Peru Seeks the Meaning Behind the Politics of Craziness
By Micaela Bullard
The beginning of every third year prompts a universal groan of despair from the people of Peru; electoral times have befallen them once more. The promise of democratic change is a sorry business to us Peruvians, since it revives an assortment of political specters: the ghosts of catfights past, the ghosts of tabloids present, and of course, the ghosts of billboards yet to come.
Up to six months before Election Day, political propaganda creeps over the streets of Lima like some tacky form of colorful weed. The radioactively bright billboards balance on wooden stilts, plastic sheeting perforated to stop both the wind from tipping them over and the homeless from fashioning them into clothing. The clearly photoshopped portraits of candidates are the centerpiece, their grimacing smiles accompanying pixelated party logos and faded campaign promises. These are the first symptoms of incoming electoral madness, and when the billboards manifest, Peruvians know to take their popcorn and their Kleenex and prepare themselves for the spectacle.
The 2014 municipal election saw the rise of a most curious billboard strategy. It occurred in the district of San Isidro, the wealthiest of the city, where semi-reliable Internet and the presence of the occasional sports car have earned the area the dubious reputation of “the Upper East Side of Lima”. One candidate for mayor, Manuel Velarde Dellepiane, a prestigious lawyer and representative of the historical Partido Popular Cristiano, chose to build his entire campaign strategy upon his unenviably luscious, exceptionally bushy and slightly frightening unibrow.
The Eyebrow featured in every single Velarde billboard, the protagonist of perhaps a thousand pieces of political propaganda, perched in cartoon-form aloft promises of street security and more skate parks. Velarde’s campaign mottos employed similarly prickly statements: “Between eyebrow and eyebrow there is modernity,” “Between eyebrow and eyebrow efficiency rules,” “No corruption takes place between eyebrow and eyebrow.” For at least four months, The Eyebrow was everywhere, surveying the daily activities of the inhabitants of San Isidro, subconsciously growing on the voting preferences of citizens. It was like something out of Nineteen Eighty-Four: Big Browther is Watching You.
Velarde’s campaign strategy might elicit surprise amongst foreign observers of the municipal elections, but to Peruvians, the Adoration of the Unibrow is just one more example in a painfully long list of electoral absurdities. In the last twenty years, Peruvian candidates have ridden tractors around the streets of Lima, commissioned dancing guinea pigs as their campaign symbols, pronounced themselves heirs to the legacy of the Incas and even proclaimed the luck-bringing properties of their genitals. One of Velarde’s main competitors in the run for the post of mayor was Madeleine Osterling, Lima’s version of New York’s Park Avenue Lady, who promised to close the most emblematic public school in San Isidro in order to quell the district’s invasion by impoverished (middle-class) children. The third competitor was father to a celebrated actor who had featured in a Colombian soap-opera rendition of El Zorro. Some of his own billboards showed him disguised in the black cape and hat of the Californian hero, seemingly ready to brand voters with the Z of “Zan Isidro”.
The frenzy over facial hair, however, is not endemic to Peru. Symbolic representations of candidates are surely a universal phenomenon, and their power to convey emotional responses and positive associations in the minds of voters has been exploited ever since Julius Caesar minted his face on one side of the denarius and an eagle on the other. The United States alone has many examples. Just like Velarde had his eyebrow, Theodore Roosevelt had his (equally luscious) moustache, FDR his corncob pipe and Obama his round logo of rising-sun-and-incoming-change-for-America. With their ability to convey the likable and transmit the familiar, few would doubt the power of political symbols in raising the eyebrows of voters.
However, there seems to be a vital difference between American symbols and Peruvian ones. Teddy Roosevelt’s moustache embodied chivalrous masculinity, FDR’s pipe symbolized paternal care, and Obama’s sun promised pioneering reform; all of these were values respected and sought after by their voters. There is nothing redeemable in Velarde’s unibrow. To the contrary, it obviously highlights a personal flaw, one that would seem unlikely to fulfill its promises of modernity, efficiency, and honesty. There is something oddly irrational about their electoral symbols that makes Peruvians pull their hair, look up to the heavens, and ask: Why us? Why did we get The Unibrow?
