By Nick Caitor, LAB

Susana Villarán was elected as the first woman mayor of the Peruvian capital after a hard-fought campaign at the end of 2010. She talked to LAB’s Nick Caistor after nine months in office.

Nick Caistor: You took over as mayor in January 2011. What are the priorities for your four years in power?

susana_villaran2Susana VillaránSusana Villarán: First of all, mobility and transportation. We have a chaos here in Lima for many years, particularly since the ’90s, when the Fujimori government opened the markets and introduced the little buses or ‘micros’. This was a terrible decision for our city, because if you live for instance in Curitiba or Bogotá or Medellín they have a very different model of transportation to Lima. We went backwards, and we need to put things in order. It involves a transport network first of all, second a different kind of bus – the bus ‘patron’, a different kind of fuel –and one ticket for the train, the bus. That is the first part of my government.

The second is to bring more security to the communities. With the central government we are involved in a very important policy of citizen and community services. Lima has a huge problem of insecurity, but it is not violent like Caracas or San Salvador, Tegucigalpa or Guatemala City. We have robberies, little things that make people feel our city is very insecure, we all feel insecure, but we can deal with this through a policy focussed on the community. Focussed on young people, so we are working with the youth in the communities, doing social work.

NC: I read that of Lima’s eight million inhabitants, 40% or some three million said they had been the victim of a crime in the past year…

SV: Yes, three million people or 43% have been the subject of some kind of robbery, on the streets or at home. Those are the problems. Much more than Santiago or Buenos Aires, and we don’t feel safe. But Lima is not a violent city, so we are in time, and it is very important to know that. We need to focus on the root causes of this, and that is a problem of a lack of authority presence on the streets, impunity around these little crimes, and many other things. We need to work with young people that are the victims and perpetrators of these crimes.

The third priority is that we have some structural projects for our city, urban projects. Lima needs to turn its view to our marvellous Pacific Ocean and to our River Rimac. We are working on those areas of our city to recover all our coast- 14 kilometres of it, to recover our river, and to integrate the new Limas with the centre of the downtown. Also the restoration of the barqoue and millenarian Lima.

NC: I think there are 42 mayors in the boroughs of Lima. How can you work with 42 different people, when none are from your own political party?

SV: We do not have a mayor in any of those communities. So we are working with what we call a ‘commonwealth’ of communities: six, seven or eight of them in one territory- the south, the north, the east parts of Lima. This is a very new way of working and organising the government of our different territories. It is very alive, they are co-ordinating with me over transportation, security, some urban developments, and with particular projects. In the south for instance, how to use desalinated water from the sea, and many other projects.

NC: Lima, despite its size and the fact that it has 40% of GDP depends for a third of its funds on the central government. So how are your relations with the Ollanta Humala administration?

SV: We have a very good relation with the new government. We are starting to make agreements, because they have just come into office, two months is a little time to develop big projects between the central government and Lima, but Lima is the territory in which the central government is located, so they need to invest in Lima. Not only to transfer a third of Lima’s budget, which is traditional, but we are going to work together in the centre of Lima. That is a shared project with the central government. We will also work together on the housing policy for the peripheries of Lima.

We also have many friends in his government. We come from the same Left movements. In the second part of his political campaign, Ollanta Humala opened the doors of his political party to other expressions of the left – many of the  ministers are friends of our Lima government.

NC: You spoke of housing policy – is migration to Lima from the rest of the country still a big problem?

SV: A third of Peru lives in Lima, but migration from the highlands and the Amazon areas is not really a problem any more. We have an opportunity when it comes to the city population. What we call a demographic bonus. We are still a young population: we will have a young population for the next 15 years, so we have a great opportunity to invest in childhood and youth. Lima needs to do that, together with the central government of course, particularly in education and the quality of education. Perhaps this is the most important challenge for a city like Lima. We have improved in many fields: we have invested in infrastructure, we have modernisation but not modernity, because we don’t have a modern city in terms of building citizens. That’s the difference we need to make, and we do that through education.

NC: It seems almost a tradition in Peru that as soon as someone is elected, people turn against them, and I think this has happened with you and your administration. You won the election, but now people are full of criticisms. Why do you think this is?

SV: For many reasons. I think that one is that I offered many things that are difficult to do. It’s very hard to give more perception of security in houses and neighbourhoods.

Second, to put order into the transportation of Lima. That’s something that requires a lot of decision-making with other actors. So it takes a long time, but people need to see results immediately. So I can understand people’s impatience.

It is true also that there is a campaign by some conservative sectors against me, and they have medias. They say ‘this lady is Lady Vaga’ she’s doing nothing for you, and if you repeat and repeat that and don’t see the traditional mayor wearing a helmet breaking, up roads etc. I’m not this, I’m looking for other kinds of reform in the city, but I can understand their position. It’s not easy to deal with, but I need to do so, and not be concerned with my 20-26% approval rating. For a lot of politicians it must be a nightmare, for me it’s painful but I can live with it, if I know I am working on the transformations Lima needs.

NC: Do you think you need to be more authoritarian, to be a strong leader, because that is what is expected?

SV: I cannot be that. I am what I am, and I think I am a strong woman, but I am not authoritarian. I don’t want to be that. I think we need to renew the way we do politics, the way we govern a city or a country, through participation or making agreements, to improve the participation of the citizens in the government of our city. It’s not easy, because as citizens we are used to letting the authoritarian leader do what he or she thinks is best for us. That’s easy, but it means we build cities without citizens, and then we don’t have anything left but the infrastructure.

NC: You’ve been elected for four years, but we’ve seen from other cities in Latin America such as Bogotá in Colombia that what is needed for long-term projects is continuity – how can you manage that in Lima?

SV: Well, we have a political party, a political alliance with other Left movements, and we have young leaders, so we think that we can win a second term if we do things well. We are putting in place reforms that need time, that are medium or long-term projects. So we need to be in government- not Susana Villarán, but this political project.

NC: I know you’ve been in office for less than a year, but what would you like to see as your legacy as mayor of Lima?

SV: More citizenship in Lima- that would be marvellous. And perhaps order, a different order. To feel ourselves more part of something, to be recognised, all of us, to have a Lima for all, not for only a few people who can enjoy all that a modern city has to offer, without the painful gaps we still have here.