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New Peru president: The poor are my priority

LIMA (AP) ― Ollanta Humala, the leftist military man who won Peru’s presidency after abandoning a radical platform, promised in his inaugural address Thursday to make his priority the one in three Peruvians still mired in poverty.

The 49-year-old former army lieutenant colonel charted a plan for spreading the wealth from Peru’s mineral boom beyond Lima, where it has been concentrated among a small elite, to long-neglected hinterlands.

“Peru’s peasants and the poor in the countryside in general will be the priority,” Humala said in remarks before a newly installed Congress and dignitaries who included 11 presidents, almost all from South America.
Peru’s new President Ollanta Humala after delivering his first address to the nation during his swearing-in ceremony at the Congress in Lima on Thursday. (AFP-Yonhap News)
Peru’s new President Ollanta Humala after delivering his first address to the nation during his swearing-in ceremony at the Congress in Lima on Thursday. (AFP-Yonhap News)

He quoted South Africa’s anti-apartheid hero and former president, Nelson Mandela, in arguing there can be no democracy where misery and “social asymmetry” persist.

Humala’s will be a daunting juggling act: He also signaled his intention to maintain the business status quo and honor all international pacts, including a raft of free-trade agreements enacted by his predecessors.

To reassure foreign investors, Humala retained the incumbent central bank chief, Julio Velarde, and named as finance minister Luis Miguel Castilla, a deputy finance minister for the past year and a half in the outgoing government of President Alan Garcia.

The Cabinet is dominated by moderate technocrats but also includes, as culture minister, the renowned singer Susana Baca. She is Peru’s first black Cabinet member.

Humala didn’t explain how he planned to pay for the generous social programs he catalogued Thursday, most of which he promised during the campaign, though he has said he intends to seek taxes on windfall mining profits.

The pledges include modest old-age pensions for Peruvians at age 65, beginning with the neediest; raising the minimum monthly wage to $270 by next year; free pre-schools in Peru’s poorest districts, college scholarships for top-performing needy students and building hospitals in 50 cities where they’re lacking.

The president also has promised to invest in public transportation in the traffic-choked capital of Lima; to expand highways and railways; to rebuild Peru’s merchant marine and to re-establish a national airline. Aeroperu went bankrupt in 1999.

He also said he would dedicate more natural gas from the Camisea field for domestic use rather than export, and has promised to lower natural gas prices, though he did not mention a target price.

Humala won’t have an easy time in Congress, where his party has just 47 of 130 seats and will have to depend on lawmakers from the Peru Posible party of former President Alejandro Toledo for a majority.

The main opposition in Congress comes from the Fujimori camp, the second-biggest voting bloc. Humala narrowly defeated Keiko Fujimori, daughter of imprisoned former President Alberto Fujimori, in a June 5 runoff.