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Peru’s Ollanta Humala: a Lula look-alike

While comparisons with Brazil's former president are evident, Humala must now address challenges uni

In a shift to the left in Peruvian politics, Ollanta Humala this week takes over from Alan García as the country's president. He was elected in a two-round contest earlier this year, beating the right-wing Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the country's disgraced former president Alberto Fujimori who is currently in jail for corruption and human rights crimes.

Humala has been a controversial figure. He first rose to prominence as the leader of a short-lived military rebellion in 2000 against the Fujimori government. In 2006, he surprised many analysts by winning more votes than any other candidate in the first round of the 2006 presidential elections, only to be then narrowly defeated by García in the second. On that occasion he posed as Hugo Chávez look-alike figure, not least because of his military background and his nationalistic rhetoric. He was eventually pipped at the post in the second round, with García rounding on him for supposedly having his campaign organised and financed from Caracas.

In this year's elections, Humala looked to Brazil's former president Lula, not Chávez, for inspiration. Strategists from Lula's party, the Workers' Party (PT), were actively involved in advising his campaign. Supported primarily by the poor and indigenous of Peru, Humala came from rank outsider once again to top the poll in the first round, displacing a number of centre-right candidates including former president Alejandro Toledo (2001-06). This time he proved more fortunate in the ballotage than in 2006. His narrow victory over Keiko Fujimori owed much to a willingness to sacrifice some of his more radical campaign promises to win over centrist opinion.

Humala's choice of cabinet - he made the final appointments at the weekend - also reflects the influence of Lula's experience. Like Lula, he has avoided upsetting the markets by appointing free-market technocrats as members of his economics team. Emphasizing continuity, he reappointed Garcia's central bank president and promoted García's former treasury vice-minister to the powerful position of minister of economy and finance. The new prime minister, Salomón Lerner, also comes from a business background.

However, his social policy team is left-of-centre. A key figure is likely to be Aida García Naranjo from the Socialist Party, the new social inclusion minister. Humala has promised a new deal for Peru's poor, whose interests were largely sidelined by Alan García in his enthusiasm for attracting foreign investment by whatever means possible. Humala will seek to protect peasant rights against the concessions given over to mining companies. He will also probably seek to build on the Juntos programme, a conditional cash transfer strategy introduced by Toledo and designed to improve health, education and welfare in poor neighbourhoods. The blueprint for Juntos was Brazil's Bolsa Familia programme, which is credited in substantially reducing poverty and inequality during Lula's eight years in office.

A key question, therefore, will be whether Peru will be able to emulate the Lula experience in Brazil. If Humala can pull it off, the political rewards may be high: Lula ended his period in government with 80% approval rates. He faces a number of challenges, though, and Peru is not Brazil.

Firstly, Brazil has a far higher tax base than Peru, where tax revenues only amount to around 15% of GDP. Humala has promised to raise taxation, especially on mining companies, but the economic elite in Peru is unaccustomed to paying the price for poverty relief. Secondly, Peru lacks a half-way efficient and honest system of public administration capable of administering a large-scale social welfare programme. Thirdly, unlike Brazil's Workers Party, Humala's Gana Perú party lacks any real presence in Peruvian society; he will be hard-pressed to rein in the often violent social protest movements that increasingly defied the Garcia government.

Much also will depend on the quality of leadership. Lula managed - eventually -- to win over the respect from friend and foe alike. Humala may well be able to do the same, but he has yet to convince Peru's wealthy and foreign investors of the need to make sacrifices in the interests of longer-term social stability.

Monterrico Metals: the Background Story

Earlier this month, British mining company Monterrico Metals reached an out-of-court settlement with 33 members of a peasant community in northern Peru who allege they were detained and tortured by police and mine security. The claimants had been protesting in 2005 against the Rio Blanco copper mine, owned by Monterrico Metals, when they were allegedly hooded, threatened and beaten over a period of three days. The protestors claimed the firm was complicit in their mistreatment. Though Monterrico continues to strenuously deny the claims, the settlement remains significant as the first time Peruvian peasant communities have successfully obtained compensation by initiating legal proceedings against an extractive firm abroad. UK-based campaigning organisation the Peru Support Group welcomed the settlement as "a significant achievement" but warned that "further tensions between local communities and the mine operator cannot be ruled out" when the Rio Blanco project resumes later this year.

John Crabtree is research associate at the Latin American Centre, Oxford. His latest book 'Fractured Politics: Peruvian Democracy Past and Present' has just been published by the Institute for the Study of the Americas, University of London.

