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Lima's Marxist Mayor Strengthens City's Finances

By Michael L. Smith

The Washington Post, November 8, 1986

When Alfonso Barrantes took office in 1984 as the first elected Marxist mayor of a South American capital, there were doomsday predictions that his United Left coalition would lead Lima and its nearly 6 million inhabitants toward urban chaos.

Now, nearly at the end of his three-year term, he has silenced many of his critics and has been credited with running a city government that by many standards is in better condition than when he came to office.

"The Barrantes mayoralty has shattered the myth of the left's incompetence in administrative power," Mirko Lauer, a political analyst, said.

Barrantes is running for a second term Sunday in municipal elections that are seen as the first electoral test of the strength of President Alan Garcia's center-left American Popular Revolutionary Alliance. The mayor, elected with 35 percent of the vote, has been trailing in the polls behind two other candidates.

They are conservative Luis Bedoya, a two-term mayor in the 1960s, and the government's candidate, Jorge del Castillo. Both have tried in the campaign to capitalize on gaps and deficiencies that still remain in municipal services.

Barrantes has also suffered from internal feuding inside his coalition that has detracted from his political image and emptied his campaign chest. His United Left coalition has not been able to buy 10 percent of the amount of campaign advertising used by the other two candidates.

When he took office, Barrantes' first challenge was to resolve the municipality's hand-to-mouth finances, which included a $15 million shortfall in revenue and a latent threat that city hall would not be able to meet its monthly payroll. Barrantes spent his first year skirmishing with Congress and government offices to put local councils on sounder financial footing.

Today the budget is out of the red, topping $121 million, and the investment budget has been increased 11-fold from 1984 levels, in part due to an $83 million World Bank loan for urban infrastructure.

Lima is a sprawling city caught in urban pincers. Its inner city suffers from blight as commercial interests have moved out to more prosperous business districts. The city core is surrounded by shantytowns where nearly half the population lives with only skeletal public services. In the past, the municipal government has done little but rubber-stamp birth certificates and put up statues in parks.

With finances under control, Barrantes, 58, a labor lawyer by profession, has undertaken a major face lift of downtown Lima, rerouting traffic and buses away from congested streets and remodeling main boulevards.

More than 150 miles of roads have been repaired or paved so public transit can reach shantytown residents more easily. In Lima's anarchic public transit, bus owners frequently set their own routes and refused to give tickets to passengers to avoid taxes. Barrantes had to fight six months to get bus drivers to accept municipal authority.

In social services, an area where municipal government rarely has ventured in the past, Barrantes also fulfilled his most controversial campaign promise: to set up 8,000 neighborhood committees to prepare and distribute 1 million breakfasts a day to schoolchildren in poor neighborhoods, where he is affectionately called Tio Frejolito ("Uncle Bean").

However, many solutions are out of the reach of the city government, as it feuds with a welter of state companies that provide water, sewerage, and electricity, and the national government under Garcia's often impetuous presidency.

A mass transit plan for Lima, dubbed the "Electric Train," has been pushed through by Garcia after only token consultation with city hall. Because the World Bank was not informed about the project, disbursements on its credit were stopped last month.

Perhaps the most political change has occurred inside the United Left. A six-party electoral alliance, which includes communist parties following both the Peking and Moscow lines as well as socialists and independents, it has had to set aside its revolutionary agenda and aim for more immediate results. Much of the municipal staff was drawn from social research centers and universities, and they are now getting a first taste of the frustrations and limits of exercising power.

"This was the first time that we had to accept a major responsibility of administration," says Elias Mujica, one of Barrantes' handpicked municipal directors.

© 1986 Washington Post. All rights reserved