Peru’s new president knows leprosy, coups and terrifying escapes
by Ethan Bronner
(c) 2016, Bloomberg
As a boy, he lived with his family in the Peruvian Amazon where his father ran a leper colony, a chimp served Scotch in the evening and the language of the house was French.
When he was 30 and working as a top official of Peru’s central bank, a general carried out a coup and called him in, laid a pistol on the desk and demanded access to the country’s stash of dollars. Unwilling to comply, he was imprisoned but escaped, wading through neck-high water into Ecuador, walking and riding a donkey for three weeks.
Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who just won the closest presidential race in Peru’s history, is known both inside and outside the country but mostly as an urbane financier, not for the surprisingly adventurous life that guided him on this political quest. This is partly because, like the product of an English education that he is, promoting his own biography makes him uncomfortable.
“I hate talking about myself and sounding like a holy Joe,” he said sitting in his Lima dining room one recent afternoon, his poolside patio in fragrant bloom beyond a set of French doors, his grand piano in a nearby room. Across the street is a stunning pre-Incan pyramid, a reminder of the era before the Spanish conquest and of the millions of Peruvians who are not European in origin.
Kuczynski edged past Keiko Fujimori and while a handful of ballot challenges remain, Fujimori conceded defeat on Friday.
Kuczynski says his goal is to lift the poor through job creation in the private sector but wears his sophistication with little attempt to act like the common man. He switches seamlessly from Spanish to English to French, speaking all three impeccably. He talks in an unguarded manner, without consulting documents or aides, and sometimes seems flummoxed by popular culture.
This was evident one Sunday. Two campaign rallies behind him and another set for the evening, Kuczynski was taking lunch at the southern vineyard of a well-off supporter, rows of grapes arrayed on the surrounding hills, glasses of pisco, the local firewater, on the table. It was three weeks before his razor-thin election victory and he was remarkably at ease. A nearby radio blaring Andean music struck him as unnecessary.
“You see,” he said with a laugh as platters of food were passed. “In Peru, you can’t ever have quiet. You always have to have loud music.”
In many ways, Kuczynski is a natural choice for Peru at a time of keen economic challenge. He has been finance minister twice, held senior posts at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and spent years on Wall Street.
Yet at 77, he is not only one of the oldest elected officials in Latin America’s history, he is something of an outsider. Schooled abroad, a classical musician and author of academic texts, Kuczynski is more a man of the world than of the people in a region rife with populism. And Fujimori, with populist roots, portrayed him as an aging elitist serving big business.
Kuczynski was born in Lima to Maxime Kuczynski and Madeleine Godard in 1938. Maxime was a Berlin-born half-Jewish physician and researcher of tropical diseases, and Madeleine was a French Protestant literary scholar and cousin to the New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. The family moved to Iquitos, a small town deep in the Amazon, where Maxime is widely credited with having helped eliminate leprosy in Peru.
After a 1948 military coup, Maxime was imprisoned for a year, a time of such strain for Madeleine that when he was released, she took Pedro Pablo and younger brother Michael (later a Cambridge University economist) to Switzerland for a year. The boys finished at an English boarding school and Pedro Pablo spent a year at the Royal Academy of Music in London studying flute and piano before attending Oxford and then Princeton University.
He worked at the World Bank and returned to Peru as a deputy director of the central bank. That’s when the coup and his wild escape occurred. He flew to Washington, got hired at the IMF, and through the diplomatic immunity granted by that status, was able to fly his American wife and children, then under house arrest, out to Washington. (He’d divorce years later and marry another American, Nancy Lange, the cousin of actress Jessica Lange.)
Kuczynski returned to the World Bank, where then-President Robert McNamara told him to learn finance on Wall Street. He went to Kuhn Loeb & Co., then First Boston Corp., and Halco Mining Inc., a bauxite consortium, before running his own private-equity firm. In between, he served as Peru’s minister of mines. He returned to his homeland for good in the 2000s and set up a nonprofit to build water supplies for poor communities. His first presidential bid was in 2011. He failed to get past the first round.
Tall, slender and fair-skinned, Kuczynski is viewed by friends as self-disciplined and self-sufficient, rising early, practicing music, going to the gym. The youngest of his four children has turned 18 and begins university shortly.
Still, as he faces a deeply challenging five-year term stewarding a country where 10 million don’t have running water, corruption is rife, cocaine production unabated and crime rising steeply, one wonders what drives him to the presidency now.
Ricardo Luna, a lifelong friend who’s served as ambassador to the U.K. and the U.S., suggested this: “He’s not doing this to polish his resume. He’s a pragmatist and he sees stuff he knows he can get done.”
At his Lima dining room table, putting off questions about why he doesn’t talk more about himself, Kuczynski offers an analysis that has a similar ring. “I just like to get stuff done.”