An artist's version of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler blamed on the communists. CREDIT: DEZAIN UNKIE/ ALAMY
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The art of the big lie: the history of fake news

From the Reichstag fire to Stalin’s show trials, the craft of disinformation is nothing new.

We live, we’re told, in a post-truth era. The internet has hyped up postmodern relativism, and created a kind of gullible cynicism – “nothing is true, and who cares anyway?” But the thing that exploits this mindset is what the Russians call dezinformatsiya. Disinformation – strategic deceit – isn’t new, of course. It has played a part in the battle that has raged between mass democracy and its enemies since at least the First World War.

Letting ordinary people pick governments depends on shared trust in information, and this is vulnerable to attack – not just by politicians who want to manipulate democracy, but by those on the extremes who want to destroy it. In 1924, the first Labour government faced an election. With four days to go, the Daily Mail published a secret letter in which the leading Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev heralded the government’s treaties with the Soviets as a way to help recruit British workers for Leninism. Labour’s vote actually went up, but the Liberal share collapsed, and the Conservatives returned to power.

We still don’t know exactly who forged the “Zinoviev Letter”, even after exhaustive investigations of British and Soviet intelligence archives in the late 1990s by the then chief historian of the Foreign Office, Gill Bennett. She concluded that the most likely culprits were White Russian anti-Bolsheviks, outraged at Labour’s treaties with Moscow, probably abetted by sympathetic individuals in British intelligence. But whatever the precise provenance, the case demonstrates a principle that has been in use ever since: cultivate your lie from a germ of truth. Zinoviev and the Comintern were actively engaged in trying to stir revolution – in Germany, for example. Those who handled the letter on its journey from the forger’s desk to the front pages – MI6 officers, Foreign Office officials, Fleet Street editors – were all too ready to believe it, because it articulated their fear that mass democracy might open the door to Bolshevism.

Another phantom communist insurrection opened the way to a more ferocious use of disinformation against democracy. On the night of 27 February 1933, Germany’s new part-Nazi coalition was not yet secure in power when news started to hum around Berlin that the Reichstag was on fire. A lone left-wing Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, was caught on the site and said he was solely responsible. But Hitler assumed it was a communist plot, and seized the opportunity to do what he wanted to do anyway: destroy them. The suppression of the communists was successful, but the claim it was based on rapidly collapsed. When the Comintern agent Gyorgy Dimitrov was tried for organising the fire, alongside fellow communists, he mocked the charges against him, which were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Because it involves venturing far from the truth, disinformation can slip from its authors’ control. The Nazis failed to pin blame on the communists – and then the communists pinned blame on the Nazis. Dimitrov’s comrade Willi Münzenberg swiftly organised propaganda suggesting that the fire was too convenient to be Nazi good luck. A “counter-trial” was convened in London; a volume called The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror was rushed into print, mixing real accounts of Nazi persecution of communists – the germ of truth again – with dubious documentary evidence that they had started the fire. Unlike the Nazis’ disinformation, this version stuck, for decades.

Historians such as Richard Evans have argued that both stories about the fire were false, and it really was one man’s doing. But this case demonstrates another disinformation technique still at work today: hide your involvement behind others, as Münzenberg did with the British great and good who campaigned for the Reichstag prisoners. In the Cold War, the real source of disinformation was disguised with the help of front groups, journalistic “agents of influence”, and the trick of planting a fake story in an obscure foreign newspaper, then watching as the news agencies picked it up. (Today, you just wait for retweets.)

In power, the Nazis made much use of a fictitious plot that did, abominably, have traction: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged text first published in Russia in 1903, claimed to be a record of a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world – not least by means of its supposed control of everyone from bankers to revolutionaries. As Richard Evans observes, “If you subject people to a barrage of lies, in the end they’ll begin to think well maybe they’re not all true, but there must be something in it.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler argued that the “big lie” always carries credibility – an approach some see at work not only in the Nazis’ constant promotion of the Protocols but in the pretence that their Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 was spontaneous. (It is ironic that Hitler coined the “big lie” as part of an attack on the Jews’ supposed talent for falsehood.) Today, the daring of the big lie retains its force: even if no one believes it, it makes smaller untruths less objectionable in comparison. It stuns opponents into silence.

