Seven Questions: The Child Laborer Who Became President

When he was elected president of Peru in 2001, Alejandro Toledo became the first person of mixed Latino and Indian blood in 500 years to serve as the country’s political leader. Toledo started life so poor that he sold cigarettes and shined shoes on the streets to support his family and pay for his education. Today, he has made reducing poverty and inequality his fight.



Foreign Policy: Since leaving the presidency in 2006, you have founded a think tank, the Global Center for Development and Democracy. What are your goals today?

Alejandro Toledo: I have decided to dedicate the rest of my life to the fight against poverty and exclusion, to find a convergence of economic growth and the reduction of poverty and exclusion. We all have our craziness. This is mine.

FP: Perus Committee for Prevention and Eradication of Child Labor has estimated that 2.5 million children, most of them under the age of 14, are working throughout the country. What is the future for these children?

AT: Child labor is something very close to my heart. I cannot be analytically objective about it, though in retrospect, it has enriched my rebellion against poverty. I became a rebel against poverty when I was 4 years old, without knowing what that meant. When I was president, it gave me strength to fight poverty.

In Peru, in Latin America, and in the developing world, poverty has the face of a woman and a child. Child labor is associated with malnutrition, with depriving children of the opportunity of going to school. What is worse, perhaps, is that they might do what I did: Become prematurely adult and jump over one whole stage of their lives. Children of 6 or 7 years old, who shine shoes or sell cigarettes in the streets at night, at midnight or 1 a.m., see the bars, drunks, prostitutes. That causes a rupture. Because of the circumstances, you see things that belong to a different age. You violate the natural process of innocence.

In a paradoxical way, these kids know what life means. Whatever they accumulate in the future, they will appreciate much more than children who are born in well-to-do families. If we give them the chance, they can be the Bill Gates, the Carlos Slim[s] of the world.

FP: How can Peru reduce or eliminate child labor while building its economy?

AT: Fighting poverty requires making investments in health, nutrition, and education. These are long-term investments.

FP: How are child labor and trade related?

AT: The soft hearts of people who do not want to buy exports made by children do not impress me much. The reality in the short run is that children work to help the family, to supplement the family income. But that is not what we are looking for in the long term.

Child labor is something I fought against strongly when I was negotiating the free trade agreement between Peru and the United States. I [suggested] that we make a commitment [on the part of] both countries: one, to meet some labor standards established by the International Labor Organization; two, to meet some environmental standards that we now recognize; and three, to prevent child labor from going into exports. We need to reduce and eliminate child labor [through investments in human capital]nutrition, health, educationand it should go both ways, Peru and the United States.

FP: You have said that Latin America is poised to make a substantial jump and take a prominent place in the world economy in the next 15 to 20 years. How can it make the jump?

AT: Latin America is in an extremely unusual position. First, the economy is growing on average 6 percent per year. Second, we have been diversifying the internal composition of the economy. We are not only exporting [the products of extractive industries such as] oil, gold, silver, but also [other] productsgrapes, mangoes, lemonswhich are labor-intensive. Third, we have opened our markets beyond the United States, to China, India, the European Union, and within Latin America. Fourth, for the last 60 years, we havethrough USAID, the Ford Foundation, and other international organizationsconstructed a considerable stock of human capital. Unfortunately, they are in a diaspora around the world. We can bring them back.

FP: What else does Latin America need to leap forward?

AT: Number one, we need more leaders and fewer politicians. A politician thinks about the next election, instead of the long term. A leader has the courage to make decisions and adopt state policiesinvesting in nutrition, health, education, drinkable waterwhich by definition are medium- and long-term investments. A leader may not benefit politically in the short term.

Number two, we need to confront poverty head-on with deliberate social policies targeted to specific groups at the macro and micro levels. We must confront poverty of women and children who are on the borderline of survival through, for example, direct conditional cash transfers. They have succeeded in Brazil, Mexico, Chile, and Peru.

Poor people do not want their dignity insulted by being given fish. [We need to] identify projects at the micro level, to provide microcredit, and train [people] to produce quality products and help bring products to marketteach people to fish by themselves.

Number three, we need to invest in clean water, quality healthcare, and quality education. These investments take time.

FP: Speaking of leaders and politicians, what role does Hugo Chvez play in Latin America?

AT: I think that Hugo Chvez is a destabilizing person in the region, at a moment when the region needs to continue growing at a high rate. It is not sufficient to be elected democratically. The hardest thing is to govern democratically. We need economic, social, political, and legal stability to attract foreign investment. We both have a concern for the poor. But he wants to confront poverty by giving fish away, rather than giving the poor the right to learn how to fish.

I have too much respect for the left in Latin America to consider Hugo Chvez to be part of the left. He is an authoritarian populist. It is not fair to put him in the same basket as [Brazilian President] Lula [Luiz Incio da Silva] or [Chilean President] Michelle Bachelet.

The Hugo Chvezes of Latin America today are not the cause of the problem, but the consequence of our inability over the past 500 years to reduce poverty, even when we have had high rates of economic growth.

Alejandro Toledo is former president of Peru and a Payne distinguished visiting lecturer at Stanford University. This interview was conducted by S.L. Bachman, managing director of Child Labor and the Global Village: Photography for Social Change.

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