Patrick J. McDonnell
Los Angeles Times
August 21, 2007
The Venezuelan's image appears on tuna cans along with criticism of the Lima government's response to the temblor.
Lima, Peru -- The appearance of donated cans of tuna with labels containing the image of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and a condemnation of the Peruvian government as "heartless" caused a political storm here Monday in the midst of an already controversial earthquake relief effort.
"One has to ask who is behind this," President Alan Garcia said after a Lima newspaper reported that the polemical tins were being distributed in the quake-ravaged region south of the capital. "This is not the moment to take advantage of the circumstances to make electoral propaganda."
The Venezuelan ambassador to Peru denied his government was to blame and said the whole affair was probably part of a dirty-tricks campaign to discredit the fiery socialist leader. "This is a damaging manipulation, a vile manipulation because Venezuela has brought humanitarian aid, not party politics," Ambassador Jose Armando Laguna told CPN Radio in Lima. "If they want, they can go and open all the bags that [Venezuela] brought and verify there is no political propaganda."
Venezuela and other Latin American nations have shipped tons of food, medical supplies and other relief to Peru, where Wednesday's quake left more than 500 dead and tens of thousands homeless. Garcia publicly thanked Chavez despite their well-known mutual antipathy.
There was no indication how many cans of the tuna had been handed out.
The tuna-can caper was first reported in the right-wing Lima daily Expreso, which has an anti-Chavez editorial line. And the heated exchange reflects what some analysts view as a division of South America into pro-Chavez and anti-Chavez camps. Peru's Garcia, a strong ally of Washington, is at the forefront of a U.S.-backed bloc cool to the Venezuelan leader.
Garcia was elected president last year in a runoff against Ollanta Humala, a former army officer whom Garcia repeatedly branded a Chavez lackey.
During the campaign, Garcia accused Chavez of interference in Peru's affairs, and the two exchanged a round of nasty insults. The two presidents have since reconciled to some extent, but Garcia has remained extremely wary of Chavez.
Humala remains a political force, especially in the impoverished Andean highlands.
Humala's image appeared alongside Chavez's on the tuna tins. The labels also bore the logo of Humala's Nationalist Party.
There was no immediate reaction from Humala. But a Nationalist Party spokesman, Carlos Tapia, emphatically denied on Peruvian radio that Humala or Chavez had done anything fishy. He blamed a "dark hand," possibly the government itself looking to deflect criticism of its reaction to the disaster.
The labels' text acclaimed the "solidarity" of Chavez and Humala with quake victims, while bemoaning the "looting, road blockages, desperation and chaos" in Peru, according to Expreso, which published a photo of a can and the text of a label.
"The Peruvian government acts in an inefficient, slow and heartless manner, notwithstanding the pain of the victims, leaving them to the mercy of hunger, thirst and delinquency," the label said, according to the newspaper.
The Garcia government has come under fire at home for what critics call a slow and chaotic distribution of earthquake relief aid, especially in rural areas.
Cabinet chief Jorge del Castillo has acknowledged shortcomings but blamed the problem on the poor state of the region's roads, many of which were damaged in the magnitude 8 temblor.
Garcia has labeled the criticism "exaggerated" and vowed that no Peruvian would "die of hunger or thirst" because of a lack of aid.
Thousands still remain without shelter, running water and electricity in the vast swath of Peru where the quake caused damage. The government has posted hundreds of extra police officers and troops in what officials have called a successful effort to reduce looting and highway robbery.
Andrés D'Alessandro of The Times' Buenos Aires Bureau contributed to this report.