Unlike the Nazis, the Bolshevik leaders were shaped by decades as hunted revolutionaries, dodging the Tsarist secret police, who themselves had had a hand in the confection of the Protocols. They occupied the paranoid world of life underground, governed by deceit and counter-deceit, where any friend could be an informer. By the time they finally won power, disinformation was the Bolsheviks’ natural response to the enemies they saw everywhere. And that instinct endures in Russia even now.

In a competitive field, perhaps the show trial is the Soviet exercise in upending the truth that is most instructive today. These sinister theatricals involved the defendants “confessing” their crimes with great
sincerity and detail, even if the charges were ludicrous. By 1936, Stalin felt emboldened to drag his most senior rivals through this process – starting with Grigory Zinoviev.

The show trial is disinformation at its cruellest: coercing someone falsely to condemn themselves to death, in so convincing a way that the world’s press writes it up as truth. One technique involved was perfected by the main prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky, who bombarded the defendants with insults such as “scum”, “mad dogs” and “excrement”. Besides intimidating the victim, this helped to distract attention from the absurdity of the charges. Barrages of invective on Twitter are still useful for smearing and silencing enemies.


The show trials were effective partly because they deftly reversed the truth. To conspire to destroy the defendants, Stalin accused them of conspiring to destroy him. He imposed impossible targets on straining Soviet factories; when accidents followed, the managers were forced to confess to “sabotage”. Like Hitler, Stalin made a point of saying the opposite of what he did. In 1936, the first year of the Great Terror, he had a rather liberal new Soviet constitution published. Many in the West chose to believe it. As with the Nazis’ “big lie”, shameless audacity is a disinformation strategy in itself. It must have been hard to accept that any regime could compel such convincing false confessions, or fake an entire constitution.

No one has quite attempted that scale of deceit in the post-truth era, but reversing the truth remains a potent trick. Just think of how Donald Trump countered the accusation that he was spreading “fake news” by making the term his own – turning the charge on his accusers, and even claiming he’d coined it.

Post-truth describes a new abandonment of the very idea of objective truth. But George Orwell was already concerned that this concept was under attack in 1946, helped along by the complacency of dictatorship-friendly Western intellectuals. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he warned in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on pain of damnation, but on the other hand they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.”

A few years later, the political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that Nazis and Stalinists, each immersed in their grand conspiratorial fictions, had already reached this point in the 1930s – and that they had exploited a similar sense of alienation and confusion in ordinary people. As she wrote in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” There is a reason that sales of Arendt’s masterwork – and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – have spiked since November 2016.

During the Cold War, as the CIA got in on the act, disinformation became less dramatic, more surreptitious. But show trials and forced confessions continued. During the Korean War, the Chinese and North Koreans induced a series of captured US airmen to confess to dropping bacteriological weapons on North Korea. One lamented that he could barely face his family after what he’d done. The pilots were brought before an International Scientific Commission, led by the eminent Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham, which investigated the charges. A documentary film, Oppose Bacteriological Warfare, was made, showing the pilots confessing and Needham’s Commission peering at spiders in the snow. But the story was fake.

The germ warfare hoax was a brilliant exercise in turning democracy’s expectations against it. Scientists’ judgements, campaigning documentary, impassioned confession – if you couldn’t believe all that, what could you believe? For the genius of disinformation is that even exposure doesn’t disable it. All it really has to do is sow doubt and confusion. The story was finally shown to be fraudulent in 1998, through documents transcribed from Soviet archives. The transcripts were authenticated by the historian Kathryn Weathersby, an expert on the archives. But as Dr Weathersby laments, “People come back and say ‘Well, yeah, but, you know, they could have done it, it could have happened.’”

There’s an insidious problem here: the same language is used to express blanket cynicism as empirical scepticism. As Arendt argued, gullibility and cynicism can become one. If opponents of democracy can destroy the very idea of shared, trusted information, they can hope to destabilise democracy itself.

But there is a glimmer of hope here too. The fusion of cynicism and gullibility can also afflict the practitioners of disinformation. The most effective lie involves some self-deception. So the show trial victims seem to have internalised the accusations against them, at least for a while, but so did their tormentors. As the historian Robert Service has written, “Stalin frequently lied to the world when he was simultaneously lying to himself.”

Democracy might be vulnerable because of its reliance on the idea of shared truth – but authoritarianism has a way of undermining itself by getting lost in its own fictions. Disinformation is not only a danger to its targets. 

Phil Tinline’s documentary “Disinformation: A User’s Guide” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm, 17 March