The idiot's conversion

"He thinks we are poor because they are rich and vice versa, that history is a successful conspiracy of evil against good in which the evil always win and we always lose (and he is ALWAYS amongst the poor victims and good losers). Who is he? He is the Latin American idiot."

These words were written in 1996 by Nobel Prize-winning novelist Mario Vargas Llosa in the introduction to Manual del perfecto idiota latinoamericano (or, Guide to the Perfect Latin American Idiot), written by Apuleyo Mendoza, Carlos Alberto Montaner and Álvaro Vargas Llosa. The book is a demolition job on the populism that has long dominated the region's politics, miring it in corruption and under-development.

Until two months ago, Ollanta Humala, the recently elected president of Peru, met the book's criteria for a perfect Latin American idiot, and his program could have been taken from it word for word. Humala's actions up to that point ? his speeches, his interviews, his appetite for military coups and his close ties to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez et al ? made him, well, the perfect Latin American idiot.

Humala, a 48-year-old former lieutenant colonel, has alarmed many by proposing that Peru's Constitution be rewritten to help him boost state intervention in the economy so the poor can benefit from a mineral-exporting boom that has made this Andean nation's economy among the world's fastest-growing.

Now, Ollanta Humala is a changed man. He has seen the light. He ditched his program and put forward one that was purged of idiotic ideas. He distanced himself from Chávez, put on a tie, and adopted a more conciliatory tone in his speeches. He also adopted a more conciliatory tone with the country's business community, the United States, the foreign-investment community, the mining companies that Peru is so dependent on, as well as former adversaries, such as Alejandro Toledo, who he tried to overthrow in 2005.

So what happened?

Ollanta Humala is nobody's fool, and much less a perfect idiot. He finally realized that he stood no chance of winning the elections unless he could convince the electorate and the world that he had changed. In the first round of the Peruvian elections, more than 70 percent of the vote went to candidates who repudiated the ideas that Humala had defended until then. It was clear that unless he could come up with a better program, one that seemed to address the country's needs, he would be defeated in the second round by Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of the country's disgraced and jailed former President. Humala changed his tune, and won the second round, albeit by a very narrow margin.

The inevitable question now is whether the Humala who will run Peru is the original or the recently converted, the man who has turned his back on Chávez and embraced liberalism. Everything would seem to indicate that for the moment, the President of Peru will copy his current best friend, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. And why not? Brazil is a success story, and Venezuela a wasted opportunity. Only an idiot would fail to see that. At the same time, there are political, economic and international limits in Peru that are absent in Venezuela. Furthermore, there is nothing quite like being in the presidential palace to realize that ideas that seemed sound in opposition are impossible to apply when in power.

But there are no guarantees that Ollanta Humala won't suffer a relapse, and return to his old ways. His pragmatism suggests that the determining factor will be the price of metals on the international commodities markets: if they rise, his policies will likely follow those of Lula; if they fall, and the economy worsens, he may be tempted to try the usual array of populist tricks, as applied by Hugo Chávez. In the final analysis, his calculations will be determined by factors that are less ideological, and less idiotic.

Follow me on Twitter: @moisesnaim

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