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8/14/08

An Interview with Susana Villarán

Susana Villarán of Fuerza Social

Peru's political scene is not just "hard left socialism versus classic right capitalism" as often reported in the English speaking media. The case for the centre-ground parties is becoming ever stronger, as Peru's population looks for a way out of idealistic confrontations and towards consensus politics that will help Peru socially without harming its new-found image as investor friendly.

I caught up with Susana Villarán, one of the leaders of "Fuerza Peru" yesterday. Susana is an experienced voice in Peruvian politics having been a government minister herself, and ran for President in the 2006 elections. In this exclusive interview, she talks about herself, her new party, the state of Peruvian politics today and her vision for the future of Perú.

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Otto Rock: Thanks for granting this interview, Susana. Although you are a well-known figure in Peruvian politics, overseas knowledge of Peruvian political personalities often seems limited to President Alan Garcia, his left wing opponent Ollanta Humala and the ex-Presidents. Can you tell us a little more about yourself, please?

Susana Villarán: I started in public life a long time ago, although I've always worked in groups and social networks. One of my fields of public political action has been in solving social problems via public sector politics, for example the creation of the "Glass of Milk" program (ottonote: free milk program for children and mothers) and its implementation in Lima. Years later in the Ministry of Women and Human Development (PROMUDEH, now known as 'MIMDES') in the Paniagua government, I developed new programs and national plans such as the co-ordination groups for the fight against poverty. Also, in citizen security, I worked in the reform, restructuring and modernization of the Nation Police Force and I was the first "Defender of the Police" (ottonote, an official Peruvian public office) an institution unique to Peru in the world.

Other facets of my public life include the defence of human rights and the promotion of peace and democracy. On the international front I have been involved for many years in the International Movement of Catholic Intellectuals (PAX ROMANA), where I have learned more about international relations and global issues. Also, my involvement in The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights of the Organization of American States (ICHR-OAS) has given me a deeper understanding of our hemisphere.

Otto: Your new party is "Fuerza Social" (Translation: 'Social Force'). Can you give us a general overview of its political position and viewpoint?

Susana: 'Fuerza Social' is a centre left, or "democratic left" party. It has a modern, decentralized, regionalist viewpoint and has as one of its foundations the desire for a deep reform of the State for its citizenry.

The party is made up of a national body and seven regional groups that are already governing in three regions in Perú, more than twenty provinces and around one hundred districts (ottonote; Perú's regions are made up of smaller provinces which are in turn made up of districts). We aim to reach national government from inside the system and from the bottom up, this coming from the participation of the people, respect for their rights, the advance of the spirit of free enterprise and the generation of both social and productive capacities.

Fuerza Social is a party that believes the role of the State is fundamental in guaranteeing that economic growth is inclusive, and not exclusive as is currently the case. On the one hand, we look to promote labour intensive investment aimed at the regions with low relative development. We believe that decent employment for every Peruvian of working age would solve once and for all the problem of poverty in our country. On the other hand, we also believe in investment in public works that generate social inclusion via a network of social protection based on quality education that is culturally pertinent, health (including basic sanitation infrastructure), justice, security, transport, water and energy. The state must have counter cyclical budgetary instruments for continued and sustained social investment to combat extreme poverty, poverty, inequality etc.

Economically, we believe it is indispensable to move towards a higher state tax income that collects more efficiently from the higher income brackets and reduces the use of regressive and blanket taxation. We believe in the need the maintain the macroeconomic equilibrium and to be prudent in fiscal matters.

Along with the role of the State, free markets or private enterprise has a central role for Fuerza Social in the generation of quality employment. It is therefore fundamental that productivity increases via the incorporation of new technologies that will improve the job prospects of all Peruvians. We believe that businesses have a social responsibility, not only to their employees, client and suppliers but also to their communities, environment and the communities in which they operate.

Finally, we look for an active civil society, with vigilant citizens that participate and demand results to lower the arbitrary margins and the ensuing corruption of those in power .

