Martín’s dream: a cleaner Lima

THE narrow streets of San José de Lourdes, on Peru’s border with Ecuador, were jammed on May 10th for a once-in-a-lifetime event. Martín Vizcarra (pictured) was the first president of Peru to visit the sweltering town, which was founded nearly 75 years ago and then, it seems, promptly forgotten. “We are taking a look at the entire country, focusing attention right now on areas that have been abandoned by the state,” he told The Economist in his first interview with a foreign newspaper. “This zone fits that description.”

Schools in San José de Lourdes lack windows and running water. No doctor has visited the health clinic in three years. The poverty rate of around 60% is nearly three times the national average. Cars cross the Chinchipe river on a pulley-drawn platform, sometimes waiting days for passage. The town’s previous mayor is in prison on corruption charges.

Mr Vizcarra’s visit is part of a frenetic travel schedule that he began after his unexpected elevation to the presidency in March. He heads to the countryside at least once a week. In Lima, the capital, he shows up unannounced at schools and hospitals. Part of the point is to show that he is nothing like his predecessor, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who resigned to avoid impeachment in a conflict-of-interest scandal. The former president is urbane, polyglot and out of touch. Mr Vizcarra, an engineer by training, is “provincial and proud of it”, says John Youle, a consultant in Lima.

The new president has two priorities. The first is to restore Peruvians’ faith in government and democracy, which has been weakened by Mr Kuczynski’s scandal and by allegations or charges against four other former presidents. “We need to rebuild trust by showing that public management can be done transparently and honestly,” says Mr Vizcarra. His second goal is to boost economic growth, which is too slow to continue the recent progress Peru has made in reducing poverty. In 2017 GDP growth dropped to 2.5% from 3.9% in the previous year and the poverty rate increased. The government has cut its forecast for growth this year from 4% to 3.6%. With more public and private investment, “we will expand the economy, create jobs and fight poverty,” he promises.

Though keen to show that he understands people’s problems, he does not offer quick and easy solutions for them. In San José de Lourdes he spurned a waiting pickup truck to walk from site to site, cuddled a newborn baby at the clinic and placed a cornerstone for a bridge across the Chinchipe. But to pupils who lobbied for computers at their school he counselled patience. “Before we can think about computers, we have to provide water, electricity [and] bathrooms,” he told them.

His message seemed to be getting through. “It is nice to hear a politician talking about real things and not just making promises,” says Jenny Tello, a teacher. “It will be a big change if he governs like this.”

That will not be easy. The biggest party in congress is Popular Force, led by Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of a former president, Alberto Fujimori, who was jailed for human-rights crimes. Her implacable opposition to Mr Kuczynski helped topple him. The new president must get on better with her. Some well-wishers fear that Mr Vizcarra, a micro-manager with little national experience, will be hamstrung by fujimoristas intent on preventing the institutional reforms he hopes to make. “We are going to talk to all parties and leaders to show Peruvians that the country comes before us,” he says.

On May 2nd congress gave his cabinet a vote of confidence. The government has asked congress for decree powers in six areas, including taxes, political reform, infrastructure and corruption. One proposal is to publish the banking and tax records of any candidate for public office.

A new “public-integrity office” under the prime minister, César Villanueva, will oversee anti-corruption policies. Part of its job will be to implement 100 anti-graft recommendations from a body set up by Mr Kuczynski who, to the chagrin of campaigners, largely ignored them.

To counter the slowdown in economic growth Mr Vizcarra hopes to unblock some $10bn of private investment, much of it in mining projects stalled by farmers and environmental groups. “Peru is a mining country, but we need to do things differently from the past,” he says. That means creating “consensus around advantages and benefits” of projects. Mr Vizcarra can claim to have done this before. As governor of Moquegua, a southern department, from 2011 to 2014, he “knocked mayors’ heads together” to advance the planned Quellaveco copper mine, says Mr Youle.

Mr Vizcarra, who says he will not run for re-election, has just three years to convince voters that a moderate president can clean up government and revive social and economic progress. If he fails, Peru’s sour-minded voters may offer the next chance to someone less committed to pragmatism and democracy.