Saturday, June 25, 2016

Lessons from an "American" presidential election

(I have sent this across to the editor. Yet another column that draws from many of my blog-posts.)

The stereotypical image of the United States in the rest of the world is that we are not interested in them, unless it serves our selfish interests. That image lends itself to the humorous tongue-in-cheek line that God created war so that Americans would learn geography. On top of such a disinterest, the current presidential election season has turned out to be quite a soap opera mixed with reality entertainment, with a script that is sometimes even more colorful than what television offers. Thus, it is quite possible that we have been completely oblivious to another “American” presidential election, which was held in Peru.


The recently concluded contest in Peru is fascinating for one important reason—immigration. Peru is a Spanish-speaking country in South America and, therefore, we might expect to see the last names that will be familiar to us as “Spanish” as is the case in the neighboring former Spanish colonies. In Bolivia, the leader is Evo Morales. Ecuador’s president is Rafael Correa. And in Colombia, it is Juan Santos who heads the government. It might, therefore, surprise many of us here in the US that the winner of the election in Peru, which concluded in early June, was Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who will officially take over on July 28th.

The Peruvian winner having a Polish last name, Kuczynski, is only one half of the immigration story. The other half is the candidate who lost—Keiko Fujimori. How many among us would have ever imagined political leaders in a South American country having Polish and Japanese last names?

The names Kuczynski and Fujimori reflect the immigration from Europe and Japan to Peru. The 41-year old Keiko Fujimori is the daughter of a former president, Alberto Fujimori, who disgraced himself after a decade in office and is now behind bars. The senior Fujimori's parents immigrated to Peru from Japan. Pedro Kuczynski is, interestingly enough, the same age as Alberto Fujimori—77 years. Kuczynski's parents came to Peru at about the same time that Fujimori's parents emigrated from Japan. Kuczynski's Jewish father and his Swiss mother, fled Berlin after Hitler came to power.

Fujimori versus Kuczynski in a Spanish speaking South American country is one awesome example of the wonderfully globalized cultures that characterize our contemporary existence. We need to pause and appreciate the extraordinariness of this level of democracy, given the long history of humans organizing themselves based on their tribal identities and treating the “others” with nothing but animosity and deep-seated suspicion.

Both Kuczynski and Fujimori have extensive connections to the US as well. A Princeton graduate, Kuczynski spent quite a few years here in the US working in various financial institutions, most notably at the World Bank. Fujimori earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees here—from Boston University and Columbia University. The US can, therefore, rightfully claim to have played influential roles in shaping the minds of the two Peruvian leaders.

We can expect a lot more like the Peruvian story, thanks to people moving around in the world, and mixing with the “natives.” In India, the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi almost became the country’s prime minister in 2004, after leading her party to a huge victory in the national elections. She stepped aside for a number of political reasons, even though the constitution of India—unlike the constitution of the United States—does not explicitly disqualify an immigrant from holding the highest elected office in the country.

In the United Kingdom, Sadiq Aman Khan, was elected London’s Mayor in May 2016. Khan’s parents immigrated to Britain from Pakistan. A Muslim son of immigrants was democratically elected to one of the most high profile public offices in Britain, while many here in the US want to close the door on immigration and on Muslims!

Of course, in 2008, we too elected to the highest office a person with an unusual name—Barack Obama, whose father was Kenyan. However, instead of wholeheartedly showcasing to the world the election and the winner as American symbols of democracy and humanity, many Americans, unfortunately, spent an enormous amount of time and money discrediting the President’s eligibility itself. What a contrast to Peruvians who enthusiastically embraced the Polish and Japanese roots of their presidential candidates!

The Peruvian Nobel laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa, who lost the presidential elections to Alberto Fujimori in 1990, wrote that "the women and men who brave the Straits of Gibraltar or the Florida Keys or the electric fences of Tijuana or the docks of Marseilles in search of work, freedom, and a future should be received with open arms.” The contest between Kuczynski and Fujimori exemplifies the “open arms” in Peru. I wonder what our own presidential elections will convey to the world about our arms.


Ramesh said...

The Peruvian example is an oddity. World over, the tide is turning against immigration, against inclusiveness, against considering us as one global race. Much to the chagrin of this commenter, countries are turning inwards, walls, literally and figuratively are being built and diversity is under threat. The British tragedy that has been enacted over the last few days is testimony of how a great nation is being laid low by narrow chauvinism.

It is a sobering time , especially for the Western world, when liberty, equality and fraternity are all in retreat.

Sriram Khé said...

You are being selective in your sympathies, Ramesh. You lament the retreat of liberty and yet you are willing to look away from the oppressive Chinese system all because it delivers on the economic front. All those are tied together in the Brexit vote.

Without getting too much into the China/liberty angle, let me point these out.

In various posts--including a recent one in which I referred to Rawls--I have brought up the need for a new social contract. Even in your blog, I had commented often about the need for a new social contract.

All because I have been convinced that while globalization and technological advancements have been for the better on the whole, there are individuals and communities that have taken quite a beating. Life is no fun just because a DVD player is only $30 (made in China) when one does not have a job or if the old company town is now in serious doldrums.

Further, while the elite like you and me have the ability to move to wherever, the ones who used to benefit from low-skills but decent pay jobs, and whose towns prospered on that, well, they are geographically stuck.

Meanwhile, the only revision to the social contract that governments were offering was taking away their pensions, their health plans, their free higher education, their ... an endless list.
The only way people will be quiet is if they do not have the liberty (like in China) or if they live in near-dictatorial regimes (like Russia). But, in a democracy, voting against the damn thing is the only power that the powerless have. So far, even that was not possible because government is through a representative democracy--not a direct democracy. And that's where David Cameron and his conservative allies made the mistake--they went for the direct democracy on this question.

If you and others had listened to me, then you would have reworked the social contract and assured those who felt they were losing that they will be taken care of ... the walls and anti-immigration were/are symptoms that could have been addressed even a while ago.

However, globalization itself cannot be stopped, unless the billions are ready to give up liberty all over the world and adopt a Chinese model en masse ... if we elect Trump, then it will be a clear sign that we are indeed willing to give up liberty, after having already given up on equality ...

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