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PERU: Priest on Campaign Trail Defrocked

Ángel Páez

LIMA, Mar 18 2010 (IPS) - A priest who is touring the country in his bid to run for president next year, at the head of a leftist movement, was indefinitely suspended by the Catholic Church for getting involved in politics.

Marco Arana on campaign.  Credit: Courtesy of La República

Marco Arana on campaign. Credit: Courtesy of La República

Banned from exercising any priestly functions, Marco Arana has continued campaigning as the leader of the Land and Freedom Movement (MTL), and is seeking alliances with other left-wing groups, with a view to the October 2010 municipal and regional elections and the April 2011 legislative and presidential vote.

Arana was suspended in February by the diocese of the highlands region of Cajamarca in northwest Peru on the grounds that his political activity was incompatible with the priesthood.

His case brings to mind the 2007 suspension of former Paraguayan Bishop Fernando Lugo after he announced he would run for president of that country. But when he was elected president, the pope accepted his request to be granted layman’s status.

The left has performed poorly in elections over the past two decades in Peru, largely because of its lack of unity. In the April 2006 elections, progressive movements fielded more than 20 different candidates, and the one who took the most votes was Susana Villarán of the Concertación Descentralista party, who garnered just 0.62 percent of the vote.

None of the leftist groups won a single seat in the 130-member Congress.

However, a political outsider, retired army officer Ollanta Humala, took the largest number of votes in the first round of the presidential elections that year, running on a platform of left-wing nationalism and indigenous rights.

But he was defeated in the runoff by current President Alan García, who shifted from centre-left to centre-right in his second term, after governing from 1985 to 1990.

There was an attempt to forge an alliance between the MTL, founded 13 months ago, and Humala’s Peruvian Nationalist Party (PNP), but the initiative did not pan out.

The suspended priest told IPS he is now negotiating an electoral alliance with Villarán, a human rights activist with a long history of involvement in leftist causes. He said that if it works out, he will back her candidacy for mayor of Lima.

Arana is an environmental activist who made a name for himself – he was on Time magazine’s Heroes of the Environment 2009 list, published in September – working with the poor in the most impoverished parts of the rugged Andean region of Cajamarca over the last 20 years, and defending their rights from mining companies operating there.

He also won the top Peruvian human rights prize in 2004, awarded by the National Coordinator of Human Rights, an umbrella group of rights organisations.

Cajamarca is one of the most gold-rich areas in this South American country, where mining is one of the engines of the economy.

The activist, who has a university degree in social conflict resolution, heads GRUFIDES, a human rights, development and environmental organisation that works with local communities impacted by mining.

Besides health concerns, another aspect of disputes with mining companies is water use. According to the national water authority, ANA, there were 244 conflicts over water up to November 2009, including at least 42 in Cajamarca and the neighbouring region of Áncash, Arana’s zone of influence.

“I asked for permission from the bishop of Cajamarca, Monsignor José Carmelo Martínez, in case Land and Freedom chose me as its candidate in the April congress,” Arana said in an interview with IPS.

As he is the movement’s leader, his election as the MTL’s presidential candidate is considered a given.

But Martínez set certain conditions, urging him, for example, to apologise to Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani “for public discrepancies over my participation in politics, and his as well,” Arana said.

Cipriani, who was made a cardinal in 2001, is a member of the ultra-conservative Catholic group Opus Dei, is a long-time opponent of human rights activists and had close ties to the corrupt regime of Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000).

Defenders of human rights have questioned the role he played as bishop of the southern highlands region of Ayacucho, the epicenter of the 1980-2000 civil war between left-wing guerrillas and government forces.

A number of public remarks by Cipriani, the archbishop of Lima, have triggered controversy. Many of these statements have focused on lashing out at human rights groups.

Arana said “I had no reason to apologise to Cipriani. Both he and I talk about politics.

“My position is clearly identified with the rights of local communities and with the victims of the prevailing economic policies, while cardinal Cipriani is a staunch defender of the economic model,” said the suspended priest.

The activist, like the traditional left, is critical of the neoliberal economic policies followed by Fujimori and his successors.

“Our discrepancies were interpreted as an insult on my part,” said Arana, who has been dubbed the “red priest” by the conservative press and whose movement is now active in seven of Peru’s 24 regions.

“The possibility of a national alliance with the Nationalist Party is not on the cards,” Arana said, adding that he had turned down an offer to be Humala’s vice presidential running-mate in next year’s elections.

Legislator Daniel Abugattás, spokesman for the PNP, confirmed that it was Arana who rejected the alliance.

“When the leaders of the Nationalist party proposed the alliance, father Arana immediately froze the possibility of future talks,” Abugattás told IPS.

Above and beyond that episode, “we believe the creation of a front of progressive forces against the neoliberal model is indispensable. No one on their own can bring about the radical changes that the country needs. A broad front is definitely necessary,” he added.

A recent opinion poll showed Humala in fourth place, and Arana in ninth place, in the list of possible presidential candidates.

Rolando Breña, secretary general of the Peruvian Communist Party-Red Fatherland, which forms part of the New Left Movement (MNI), said “father Arana’s decision further divides the Peruvian left.

“The left is suffering from fragmentation and has failed to achieve unity. Today more than ever, legitimately constituted leftist movements must come together, despite our obvious discrepancies,” said the MNI leader, who is negotiating an agreement to back Humala.

Arana, meanwhile, said his suspension from the priesthood “does not affect Land and Freedom’s political project; on the contrary it has drawn the country’s attention to a movement that is seeking democracy while defending human and ecological rights.”

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