Peru’s President: Why Does His Family Hate Him?

His father says his son has failed. His mother espouses extreme views. His sister sides with a brother in jail. Even the opposition media is embarrassed for President Ollanta Humala.

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Ernesto BENAVIDES / AFP / Getty Images

Peru's President Ollanta Humala arrives to pay homage to Nancy Flores at the airport of Lima on April 13, 2012.

Pity the poor president of Peru. Barely a day goes by without calls for the resignation of this or that member of his cabinet; vociferous complaints about government policy pop up one after the other; bilious public criticism abounds that, just 11 months into office, Ollanta Humala, 50, is already a failed president. And the source of the bile: the President’s own family.

Indeed, the barrage of attacks from Humala’s clan is more vicious than anything mustered so far by the opposition. The tone is such that one opposition daily, Correo, which is no fan of the Humala administration, announced in May that it would no longer cover the president’s father out of respect for the presidency. “It is quite extraordinary. There have been differences in families over ideologies, but nothing like we have seen with Humala. There are not only differences, but outright antagonism,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.

The undisputed anti-Humala leader is the family patriarch, Isaac Humala, a self-described Andean Marxist who calls for the “copper race,” his term for indigenous Peruvians, to rule the country because they are intellectually superior to “white Europeans, black Africans and yellow Asians.” He predicted in May that his son’s presidency would end in failure because he has veered from a nationalistic-indigenous focus on the country.

Also opposed, but not as vocal, is his mother, Elena, who gained notoriety in the 2006 presidential race by suggesting that killing a few homosexuals might be necessary to get the rest to go back in the closet. Three of the president’s six siblings side with the parents. Older brother Ulises competed against the Ollanta for the presidency in the 2006 campaign. Both lost, with Ulises receiving 24,518 votes to the future president’s 3.75 million. Younger sister Imasumac, who lives in France, is the newest opponent.  She has been demanding the resignation of Cabinet ministers for their handling of protests, as well as lodging a formal complaint against the state over the alleged torture of another brother, Antauro.

Antauro, a year younger than the president, is at the center of the Humala family breakdown. He is currently in prison serving a 19-year sentence for trying to spark a rebellion against former President Alejandro Toledo on New Year’s Day 2005. The revolt, in a remote Andean town, failed immediately, but four police officers were killed. The Humala parents say their son Antauro would have made a better president than the one actually sitting in the palace.

Ollanta and Antauro, both retired military officers, had led a failed uprising against then-President Alberto Fujimori in 2000 in the waning days of that corrupt regime. But the siblings parted ways in 2006 and have been feuding since. The situation changed dramatically in April when Antauro was transferred to a super-secure prison on a Navy base built in the 1990s to hold leaders of two violent communist insurgencies. The move came after media reports showed Antauro using a smart phone and, even more troubling, smoking a zeppelin-sized joint in his prison cell.

The head of the national penitentiary system, Jose Luis Perez, said the younger Humala was transferred to the Navy base prison because he was abusive to guards and uncontrollable.  “There was no pressure or interference from the government,” he said. “It was for his safety and that of the guards.” Imasumac, however, claims Perez led a group of hooded men to Antauro’s cell in early April and tortured him.  In a recent statement remitted to the regional Inter-American Human Rights Committee she demanded intervention to stop the “escalation of illegal actions from a government that does whatever it likes” against Antauro.

Perez told reporters on June 18 that the accusation is “schizophrenic” and threatened a defamation suit.  “Saying that I entered [the cell] with 10 hooded men, with a hit squad, and that I beat him goes beyond any kind of normal intelligence,” he said.

The president has refused to enter the fray. “Family issues need to stay in the family. They have the right to an opinion, to criticize and say what they like,” he told reporters at a Father’s Day appearance June 17 outside the palace in Lima with his wife and three young children.

Shifter said part of the confusion in the Humala family stems from the president’s ideological transformation between the 2006 and 2011 elections, and since taking office late last July. “There have been so many Humalas.  He has gone through a metamorphosis,” said Shifter. In 2006, Humala ran on a platform similar to that of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and other Latin American leftists.  He came back in 2011 with a mellower approach, modeling himself on former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.  He moderated his views even more during a runoff with former President Alberto Fujimori’s daughter, Keiko, who he beat by a whisker last June. (Ex-President Fujimori, 73, is serving a 25-year prison sentence.)

As president, Humala has followed through on campaign pledges to create new social programs, but he has not tinkered with the economic model that he promised to change. The result is clear in the most recent national survey by GfK, a leading polling firm. Humala is supported by 45% in the wealthiest class, which voted overwhelmingly against him a year ago, and by 39% in the poorest classes, which helped propel him to victory.  His national support in June is 41%, the first time his approval rate dropped below his rejection level.

He gets his worst marks for managing protests, which he said would disappear after his election. Instead, there were 245 on-going protests through early June, 31 more than when he took office. The majority involve communities opposed to mining and oil/gas projects. Protests have grown increasingly violent since March, with eight demonstrators shot and killed by police officers. Five members of Humala’s party have abandoned the congressional caucus over opposition to the administration’s handling of protests, dropping it to 42 in the 130-member chamber.

The presidential family has, as expected, sided with the protesters.  Younger sister Imasumac helped organize a march in Paris against mining projects in Peru and last week said during a TV interview that brother Antauro would be on the front line of anti-mining protest.  She again called for the president to keep his campaign promise of putting peasant communities before mining companies. Mining is Peru’s top source of revenue and new mining projects will mean $53 billion in investments in the coming few years. The president has pledged to find a balance between mining and environment. As far as his family is concerned, he hasn’t found it yet.