When Peruvians go to the polls Sunday, they may for the first time elect an Indian as their president.
But then again, the anti-Indian prejudices that have thrived in Latin America for 500 years could also deny presidential candidate Alejandro Toledo his prize.
The short, dark-skinned Mr. Toledo, up against tall and fair-complexioned former president Alan Garcia in the runoff vote, is the latest sign of a resurgent demand for respect for indigenous cultures and Indians' rights across Latin America.
Last year an indigenous political force in Ecuador brought down a president. Earlier this year, the Zapatista march through Mexico was a high-profile lobbying effort for recognition of Indian rights and autonomy. Now, Toledo is demonstrating that, even in a country coming late to the indigenous movement, there is a political awakening.
"Peru has been the exception in a re-ethnicization across Latin America that is a response to globalization and a feared loss of identity," says Nelson Manrique, a sociologist at Lima's Catholic University. "If Toledo wins, it will be an important symbol of a disfavored population's advance within the practice of democracy."
Toledo's victory is not assured. The man who has taken on the mantle of "Pachacutec," an Inca warrior hero, is finding that the apus, or ancient Andean gods, are not necessarily with him.
What after the April 8 first round of voting looked for him like an easy coast to Peru's presidential palace is now much more of a question mark. The last legally published opinion polls on Sunday showed a marked tightening of a race that has left most Peruvians holding their noses in response to either candidate. Several more recent polls suggest a statistical dead heat.
Since a May 20 televised debate, the smooth-talking Mr. Garcia has steadily risen in voter preference while Toledo has remained almost flat. Garcia appears to be making headway in overcoming the resistance of Peruvians who remember his 1985-90 presidency as an economic and social disaster, while Toledo's negatives are holding firm.
Just what role race may be playing in Toledo's seeming inability to break a ceiling of support hovering around 40 percent is difficult to determine. Pollsters have not included inquiries about race in their campaign surveys. And voters, when listing why they wouldn't vote for Toledo, offer other reasons: that they find him dishonest, contradictory in his statements, or untrustworthy.
But this may just be because race remains "a taboo topic" in Peru, Mr. Manrique says, and some pollsters agree. "Some people have a racial reason [for rejecting Toledo], but they don't admit it," says Guillermo Loli, a director of opinion marketing at Apoyo, a Lima polling agency. "It's not something they feel they can speak of openly." Others also make the point that Toledo would not be Peru's first leader to be a cholo - a usually mixed-race descendant of Peru's Andean Indians. But he would be the first Indian democratically elected; there have been a few cholo dictators in the past.
Other Peruvians express little doubt that the fact Toledo is a cholo is hurting his presidential bid. "What's holding down Toledo more than anything else is that he's a cholo," says Rocio Flores, a painter and art teacher in Lima. "When Peruvians see this short, dark man standing up against tall, white Garcia, a lot of them think, 'I don't want that for my president."
Of course while this may be true in Lima, the opposite is also true among the country's cholo population, where a "just like me" effect bolsters Toledo's support. "We do see people listing on the positive side Toledo's humble origins, the fact he's known economic hardship," says pollster Loli. "People say, 'I feel like he's me.' "
Win or lose, Toledo's run for the presidency is revealing a changing Peru. Unlike Mexico, for example, with its broader assimilation of Indian civilizations - and where likenesses of conquistador Hernan Cortes remain banished - Peru is a country where the elite looks up to an imposed European culture as its model. In Lima a statue of conquistador Francisco Pizarro stands proudly in the main square.
But in April elections, the Indian activist Paulina Arpasi was elected to Congress. She is sticking to her traditional dress - including long braids and a bowler hat - despite the ridicule she has met.
Ms. Arpasi's election is one outcome of a new joining of interests by Peru's Andean indigenous population and the campesinos (small farmers) - two groups that are discovering they are often one and the same. "Before, we thought of Indians as just those tribes that live in the Amazon," says Wilder Sanchez, secretary general of the Confederation of Campesinos of Peru. "But now we are rediscovering an Andean culture that can serve as a guide to a place for us in a new world."
Lima's Manrique says there are several reasons why Peru is behind other Latin countries like Ecuador and Bolivia in developing a solid indigenous movement. In a country of 27 million people, the population is only about 12 percent white, according to the most recent estimates. But the indigenous culture never recovered from a fierce and pyrrhic battle against European domination by warrior Tupac Amaru in 1780, Manrique says. The ensuing slaughter finished off Peruvian Indians' intellectual elite. More recently, he says, the rise in the 1980s of the Andean-based terrorist organization Shining Path left any indigenous movement suspect. Only Shining Path's defeat allowed a sense of Indian pride and collective demands to emerge.
Yet others say it should come as no surprise that two manifestations of Latin America's Indian renaissance are coming from Peru and Mexico.
"As Latin America has democratized over recent years, indigenous people have begun to find their voice," says Robert Pastor, a Latin America specialist at Emory University in Atlanta. "It's not surprising this would happen in Peru and Mexico, two countries of great indigenous civilizations."
One significant aspect of Toledo's presidential bid is that he is claiming the indigenous mantle while using the democratic process to attain national leadership, Mr. Pastor says. Indeed Toledo's strongest card among voters is the central role he played in toppling the "dictatorial democracy" of former president Alberto Fujimori, who fled Peru for Japan last November.
Pastor says the "tragedy" of Mexico's Zapatistas is that they did not stay in Mexico City after their march to "play the democratic game" and negotiate a deal more to their liking on Indian rights. Instead they retreated to their home in Chiapas.
Toledo's approach potentially carries greater rewards for the indigenous, Pastor believes, because it includes them in a national platform rather than emphasizing, like the Zapatistas, a right to be equal but separate. "The peaceful democratic path is less dramatic," he says, "but I think we're seeing it's more effective in the long run."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor