Crowd-pleaser Garc'ia doesn't always tell Peruvians what they want to hear

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

When President Alan Garc'ia Per'ez appears on the balcony of Lima's Palace of Government, there is almost no containing the adoring thousands who pack the Plaza de Armas below. Grown men and women scream and wave their arms. Police strain to hold back the mass of humanity as it surges toward the palace walls.

Chants of ``Alan, Alan'' reverberate through the square. For several minutes, even Mr. Garc'ia can do little more than lean on the balcony railing, bemused at the uproar his presence has triggered.

Once he has managed to quiet the throng, Mr. Garc'ia begins to stalk back and forth along the balcony, microphone in hand, blistering the ``imperialist'' International Monetary Fund and promising jobs and public services for Lima's poor.

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``Democracy means everyone's having water and electricity,'' he intones, ``. . .and sharing the riches of our Peru.''

The crowd roars loudest when Garc'ia announces a Christmas bonus for workers in a public jobs program he created. ``You like that, don't you?'' he chuckles. Cries of ``s'i, s'i'' fill the air.

Mass meetings like this have become a regular feature of the popular Garc'ia's five-month-old administration. Presidential media adviser Guillermo Russo says the rallies, popularly known as balconazos [big balconies], are ``a way for the President to get close to the people. It's a form of direct democracy.'' The same is true, Mr. Russo says, of the President's frequent visits to Lima's shantytowns, public schools, and hospitals.

Much to the consternation of his advisers, Garc'ia goes into Lima's violent streets with an apparently total lack of concern for his personal security. A trademark gesture of Garc'ia's is to open his suit coat at balconazos , revealing that he is not wearing a bullet-proof vest.

The first balconazo took place July 30, two days after Garc'ia was sworn in. After a press conference with foreign reporters, he simply walked out on to the balcony, and began joking and talking with astonished passers-by. A crowd of several hundred gathered as Garc'ia, a former caf'e singer, delivered a rousing speech.

The seven balconazos that have taken place since are still officially ``spontaneous.'' But many of the spectators now come from distant areas after official invitations and the rallies are announced in the daily news media.

However, there is little opportunity for people-to-President dialogue. Garc'ia often silences unruly crowd members with a swift wave of his hand. Critics see similarities between his combative, crowd-pleasing style and that of past Latin strongmen like Argentina's Juan Per'on.

``He wants to move society fast in his direction, and that can be dangerous,'' says sociologist Julio Cotler, who supports Garc'ia. ``On one side there are authoritarian tendencies. On the other, it's just not a good way to manage problems.''

Yet Garc'ia doesn't only tell the masses what they want to hear. Frequently, the message from the balcony is that solving Peru's multiple crises will require painful sacrifices. After his triumphant return from a Sept. 23 speech at the United Nations, Garc'ia told the crowd that Peru was ``a broken-down car headed up a mountain. We all have to get out and push.''

And in any case, those who attend balconazos seem to be far more affected by the President's buoyant personality than by what he actually says.

``He gave us the confidence to go forward,'' said 45-year-old Augusta Condori, after Garc'ia had wound up another balconazo in the usual manner, by leading the crowd in Peru's national anthem. ``He gave us courage.''

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