The small town of Urubamba lies below Mount Chicon midway on the ancient route between Cusco and Macchu Picchu. Near to the ruins at Pisac and Ollentaytambo, it has become the hotel center for the region. Across the street from the San Agustin, a place boasting three-stars, several sheds displayed long bamboo poles topped with raggedy red plastic bags. This is the sign of a chicheria, an unregulated vendor of chicha, the local corn beer.
I entered, asked for a chichi, and the woman went back into the earth-floored shack whose boards admitted considerable light on all sides, opened a large plastic container, doubtless the one in which the preparation had brewed, dipped her ladle, and served me a caporal (a half liter) for forty centavos, maybe 14¢. I seated myself outside on one of the narrow wooden benches where a couple of local farmers were drinking. After making a few friendly remarks in my rudimentary Spanish, I tasted my brew and found it perfectly palatable. Room temperature and low in alcohol, it tasted like old beer, though with something of the flavor of corn. People on the other bench were drinking a rosier version which I was told was chicha frutada, with the addition of strawberries.
After a toast or two to each other’s health, I asked my fellow-drinkers their opinion of the election which happened to be held that very day. One of the candidates for the presidency was Keiko Fujimori whose sole qualification seemed to be that her father was Alberto Fujimori, the one-time premier who not only dissolved Congress, suspended the constitution, and ousted judges with whom he disagreed, but who is now serving time for human rights abuses (a euphemism for kidnapping and murder) and embezzlement of millions. Apparently to some these actions seemed so admirable as to deserve loyalty even to the next generation.
Her opponent was an ethnically indigenous one-time army officer, Ollanta Humala, son of a labor lawyer of indigenous descent who was an activist in a Communist faction not far removed from that from the splinter which had produced Abimael Guzman, the founder of the violent Sendero Luminoso or Shining Path movement. As a military man, however, eventually achieving the rank of lieutenant colonel, he was active in suppressing the guerillas as well as in the Cenepa War with Ecuador. In the year 2000 he initiated an attempted coup as waves of revelations of Fujimori’s corruption emerged. Though quickly defeated, he was pardoned by Congress, and allowed to reassume his rank. Now he stood as a populist candidate, promising jobs, education, and health care, and lower gas prices.
I expressed my preference for Humala, delighting my companions. We discussed class consciousness, the rich and the poor, in the United States and in Peru, and when I finished my chicha and excused myself, one of my interlocuters seized my arm and, while I spoke to him, the other purchased me another drink. Calling them my hermanos politicos peruanos, I managed to depart.
2. The Election
That evening I heard the music of celebration some distance off. Checking the computer, I saw that exit polls had declared Humala the victor. I followed the sounds to the local headquarters of his Nationalist Party where a live band was playing as couples in traditional garb, men as well as women, danced. A good-size crowd had gathered, some with children on their shoulders. The Peruvian flag and the rainbow wiphala banner of the indigenous people were waving alongside banners with the candidate’s name. The music alternated with brief speeches and chanting until a group with a street-wide banner came out to lead the celebrants up a narrow street, altogether blocking traffic. “Aqui, alla! Ollante presidente!” People waved from upstairs apartments; others danced in the streets. In spite of the exhilaration, none seemed to be drinking.
In the main square in front of the church under the impassive eyes of four or five National Police, the procession paused for a rally. More speeches with recorded music only (the large harp would have been a chore to transport). After a time they set out again, but I returned to the hotel. Ninety minutes later, I could still hear the music.
There is, of course, no telling what his administration will do. The chief charge against him I heard in Peru was that he admired (or received funds from) Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Humala has been distancing himself from Chavez’s increasingly centralized administration for several years, and even a returned American missionary, no friend of the president, told me that Chavez did good things at first. We have also the models of Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Brazil’s Luiz Lula da Silva (now succeeded by his colleague, the moderately liberal former urban guerrilla Dilma Rousseff).
One can only guess at what is to come for Peru. Watching the people of Urubamba dance and sing and cheer from windows, though, bearing in mind their oppression under colonialism, home-grown dictators, ultra-left guerillas, and multinational corporations, the visitor could have no doubt that, for once, in their own minds at least, they had won one. Having endured so much, Peruvians had a right, as I told my companions at the chicha stand, to expect a better future.