Venezuelans have a president who supports peasant land grabs, gives Cuba free oil, and makes dirty jokes about the US secretary of State on national TV. Bolivia recently elected a former llama herder who wears a woolly sweater to formal diplomatic functions and is dedicated to stopping the US eradication of coca, the leaf from which cocaine is made.
But if Peru's presidential front-runner Ollanta Humala - a retired Army officer with no governing experience - emerges victorious after Sunday's vote, he soon may give Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Bolivia's Evo Morales a run for their money as the South American leader most worrying to Washington.
"He falls in the same league," says Dennis Jett, former US ambassador to Peru from 1996 to 1999. "He is just as wacky as Chávez and Morales, and perhaps more unpredictable, because, basically, his only experience is an an attempted coup d'état and as a [alleged] human rights abuser."
Until a few months ago, Humala was known mainly for having led a failed military uprising against former president Alberto Fujimori in 2000 - and for allegations that he ordered the torture and killing of suspected leftist guerrilla sympathizers when he commanded a jungle counterinsurgency base in 1992. Humala denies the charges, and an investigation is ongoing. But many once considered him too controversial to be elected.
Yet Humala's support has grown to 32 percent, according to a poll released Sunday by the independent polling firm Apoyo - putting him ahead of all 19 other contenders.
Humala is followed, with 26 percent of voters' support, by Lourdes Flores a conservative, pro-business former congresswoman. Alan Garcia, a former president whose 1985-90 administration left the country in shambles, trails Ms. Flores by three points. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, a run-off will take place next month.
A separate poll released Thursday by the independent CPI polling firm indicates that Flores has gained ground on Humala to statistically tie for the lead. But in another poll conducted this week (yet to be released), Apoyo says the results of the poll it released Sunday have not changed. Apoyo is considered the most reliable of Peru's pollsters.
"Humala looks more unstoppable by the minute, whether in the first or second round," says Alvaro Vargas Llosa, a Latin America expert and senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a public policy think tank based in Oakland, Calif. "In fact, the polls are probably underestimating his overall support because of the technical difficulties of measuring the rural vote."
At rallies, Humala likes to tell a joke about a candidate who promises impoverished voters he will build a school, a hospital, and a bridge if elected. When the candidate is told that no river runs through the region, he promises to build one of those, too. "I do not make empty promises," Humala is fond of saying. "But I have plans."
Many of those plans include renegotiating contracts and hiking taxes for foreign-owned oil and mining companies, just as Chávez and Morales are doing. Peru is the world's third largest copper producer and last year overtook Russia to become the fifth biggest gold miner.
Humala also wants to make changes to the free trade agreement with the US that Peru signed in December, and plans to establish protections against cheap imports from China, which, he says, are wrecking industry here.
But his positions on trade are not all that worry his detractors. His vows to clamp down on crime and corruption play well, but his admiration for Gen. Juan Velasco, the left-wing military dictator who ruled Peru with a heavy hand from 1968 to 1975 gives some voters pause. And his promise to end US-sponsored coca- eradication programs, much as Morales has begun to do in Bolivia alarms Washington, which has spent hundreds of millions of dollars combating narcotraffiking in Peru, the world's second-biggest coca-leaf provider.
Also, many voters here question various positions staked by family members who Humala has distanced himself from, but rarely denounced. Humala's father, Isaac, an ultranationalist who founded a movement based on the superiority of the Indian race over Spanish descendents, has called for the release of jailed leaders of Shining Path, the Maoist guerrilla group that terrorized Peru throughout the 1980s and '90s. His mother, Helena, has suggested that homosexuals be shot so "there is not so much immorality in the streets." Humala's younger brother Antauro is in jail for leading a failed military uprising against President Alejandro Toledo last year in which four policemen were killed.
So, what is the essence of Humala's appeal?He is, many will say simply, "one of us - an outsider." It's the ultimate compliment in a country where frustration with traditional politicians has made being an "insider" synonymous with elitism, antipathy, and even corruption.
Peru's most respected and well-known novelist Mario Vargas Llosa lost presidential elections in 1990 to Alberto Fujimori, a son of Japanese immigrants and a little-known dean of an agricultural university in Lima. In 1995, Fujimori beat UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar by managing to cast himself as an "outsider" again, even after five years in office. Then, in 2001, Toledo, a former shoeshine boy who became World Bank consultant, was elected to the top job with no governing experience.
Despite the fact that Humala spent his youth in a middle-class Lima suburb, he nonetheless successfully cultivated the "anti-system," stance and managed to paint his political inexperience as an asset.
Humala's friendship with Venezuelan President Chávez, who has publicly endorsed Humala's candidacy, also helps his image as an anti-establishment figure. Chávez has called Humala the "voice of Peru's downtrodden," and described Mrs. Flores as "the candidate of Peru's oligarchy."
At a rally Wednesday night in downtown Lima, photocopy shop worker Edgardo Oliveres, admits he is "not really sure about who Humala is, or what he will do." Nonetheless, Mr. Oliveres says he is sure Humala is the best option. "At least with Humala, as we don't know him, there is a chance he will surprise us."