When I arrived in Lima in June 1989 to discuss bringing a team of political consultants to advise Mario Vargas Llosa on his campaign, I had an eerie sense of familiarity. Ten years earlier, as a young official of the United Nations, I had overseen the flight into Thailand of the Khmer Rouge and wanted never again to see the sullen look of murderous class and ethnic hatred that I had seen in their eyes. Ten years later, I encountered it in the bus queues in Lima. They were an urban underclass, recent migrants from the countryside who sought to pick a marginal living on the downtown pavements by day and were now waiting for one of the infrequent minibuses that would carry them to their distant squatter slums. In those glassy brown eyes was a death threat against Peru’s old white ruling class. I did not need polling to tell me that Peru was dry tinder.
The leaders of Mario’s crusade to renew Peru sat around a table at our first meeting. Several of them had, like him, spent long periods out of the country: all were visibly upper class. Enrique Ghersi was the darkest skinned but nobody would have mistaken the well-groomed young lawyer for a representative of the cholos, Peru’s Indian majority. Mario himself was a man confident among his own people. He was tall, and good-looking, and elegant in a well-cut European sports jacket.
Like Mario I felt that Peru’s future was in stabilizing the economy by radical measures – privatizing industry, permitting competition and entrepreneurship. I had seen half-hearted reform programmes fail. Democracy would last in the region only if it could be shown to be consistent with bold leadership. But I also felt that, like marketeers of other products, my colleagues and I could make his politics of rapid economic adjustment with its inevitable early consequences of higher real prices and increased unemployment attractive to the consumer. We could do for Mario what Mrs Thatcher’s consultants had done for her: to take the hard edge off a radical programme for economic recovery. Our meeting was interrupted by a call (which I had arranged) from the leader of the Bolivian opposition, who had just won an election, with our help, having promised to implement a Thatcher-like economic programme. Goni Sanchez de Lozada had moved from fourth place in the polls to win the popular vote, even though two of the losing parties would eventually form a coalition to keep him out of the presidency. Goni told Mario that the politics of conviction would be enhanced by a scientific campaign; that polling and television could be deployed to strengthen the argument for economic reform. Mario did not have to play the old Latin American populist game of promising a schoolhouse in every village and a new square in every town. He could tell the blunt truth but he must let his advisors ‘package’ it for him. Mario, anxious for an unequivocal popular vote in favour of his tough free-market reforms, seemed intrigued by our black arts and was determined to make his campaign as modern as he hoped his presidency would be.