

Many in a poor southern enclave feel closer in spirit to Venezuela than to Lima and Washington.

March 09, 2008|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

PUNO, PERU — His private office features a life-size photo of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. He dons bright red shirts, mimicking Chavez's trademark hue. He calls himself a proud foot soldier in Chavez's Bolivarian Revolution.

But the top elected official of this stunning but destitute wind-swept corner of southern Peru flatly denies that Chavez is bankrolling his leftist leadership.

"I wish Venezuela could help us out," said Hernan Fuentes, regional president, or governor, of Puno province. "We could use their gasoline for our trucks. . . . We could use more teachers, doctors."

Throughout Latin American, U.S. officials and allied governments fret about Chavez's spreading influence, be it political, diplomatic or financial. From Mexico to Chile, Washington and Caracas vie for sway in a high-stakes battle for the hearts and minds of Latin Americans.

Matching the invective spouting from the two capitals are proxy struggles at campuses, union headquarters, city halls and living rooms. Pro-Chavez solidarity groups and neighborhood associations known as Bolivarian Circles condemn yanqui "imperialism," while critics denounce Chavez's model as creeping authoritarianism.

When Colombia, a close U.S. ally, attacked a Colombian rebel base in neighboring Ecuador this month, Chavez mobilized troops and warned of war. Colombia in turn accused Chavez of backing leftist guerrillas.

But Latin America's preeminent ideological conflict of the early 21st century has mostly been a battleground of words and threats.

The new Latin American version of the Cold War is especially fierce here in Peru, where President Alan Garcia -- a U.S.-bashing leftist firebrand during his first presidential stint from 1985 to 1990 -- is now a staunch Washington ally and apostle of free trade. Garcia's 1980s leadership left Peru nearly bankrupt and torn by guerrilla war, outcomes that experts say probably shifted the president to a more pragmatic, center-right stance in his political encore.

Like pro-U.S. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, Garcia detests Chavez, whom he derided as a "midget dictator with a big wallet" during the hotly contested Peruvian presidential campaign in 2006. Chavez in turn labeled Garcia a liar, thief and U.S. lackey. Garcia ultimately beat back a challenge from a Chavez supporter, generating a deep sigh of relief at the White House.

Still, the Venezuelan leader's influence remains robust in Peru, especially in the desolate southern high-plains altiplano along the shores of Lake Titicaca, ancestral homeland of the Quechua and Aymara peoples. Most residents are of indigenous ancestry; about eight in 10 live in poverty.

A rough, homespun variant of leftist politics predominates here and elsewhere in Peru's southern highlands. Anti-government protests regularly shut down roads and cities, including one last month that closed the tourist mecca of Cuzco. Officials in Lima see the handiwork of Chavez sympathizers. The political militancy is the product of decades of alienation from the central government, religious and indigenous activism, guerrilla warfare and violent clashes over land. Anti-U.S. rhetoric is abundant and Garcia is widely disliked.

This chilly, hardscrabble Peru is far removed from the export-fueled, balmy coastal boomtown that is the capital of Lima. Many in the south eke out a living as subsistence farmers, planting potatoes, beans and other crops and raising cows and sheep. Their children migrate to the cities.

"We in Puno are like another country," said Fuentes, 47, speaking in nearby Juliaca at his family-run radio station, where a giant photo of him and Chavez peers from a wall. "We don't see the economic bonanza of Lima. The benefits don't trickle down here."

Just down the road is Bolivia, a nation with similar demographics and geography (Puno sits at about 12,000 feet) and a Chavez intimate, Evo Morales, as president. Like Morales, Fuentes has rejected U.S. anti-drug policy by calling for greater legalization of the coca bush, whose leaves yield cocaine.

A lawyer by training and one of seven children of Quechua campesinos, Fuentes gained prominence locally as a kind of Rush Limbaugh of the angry left. His on-air perorations feature anti-U.S. tirades and bouquets for Chavez and Morales.

Fuentes mobilized rural indigenous support to help secure his election in 2006, winning with less than 20% of the vote against a divided opposition. His exaltation of Chavez soon alarmed Lima and raised eyebrows at the U.S. Embassy.

"Some authorities in Puno want to mortgage out Peru to a foreign power," Prime Minister Jorge del Castillo told Peruvian radio in a direct swipe at Fuentes.

But Fuentes denies receiving any petrodollars or formal aid from Venezuela. Nor has any proof of such a link emerged. He calls himself a patriotic Peruvian. Still, Fuentes says he is treated like a foreign agent.

The regional and federal governments regularly exchange insults, and Fuentes favors a "Bolivarian" alternative.

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