We are optimistic. We take part in public governance at both regional and local level. We are active in private enterprise, in technocracy as well as the world of women's social organizations, rural producers, artisans, etc. This is where 'Fuerza Social' is coming from; from below and from within.

Otto: Are you the leader of 'Fuerza Social'?

Susana: No, I am only one member of 'Fuerza Social'. Our current president is the economist Jesús Coronel, who is the current President of the Cajamarca region in the North of Peru. There is also:
  • César Villanueva, President of the San Martín region and current President of the Assembly of Regional Governors (elected unanimously),
  • Vladimiro Huároc, President of CONREDES and President of the Junín region,
  • Mirna Villacorta, Mayor of San Juan in Maynas, Loreto
  • Martín Soto, leader in Huancavelica of the 'Ayni' Movement
  • Carlos Paredes, co-ordinator of the Institute of Agrarian Alternatives and leader of the 'Ayllu Autogobierno', an important initiative that is increasing productivity of smallholding farmers in over 30,000 places all over the country. It uses the incorporation of low cost/high impact technologies to overcome poverty.
Some of the leaders of 'Fuerza Social'

Also involved in 'Fuerza Social' are politicians of high technical capacity and experience such as Gustavo Guerra García (ex Vice Minister of Transport), Jaime Quijandría (ex Minister of Finance), Eduardo Zegarra (our government planning co-ordinator), María Isabel Gonzáles (renowned promoter of female enterprises) as well as leaders from the magistrate, the health sector, micro-businesses, indigenous leaders, environmentalists, youth leaders etc. I am simply a little more well-known, for the moment, at least.......

Otto: If there is no one leader, how will you choose your Presidential candidate for 2011?

Susana: While other political parties such as those of Ollanta Humala or Lourdes Flores are in division, 'Fuerza Social' is an emerging party that is incorporating organization and is now beginning the process of nationwide inscriptions, all the time while managing its internal affairs in a democratic way.

We will be running in the 2010 municipal and regional elections and in the 2011 presidential election. We will choose our candidates from among our current leaders democratically. This process, far from weakening us, will bring us more strength.

Otto: Foreign observers of Peruvian politics usually see a simple "left versus right" struggle. Is this the case? How does a more politically central party such as "Fuerza Social" fit in?

Susana: It's true that Peru is socially polarized, because although we are growing economically (which is very positive) the economic, social and regional gaps are increasing, which only adds to the old structures of discrimination and exclusion. The economic growth, the absence of channels to express aspirations and protests due to our still fragile democracy and the absence of deep reforms (as recommended by the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation five years ago), may be a time bomb that favours extremist political views.

But it's one thing to understand social, cultural and political phenomena, and quite another to accept them politically. We must redirect political representation in Peru and we hope to be the democratic pole of change, representing entrepreneurial spirit and the faith we have in our economic, natural and cultural capacities. We have a responsibility to strengthen our ideals of justice, decentralization and change in democracy and governability. This is the alternative that has to be recognized by those who do not want to see Peru yet again at the edge of an abyss like in some of our neighbouring countries.

This is the moment to make a stand. Society is demanding changes. Either we change democratically or we will be torn apart in the middle of violence and chaos. We have not forgotten that Sendero (ottonote: most notorious Peruvian terrorist group of the 1980s and 1990s) was born inside of us, as the anthropologist Carlos Iván Degregori stated. We cannot gamble with our own future.

Otto: Your party is relatively young. Has it managed to pick up much grass roots support yet?

Susana: This is the process we are in at present. It takes time to build a strong party political organization. For example, we have just organized a meeting of high country (Sierra) and coast businesspeople in the centre of Lima, the first ever organized by a political party in Peru. We are sowing the seeds of our party by collecting inscription signatures, and we have the advantage of being made up of regional parties with decentralized seats of power. This is an excellent support base.

But there is still a lot of work to be done, not just via traditional means but also by Fuerza Social TV on the internet (ottonote: link here), blogs, electronic networks and communication media via projects in development. All this requires economic resources, and we hope that healthy companies that support Peru can also support serious and consistent alternatives such as ours.

