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LIMA, Oct 13 2008 (IPS) - A centre-left Peruvian governor who spent years in prison on terrorism charges, Yehude Simon, has been given the task of heading the new cabinet of Peruvian President Alan García, which has been shaken to its core by a corruption scandal.
García is facing his worst crisis since taking office on Jul. 28, 2006, after the media aired recordings of conversations showing that the state-run oil company Perupetro awarded lucrative concessions to Norway’s Discover Petroleum company, through corrupt middlemen with ties to the governing APRA party.
The new prime minister, Simon, who governed the northern coastal province of Lambayeque since 2002, is a veterinarian of Palestinian and Italian descent. He was elected to Congress in 1985 for the United Left alliance, and in 1991 became a founder of the Patria Libre (Free Fatherland) organisation, which was accused of operating as the political arm of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) guerrilla group.
On Jun. 11, 1992, shortly after the "self-coup" with which then President Alberto Fujimori dissolved parliament and suspended basic civil liberties, the police arrested Simon, who at the time was editor of the magazine "Cambio", considered the MRTA’s mouthpiece.
Simon was accused of "apology for terrorism," and in a trial that violated the most basic legal norms, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. But after spending eight and a half years behind bars, he was pardoned by caretaker president Valentín Paniagua (2000-2001), who succeeded Fujimori (1990-2000) when the latter fled the country and was impeached.
Simon returned to politics, but distanced himself from the radical left and founded the centre-left Peruvian Humanist Party in 2001.
With pragmatic decisions and openness to foreign capital with a focus on development, Simon won popular support and a strong national reputation. In 2006, when he was reelected governor, beating out the APRA candidate once again, he began to be mentioned as a possible presidential candidate for the 2011 elections.
As de facto leader of the country’s 25 governors, who in the last six months have clashed with García over transfers of mining taxes to the provinces, and over the slow, red tape-plagued process for approving public works, Simon has gained a reputation as a negotiator.
When the "La República" newspaper asked him what conditions he set in order to accept the post of prime minister after the entire cabinet was forced to resign on Friday, Simon responded: "I haven’t asked (García) for conditions, I have asked for freedom" to act.
The new prime minister’s top priority will be the fight against corruption – an issue that García had emphasised heavily since July 2007, and which prompted him to set up a National Anticorruption Office (ONA).
But by July 2008, ONA had been dismantled, and García did not mention the question of corruption again until Oct. 5, when former government minister Fernando Rospigliosi revealed on the television news programme Cuarto Poder tape-recorded conservations between a director of Perupetro and people with links to Discover Petroleum.
Another focus of the new cabinet that will be sworn in on Tuesday is the current wave of social protests, including a lengthy strike by public health doctors.
Simon, who said he would negotiate with the sectors in conflict, also confirmed that several key ministers would remain in their posts, including Economy Minister Luis Valdivieso, a former International Monetary Fund official who has drawn criticism for undertaking severe budget cuts, Foreign Minister José García Belaunde and Trade Minister Mercedes Aráoz.
Simon’s background as a leftist drew fire from the legislators loyal to former president Fujimori, who is in prison and facing charges in a number of human rights and corruption cases.
Lawmaker Luisa María Cuculiza called on Simon to "clearly and compellingly condemn terrorism" before being sworn in as prime minister.
Her colleague Martha Moyano said Simon’s "extremist past condemns him, because he headed a publication that celebrated the terrorist, criminal actions of the MRTA."
For one of the country’s most prominent leftist leaders, former congressman and presidential candidate Javier Diez Canseco, the fact that Valdivieso will stay in his post should be interpreted as a sign that "economic policy will not be modified," which he said was "irresponsible on the part of the next prime minister."
Simon announced a few changes. "Investment is good, but social inclusion is needed," he told La República. "And a great deal of dialogue is required, as well as stronger efforts to fight corruption."
"I also plan to put immense importance on agriculture, decentralisation and the strengthening of the provinces," he added.
Another enormous challenge is García’s immense unpopularity. A survey released Monday by the Catholic University’s Institute of Public Opinion found that only 23 percent of respondents support the president.
Simon clarified that his role would not be to "save" APRA. "I have serious discrepancies with the party, but at the same time I am deeply respectful of its people," he said.
According to rumours, Simon’s presence will be offset by ministers from the political right. But questions as to what the new cabinet will look like should be clarified on Tuesday.
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