A crowd of several thousand gathered in the city of Chiclayo last month to greet the man who could very well become Peru's next president. The compact candidate Ollanta Humala and his equally diminutive 29-year-old wife, Nadine, arrived dressed in bright red T shirts stamped with white letters that read amor por el peru [love for peru], and the patriotic theme was reinforced onstage by a dozen huge cooking pots known as ollas painted in the red and white stripes of the national flag. Thanks to the coincidence of spelling, an olla will appear on the ballot in this month's election as the symbol for the retired Army officer's fledgling Peruvian Nationalist Party. And one of the millions of voters who will mark his cross over the humble pot is Jesus Flores. "You have to believe in someone," says the Chiclayo street vendor. "We want a hard-liner who can put an end to corruption. We want radical change."
So do many others across Latin America. Riding the wave of discontent that has lifted Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Bolivia's Evo Morales to power, Humala, 44, has come from third place to lead polls going into Peru's April 9 vote. Like Chavez and Morales, he defends the rights of the poor and rails against the evils of neoliberal economic policies. But even more important than his populist rhetoric may be another characteristic he shares with Chavez, as well as Ecuador's former president Lucio Gutierrez: his iron-fisted image. Like them, Humala's main "qualification" for the nation's highest office is his leadership of a failed coup, one he led as an active-duty lieutenant colonel in October 2000 against then president Alberto Fujimori. Now he's almost certain to finish among the top two vote-getters, and if he goes on to win a runoff election expected to take place in May, he'll become the latest in a series of political outsiders with military backgrounds to take power in Latin America.
Far from discrediting these modern-day putschists in the eyes of their countrymen, their decision to take up arms is seen as an asset, a sign of personal valor and commitment in a thoroughly corrupted political culture. They represent the 21st-century reincarnation of the caudillo --the charismatic man-on-horseback figure who still captures the imagination of millions with promises of a better future. The word is literally translated as chief or leader, but its full meaning encompasses the patronage-dispensing political boss who takes care of his followers in exchange for their unswerving loyalty. Humala recognizes the power of the image. His short-lived mutiny, he told NEWSWEEK, "was one of the best things I have done in my life. [It] cost me my career, [but] that made me reflect on Peru. I realized there's no real democracy here. Traditional politicians aren't able to make contact with the people."
In more institutionalized political cultures like Chile's or Mexico's, the term caudillo has become faintly derisive. But in other countries, particularly those where traditional political parties are perceived to have failed their constituents, many voters have thrown their support behind forceful men of humble origins who denounce the powers that be. These latter-day caudillos "exploit the notion that they are coming from the people and represent the poor of the country," says Moises Naim, editor of Foreign Policy magazine and a former Venezuelan cabinet minister. "They embody the frustrations of the 1990s, when people were told that democracy and market reforms would be their tickets to justice, prosperity and modernization."
Peru seems particularly prone to embracing such untested figures. Fujimori was a little-known university rector in 1989 when he formed a brand-new political party and announced plans to run for president. He railed against the disastrous record of the outgoing incumbent Alan Garcia--a product of one of the country's oldest parties who is currently trailing Humala by 11 percentage points in one poll--and went on to score a landslide victory over the novelist Mario Vargas Llosa in a runoff vote. History repeated itself a decade later when an obscure business administration professor named Alejandro Toledo emerged as Fujimori's main challenger in the 2000 election and was eventually elected president a year later.
Though Humala's background is quite different, he's mining the same mother lode of simmering resentment. The idea that Peru is a well-endowed country whose riches have been stolen by a corrupt clique of self-serving crooks is widely held. One of three brothers who grew up in a large middle-class family in Lima, Humala plays directly to such anger. "There is a dictatorship of economic interests that exerts itself over the Peruvian people," he declares. "That has brought about a questioning of the social contract between the political class and the people. It's a crisis of representation." According to a newly published survey sponsored by the United Nations Development Program, nine of every 10 Peruvians blame their political leaders for the perceived fact that democracy "doesn't function" in their country.
Not that the administrations of political newcomers have done much better. Allegations of corruption and human-rights abuses finally drove Fujimori into an ignominious exile after a decade in power, and throughout most of his term in office Toledo's approval rating has rarely crept above 15 percent. The Ecuadorian Congress voted to fire Gutierrez barely a year after he took office when he tried to pack the country's Supreme Court with some of his closest lackeys. When he returned to the country from self-imposed exile last October, he was immediately jailed on charges of endangering national security.
With Humala, Peruvians risk winding up with a democratically elected president whose instincts may not be all that democratic. He has praised a left-wing general who ruled Peru by fiat from 1968 to 1975 and frequently cites Napoleon with approval ("He did proclaim himself emperor," he concedes, "though one must understand the circumstances"). His public calls for the "nationalization" of strategic assets like ports, oil and mineral resources have already rattled the markets: in mid-March the Lima stock-exchange index fell by more than 4 percent after a new poll showed Humala surging into the lead, and that same week Merrill Lynch downgraded its rating of Peruvian Brady bonds and advised its clients to unload them. The little ex-colonel is also raising eyebrows in Washington by proposing, like Morales, to halt the U.S.-financed forced eradication of Peru's coca crop.
But of course, the misgivings that Humala may arouse in the White House and on Wall Street only add to his champion-of-the-underdog appeal inside Peru. "What matters is knowing how to understand and connect with the people," he notes. "That's what the Ollanta phenomenon is about." True enough, but judging by the record of other caudillos, that strategy may be better suited to winning power than to governing well.