Otto: Although Peru's macroeconomic numbers have been very strong in recent years, the popularity of President Garcia is now at record lows. This juxtaposition is difficult for many foreign observers to understand. Could you give us your views on why this is so?

Susana: It is an apparent paradox. President Garcia has a 20% approval rating according to the latest CPI survey last week. In the South and in the jungle region, as well as in the majority of the high country regions, his job disapproval ratings are very high. The poverty map and that of the economic growth and employment exactly coincide with the relationship between rejection and acceptance of García. Where growth is not enjoyed but looked upon from afar, frustration and ill-feeling is growing.

García has maintained fundamental macroeconomic balances and this is positive, but he does not understand how to move forward socio-economic policies to include society and close gaps. This is his biggest problem. However, (ex-President) Toledo governed with very low approval ratings and reached the end of his mandate. We trust that García has the same ability to walk along the edge of the cliff without falling.

Otto: If you were elected President tomorrow, what would be the first thing that you would do?

Susana: More important than "what" would be "how". I would completely change the way of governing by consulting, guaranteeing security and listening to everyone's viewpoint. There is no other way of being in charge than listening to people and having good relationships with local and regional governors to reach concrete and efficient solutions. I would be the president of the people, not of powerful groups. That would be the core and it would be the root change.

Our proposal is one of a neo-structural political economy, and our clear governmental program is to introduce deep reform in education, health, justice, security and infrastructure. Also, our commitment to decentralization and regionalism. These are not drastic measures but clear directives from the first day. As an example, place the best teachers in the 12,500 schools in the rural, jungle and sierra zones that have just one teacher as staff. That to begin with!

(Ex President) Paniagua left his transition government with 80% approval ratings. This thanks to his manner, his straightforward style, austerity, approachability and his spirit of concerted approvals. This is what governing with the people means. What Peru needs is a strong and democratic authority that understands the achievement, hopes and pains of our people.

But I will not be the candidate. Does it seem right to you that somebody from Lima is the candidate for a decentralizing party? I will accompany the person we elect as our Presidential candidate.

Otto: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the next two years of the Garcia administration?

Susana: I hope, for the good of the country, that his announcements made in his message of 28th July (ottonote: the traditional independence day presidential speech) that combines growth with redistribution result in concrete actions and not just a few small social programs. If he doesn't change course soon and if APRA doesn't stop taking absolute control of the State apparatus, things are going to get worse.

Otto: And what about the future of Peru? What are the special qualities of Peruvians that you would like to see come to the fore in the future?

Susana: Our enormous capacity to undertake and create; we can make something out of nothing. Peruvians abroad are praised for their tenacity and work ethic, and here as well. All we need is education, knowledge and technology to increase our productivity.

Our way of turning round the most difficult of moments and turning them into business opportunities, even in companies in the most inhospitable places of our monumental geography. True also for social enterprises such as community canteens or the Glass of Milk (vaso de leche) program that was born out of the deepest of crises.

Our great biodiversity. We must invest to generate the Germoplasm Bank of Peru to patent our rich natural resources and compete at an advantage in the world market.

Our more than 10 million hectares of trees to be planted, aspersion watering and all the technologies that will drag small rural producers out of poverty via our 'Sierra Emprendadora' and 'Selva Productiva' initiatives.

Our wealth and cultural diversity that is expressed in gastronomy, popular art, the amazing richness of our landscape that has such potential across the country and gives opportunities for our youth.

Otto: Thanks for answering these questions, Susana. Any last words?

Susana: Without being idealistic and knowing the enormous problem we face, I see that Peru's human resource is incredible. It is our greatest asset. But Peruvians ask for recognition, opportunities, help to invest, respect, and honest, efficient authorities. Only then will corrosive mistrust change to an atmosphere of faith and shared hope. It is possible to do it. Thank you.

Otto: Thank you, Susana.

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For more information about Fuerza Social and how you can help, visit the Fuerza Social website linked here.

Fuerza Social TV link here (which includes a recent presentation by Susana Villarán and a fascinating clip on the promising agro productivity program 'Yachachiq').

Susana runs a Spanish language blog which you can visit right here.