Peru May Become Latin America’s Next Success Story

The Senate passed the free trade agreement with Peru on Tuesday and it could not have come at a better time. That’s because Peru is increasingly distinguishing itself in the region as a successful market democracy. More than five years of sustained high growth (Peru grew 8 percent last year) are transforming the economy and spreading development to regions of the country that have traditionally benefited little from past progress. Unlike other countries in the region such as Argentina or Venezuela that are also experiencing rapid growth, Peru’s growth is characterized by widespread investment and wealth creation as opposed to redistribution or the mere effects of high world commodity prices.

Why is Peru succeeding? Again, unlike various other South American countries, it has sustained the far-reaching market reforms of the early to mid 1990s, has deepened some of them, and maintained sound macro-economic polices. The policies of openness and stability are paying off. Anybody who has been visiting Peru during the past 15 years as I have has noticed vast improvements in countless areas of national and everyday life, including notable progress in the past several years. The center of Lima, notoriously crime-ridden and dirty, has become safe and attractive. That kind of revitalization has occurred throughout the city and in major cities and towns of Peru. Consumer goods and services—cell phones, household appliances, and private education, for example—previously unavailable or in short supply have proliferated and serve all markets, rich and poor.

A change in values more oriented to a modern society may also slowly be taking place. The majority of Peruvians supported the FTA with the United States. The quality of service and attention to detail seems to have improved among Peruvian workers and management across a broad array of businesses. Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa recently noted that he was now much more hopeful about Peru, not because of Peru’s positive economic indicators, but rather because “something profound seems to have changed in the culture of the country. One would have to be blind not to see that.”

In his excellent and new book, La Revolución Capitalista en el Perú (The Capitalist Revolution in Peru), leading Peruvian journalist Jaime de Althaus carefully details some of the changes in Peruvian society.

Traditional and non-traditional exports have boomed, with the latter experiencing higher growth. Peru has now become an exporter of software, to the tune of $20 million last year and growing at a rate of 25 percent.

The middle class is growing. The gap between the rich and the poor and between Lima and the rest of the country has also shrunk. Income gains have been proportionately greater for the poor than for the rich.

Peruvian companies—many of them new—have become successful nationally and internationally, not only exporting abroad, but setting up plants and offices abroad in areas as diverse as textiles, soft drinks, mining, milk products, clothing, banking and detergents. Some Peruvian companies have seen their businesses nationalized in Evo Morales’s Bolivia.

Vast areas of the Peruvian coast that have long been desert have turned green as a result of the “silent agroindustrial revolution” that has also taken place in some parts of the interior. Peru’s produce is now diverse, ranging from sugar cane to paprika to asparagus.

Personal credit as a share of total credit has tripled in the past ten years and now accounts for about 24 percent of total credit.

Department stores and other businesses now regularly cater to the “popular” classes. Enormous malls have been built and are now thriving in some of the poorest sections of Lima.

President Alan Garcia, whose first term in office during the second half of the 1980s was a disaster, is building on this progress and—I never thought I would say this—is so far turning out to be pretty good. In recent weeks he has written two articles in El Comercio, the country’s leading newspaper, in which he sets out a bold vision of promoting growth that has set off an intense national debate and spurred the leading news magazine, Caretas, to put “The Turn to the Right” on a recent cover.

Garcia has called for Peru to grow at Asian levels for years to come. He has accused bureaucrats, NGOs, environmentalists and special interests of blocking important policy changes that would increase growth and reduce poverty. He has made specific proposals to allow private investment in large parts of the jungle so as to export wood and to better protect the region from those who illegally log it; he has called on the private titling of large areas of land so that those with resources can exploit that land; he has called on dramatically increasing private investment in mining and other natural resources in Peru; he has called for allowing more private investment in the fishing industry; he has called for hydro-electric dams to built throughout Peru by private capital, rather than the state; he has called for the state to give up property that it does not use and give up functions that are better performed by others. And so on.

Peru is experiencing market success and may still see more of it. Thus also it has become an embarrassment for Hugo Chavez, who has neighboring Bolivia and Ecuador as client states and is pouring a lot of resources into the Peruvian countryside in a campaign to promote his anti-capitalist ideology. Peru has become a key country in Latin America’s ideological battle between the modernizers and the populists.

A lot still needs to be done in Peru before it can be declared a success story. For example, property and land still needs to be titled in the mountains, taxes are still very high, bureaucratic regulations remain onerous, labor laws are extremely rigid, the educational system is terrible. But the free trade agreement will help because it will give permanence to trade policy; and policy stability and competition have been key to Peru’s success thus far. If Alan Garcia can complete Peru’s unfinished agenda, he will have finally pushed the country into modernity and would go down not only as one of the greatest presidents of Peru, but also of Latin America at a critical time in the region’s history.