Elite Perceptions of the US

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The underlying view is, in essence, that non-engagement by the US has proved fruitful for Peru


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The changing and often fickle attitudes of Peruvian opinion-formers are driven by an essentially self-centered world-view which dates back to the country’s pre-Inca and vice-regal times. Moreover, a generational distinction between people over 45 and those younger is another significant factor. The upper and upper-middle sectors - in the older age groups - hold negative views of US political leadership and its ideology, while disenfranchised or lower middle sectors are often still imbued with anti-American views engendered in the thirties and crystallized during the Velazco period. And the lowest sectors of society tend to either have a neutral or a positive attitude.

Younger Peruvians generally have a more favourable outlook since they tend to perceive the US as an attractive destination for graduate study or employment opportunities. But even among them, there are some negative stereotypes centered on allegedly aggressive US foreign policy, its disdain for culture, or its proclivity towards violence and mindless consumption habits.

The upwardly mobile new middle sectors are, decidedly, admirers of the US and the ‘American way of life’ despite its perceived negative aspects. All these perceptions combine as a complex mixture of myth and reality underscored by a general lack of curiosity about a nation that is more image than substance in the local collective sub-conscious.

Peruvian elites have never really been particularly interested in international issues other than those that involve the country’s five immediate neighbours, and contemporary political circles in Peru grant scarce attention to foreign affairs. Their limited attention is focused on current events and it rarely evolves into sustained insights about international trends or foreign policies.

Public opinion about the US is shaped principally by the vast American cultural presence in television, music, film and by the international media. Cable news media - CNN in particular - have exceptional influence since major US newspapers or magazines are rarely accessed as news sources and online versions are similarly ignored.

Perceptions about the US are also usually defined by the current American president, while the secretary of state and other cabinet members and political figures lack recognition or impact in local public opinion. The way the US governs itself with accountability via its tripartite structure (legislative, judicial and executive) is not a familiar topic here. Older Peruvian generations retain certain images, and occasionally biased views, developed during the Cold War, whereas generations born after 1989 have strong opinions on specific US policies such as human rights or environmental questions. However, since their own democratic and pro-market views are relatively recent, grassroots, and inbred rather than imported, they approach US policies on a case-by-case basis, usually without ideological preconceptions.

Peruvian elites have never really been particularly interested in international issues other than those that involve the country’s immediate neighbours

The business sector has a very positive view of the US among both older and younger generations. Peruvians linked to public relations, publicity, marketing computer and communication sectors and financial services also exhibit a favourable view of the US. In contrast, cultural and academic circles respond to generational and ideological compulsions in regard to the US and its specific policies.

Progressive or left-of-centre perspectives, still widespread within Peruvian cultural and academic communities, tend to be critical of US government policies, especially its perceived global overreach and conflict-prone tendencies, although they often admire US core values. Peru’s elite and general public opinion share the view that there is a relative decline in American presence and economic influence in Latin America, and in Peru itself, since the US has redirected its priorities and resources to other regions.

In academic, political and economic-financial circles more attention is given to China’s new role in the region, given its now stronger, more pervasive and sustained involvement in trade and investment. Plus there is no consensus in Peru of any specific American policy regarding Latin America. The general perception is that since the failed FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) negotiations, the US has not carried through a major initiative for the region and US involvement in Latin America is now viewed within the context of inertia and unintended negative consequences of past policies such as the failed embargo on Cuba or the ineffectual ‘war on drugs’.

In short, any new US involvement is judged as issue-oriented, often short-lived, and constrained by limited funding and executive-legislative gridlock. The underlying view is, in essence, that non-engagement by the US has proved fruitful for Peru as it has enjoyed strong economic growth and political stability while America’s political role has receded in the hemisphere since re-directing its efforts to fight extremism in other regions of the world.

Despite certain criticisms, the American experience continues to have a strong and constructive image at all levels, thanks to continued steady migration to the US, the wide support for the ongoing negotiations to waive visa requirements for Peruvian visitors, and widespread sympathy for President Obama’s efforts for migratory reform.

His overtures to Cuba to normalize relations also elicit wide support although none of this is necessarily perceived as a historic undertaking, or a possible suspension of the steady US retreat from Peruvian political spheres. But even these convictions, though positive and manifest, are limited to a very limited circle of policy or opinion-makers.