The answer that any political scientist will give is straightforward: Peruvians brought The Eyebrow upon themselves. They made voting compulsory, giving birth to countless generations of uninformed voters. They chose a particular party system—preferential and proportional voting—that rewards the opportunistic rise of individuals over the firm continuation of political ideology. The result is that there are no lasting parties in Peru. Instead, the struggle of candidates is not to convince their voters of valid policy proposals but to out-crazy their opponents with daring showcases of political bravado, so that policymakers acquire the bold characteristics of bullfighters, Rock music idols and (most Peruvians would agree), circus clowns. Electoral times become frenzied times, hence explaining the final showdown between The Eyebrow, El Zorro and Miss San Isidro 2014.
Although there is a ringing truth behind the words of Nobel laureate and political disapointee Mario Vargas Llosa, who accused Peruvians of voting “for images…without major nexus to reason”, such cynical interpretations forget an empirical reality: Peruvians listen to the craziness, and that year, they voted for The Eyebrow.
Final poll results of San Isidro’s municipal election proclaimed Manuel Velarde Dellepiane mayor of the district. In the celebratory meeting, Velarde danced in exultant joy next to the leaders of his party, with a huge polystyrene model of The Eyebrow looming over the stage.
Amidst the intense skepticism of Peruvian voters, who observe the circus with hidden shame, overt hilarity and a national disposition to self-mockery, it is common to brush-off the success of bizarre political symbols under excuses of ignorance and underdevelopment, Peru’s flaws par excellence. One might, for example, be quick to judge the Cult of the Eyebrow as a consequence of Velarde’s deficient political preparation. Yet this conclusion could not be farther from the truth. Political analyzers widely agreed that Velarde, in spite of his debatable sense for the aesthetic, was the best-prepared man for the job. He has master’s degrees in law from the University of Pennsylvania and King’s College London, and he has held a number of high-ranking policymaking jobs within the Peruvian government. Politicians as prepared as Velarde are rare animals in Peru. Thus, his embrace of symbolic irrationality has a lot to say about the political sanity of what may seem, at first glance, to be politically insane.
The truth is, bizarre electoral symbols draw the attention of even the most capable Peruvian politicians. The candidate who drove the tractor around was dean of one of the nation’s most respected public universities. The one with lucky genitals, who is know Peru’s current president, was a Princeton-trained economist. The answer as to why Velarde and his educated kin turn to the irrational is that, as a legacy of political advisors has figured out through close examination of Peruvian society, it may be a recipe for triumph. Peruvians are aggressively prone to self-mockery, a result of the many-times disappointing reality of their country (when the choice is between laughing and crying, most will choose the former). This makes candidates who revel in their own flaws attractive to voters. The mechanism of democracy also means that educated politicians have to convince the sadly uneducated majority, those who are likely to be more interested in the promises of The Eyebrow than in its ability to fulfill them. Politicians who know how to implement effective policies understand the ineffectiveness of the electoral system, and they are aware that their competition is a plethora of untrained opportunists who will snatch the prize through jokes if they just sit down to discuss the benefits of free market. Velarde was just one more individual following in the tradition. You want to provide the bread? Then become the circus.
What remains to be determined is whether the politics of craziness will perpetuate their grasp on Peru. In spite of aggressive cynicism, Peruvians continue to secretly hope that, just as Americans quit the corncob pipe and shaved off the moustache, Peru will grab hold of the political tweezers and pluck off The Eyebrow. Only time will tell whether the fact that there is a method to the madness might be a signal of future change.
Micaela Bullard ‘18 is a Latin American Studies and Global Affairs double major. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org