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Peru’s Garcia works to erase painful legacy from past

In only 100 days, President Alan Garcia has made Peruvians forget the food shortages, four-digit inflation and guerrilla violence that marred his first government in the 1980s.

The once-reviled leader has an approval rating near 60% from preaching responsible, thrifty government and increased spending on social programmes. He has even managed to sail safely through a potential crisis over reports he recently fathered a child out of wedlock.

As he approached his 100th day, which falls on Sunday, Garcia seemed to acknowledge he’s still on a political honeymoon, and said it will take time for his investment-boosting efforts to pay off.

”Six months to put into motion the first measures and two years for them to mature — that seems to me a reasonable period,” he told reporters.

During his 1985-1990 term, Garcia might have passed as a prototype for the leftist South American populism characterised today by anti-United States crusader Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.

Swept into office as Latin America’s youngest president at 36, Garcia railed against Washington’s intervention in Nicaragua and its invasion of Panama, while proclaiming a new socialist deal for the poor and balking at paying off Peru’s huge foreign debt.

At 57, Garcia has recast himself as the region’s market-friendly alternative to Chávez.

Relations with Caracas remain icy since Garcia’s narrow run-off victory in June against retired army officer Ollanta Humala, whom he adroitly painted as Venezuela’s ideological pawn.

Relations with Washington are rosy since his October 10 meeting with President George Bush. Garcia pushed for ratification of a free-trade deal and reiterated Peru’s commitment to fighting cocaine.

Garcia has pledged not to repeat his past errors, and this time he has limited the number of members of his Apristas party in his 16-member Cabinet to six. He has appointed nine independent technocrats. Six Cabinet ministers are women, the most in Peru’s history.

As Finance Minister, he named a hard-line fiscal conservative, former Central Bank director Luis Carranza.

In 1987, Garcia sent an armoured car to smash the doors of the country’s biggest bank in a nationalisation attempt. Francisco Pardo launched a highly public sleep-in in the offices of his Banco Mercantil, challenging Garcia to drag him out. After 28 days, Garcia backed down.

Pardo, now retired, counts himself among Garcia’s fans. ”I like what I see. I think he’s doing things right,” he said. ”I think everyone has the right to learn, and I believe that President Garcia has matured, thank God.”

Garcia has pledged to spend $1,6-billion in the first 17 months of his administration to build roads, schools and health clinics in rural areas where poverty is severest. He said the programme will be funded by foreign loans, donations from mining companies and savings from austerity measures.

He still shows hints of his old populist style, such as cutting his and other officials’ salaries, but these have prompted criticism that he’s after easy headlines.

Isabel Melgar, a 30-year-old administrator in a Lima software firm, said she was irked by Garcia’s push to reinstate the death penalty for sexual predators who kill children and for terrorists.

”It seems to me he’s been creating smoke screens and trying to generate debate with lots of small issues,” Melgar said. ”I would have liked to see him say something about more important issues like corruption.”

Garcia inherited a far healthier economy than the one he left behind in 1990, when he drained the nation’s reserves for populist spending. Growth for 2006 is projected at 6,6%, inflation is about 2% and Peruvian gold, copper and other metals are fetching high prices.

Last month, he managed to turn the revelation that he fathered a child out of wedlock in 2004 to his advantage, confirming the rumours in a public statement with First Lady Pilar Nores at his side.

Alfredo Torres, director of the Apoyo polling firm, said Garcia’s numbers rose after the appearance. It was ”spectacular damage control because he confronted it with his declaration and resolved it in 24 hours”, he said.

”I think it’s a textbook example of how a politician should handle a personal issue.” — Sapa-AP

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