Peru presidential contender is son of Polish Jews who fled Nazis

Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, labeled a ‘gringo’ in South American country, is facing off against daughter of disgraced ex-president serving time for corruption

Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, the son of Polish Jews who fled Nazi Germany, is running for president of Peru, April 2016. (CC BY SA, Cestrada/Wikimedia)
Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, the son of Polish Jews who fled Nazi Germany, is running for president of Peru, April 2016. (CC BY SA, Cestrada/Wikimedia)

LIMA — One of Peru’s leading presidential contenders in the upcoming race is the son of Polish Jews who fled Europe after the Nazis came to power.

Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a former prime minister, is positioning himself to become Peru’s next president after coming from behind in the polls to finish runner-up in the first round of voting. He’ll face Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of disgraced former President Alberto Fujimori, in a June 5 runoff vote.

Kuczynski’s father was a renowned pathologist and one of Peru’s leading public health administrators, pioneering the treatment of leprosy in Peru. He served in the German army during World War I, fleeing Berlin in 1933 because his family was Jewish.

Kuczynski, or PPK as he is widely known, was born in Peru but was educated abroad, beginning his career at the World Bank as an economist before coming back to serve as deputy manager of the Peruvian Central Bank. His technocrat’s career was cut short in 1968, when he lost his job during a military coup. He spent much of the next three decades in the United States working first at the World Bank and then for First Boston International, later acquired by Credit Suisse, and on the boards of several companies and private equity firms.

Maxime Hans Kuczynski, the father of Peru's Pedro Kuczynski, who is running for president on June 5 2016. (CC BY SA, Wikimedia)
Maxime Hans Kuczynski, the father of Peru’s Pedro Kuczynski, who is running for president on June 5 2016. (CC BY SA, Wikimedia)

He returned to Peru following Fujimori’s resignation in 2000 and went on to serve twice as finance minister as well as Cabinet chief under former President Alejandro Toledo.

Comedians in Peru ridicule his American accent and his longstanding ties to Wall Street anger some in an impoverished nation increasingly hostile toward foreign mining companies. But Kuczynski seems to be embracing the foreigner label. A campaign slogan proudly proclaims that he’s “Gringo on the Outside, Cholo on the Inside,” a term referring to the indigenous ancestry of most Peruvians. At rallies, he entertains crowds by playing flute renditions of Andean classics.

While Fujimori is seen as the front-runner after almost doubling Kuczynski’s vote tally, the race is expected to be competitive. One poll, taken before Sunday’s balloting, even gave Kuczynski a slight edge as Peruvians fear a return of authoritarian rule with Fujimori, whose father is serving a 25-year sentence for corruption and sanctioning death squads during the fight against Maoist-inspired rebels.

It’s a dramatic turnaround for someone who until a few years ago was contemplating a quiet retirement in the United States.

Friends say that Kuczynski began to think seriously about running for president after creating a nonprofit organization, Agua Limpia, in 2007 to deliver drinking water to impoverished areas of Peru. There he saw up close the lack of managerial skills in Peru’s public sector and decided he could make a difference, said Carlos Rojas, CEO of Andino Asset Management, a Lima-based brokerage.

“He’s not someone who as a boy dreamed one day of becoming president,” said Rojas, who served with Kuczynski on the board of a fishing company.

In 2011, he shocked much of the political establishment by finishing a strong third in that year’s presidential election.

At the time, he threw his support behind Keiko Fujimori to prevent the election of Ollanta Humala, an ally of socialist Venezuela who once led an army uprising. But after being elected, Humala governed with the same pro-business framework of his predecessors and Kuczynski never had to execute what, at the time, he told a journalist was his “escape plan” of retiring on a farm in the US.

“No question he could have a cushy life if he stayed out of politics,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, who lived in Peru in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “But he got the bug, especially after last election, when he exceeded expectations. It’s heady stuff.”

His business dealings have drawn controversy. Leftists accused him of a conflict of interest when, as Cabinet chief in 2005, he pushed through regulatory changes that allowed Dallas-based Hunt Oil, a firm he previously advised, to export large quantities of natural gas to Mexico over the objection of local communities.

“I don’t believe in his integrity if while governing he’ll be promoting foreign direct investment,” said Cesar Hildebrandt, one of Peru’s most-influential columnists.

He’s also been scolded for having an American passport, and under pressure renounced his US citizenship last year. His first wife was the daughter of a US Congressman and his current spouse, Nancy Lange, is a relative of Hollywood actress Jessica Lange. Fujimori’s husband, who she met while studying abroad, is also American, so Peru’s next first spouse will be an American no matter who wins June’s runoff vote.

But even allies recognize his popular appeal is limited, especially against Keiko Fujimori’s well-oiled ground game, which handed her victory in 16 of Peru’s 24 electoral districts. Kuczynski prevailed in just one.

While the polarizing legacy of Alberto Fujimori’s 1990-2000 government is likely to dominate the campaign — almost half of Peruvians say they’ll never vote for anyone associated with the former strongman — picking up the anti-Fujimori votes won’t be automatic.

The third-place finisher, leftist Veronika Mendoza, hasn’t endorsed either candidate, reflecting the view that Kuczynski is just a more-democratic promoter of the free-market policies blamed for rising tensions in communities dominated by foreign mining projects.

At 77, Kuczynski would also be Peru’s oldest president. Some rivals question his health, but his doggedness in coming back from under 7 percent in the polls would seem to support his oft-repeated claim he remains vital and young at heart.

“My aunts lived until they were 95, so I figure I’ve got like 20 years left,” he said at a campaign stop in late March.

“But I won’t spend 10 years in office,” he added in a not-so subtle dig at his opponent’s democratic credentials. “I’ll govern only five to achieve our country’s development.”

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