Election time can be fascinating when in another country. I was in Peru in 2001, right after President Alberto Fujimori fled the country amidst a bribery scandal. A few days before the election of a new president, I flew in to the northern city of Cajamarca just minutes before one of the candidates, Alan Garcia, was to land. There was a good crowd there to greet him and when I stepped off the plane they let out a huge roar and waived their banners because the photographer traveling with me that day, disembarking right behind me, resembled Garcia at a distance. I was really in the middle of the political process, and it was surreal.
I had an altogether different experience last week when I arrived in Lima on the eve of the US election.
On Election Day I drove east about seven hours up and over the mountains and down into the Central Jungle region. I wondered the entire time what was happening back home. We stopped at a restaurant and watched the drama unfold on CNN Español. Reporters in battleground states breathlessly recounted the turnout. At a hotel in the town of La Merced, our destination that evening, people were watching the results instead of football matches. I spoke with my wife on the phone; she said it looked close and that the suspense was killing her. I could not bear being so disconnected from the historic events back home so I decided to turn in, only to wake up later hearing McCain’s voice booming along the tiled hallways. I turned on the TV to see him concede.
The next day I visited several indigenous communities of Ashaninka people. Many were completely cut off from the market economy, and were devising ways of penetrating the tourism industry without sacrificing their culture and way of life.
Politics did not come up much until we visited the agricultural community of Pucharini, which has a small radio station called Radio Arawak run by the village youth. One of the reporters, 18 year old Viviana Gaspar, produces a program called “Echoes of My People.” Viviana recently did a story about a young native woman who had been physically abused, and did not have a home, any clothes or food, and was quite ill. The story helped find the woman some money, and a local clinic treated her for free.
“There is a lot of racism in our communities,” Viviana said, “and people allow it because they don’t know their rights. I want to use the radio to share what I have learned about our rights as people.”
Viviana and the other young reporters were acutely aware of the election in the US. After interviewing Viviana I went in to the booth with the station manager Johnny Paulino, who announced on the radio that they had a visitor at the station from the United States, where there is a new African-American president.
“There is new hope for the United States, and why not for us too?” he said.