“…I raised an eyebrow at the mention of the President…This would be one of the most interesting of government missions.”
I entered the gilded conference room with all the confident nonchalance of a man that belonged there. A large, arc-shaped wood table dominated the dimly and comfortably lit space in front of a low stage and numerous large video screens. The etched glass podium in front, cleverly illuminated from below with a blue LED, betrayed the room’s owner: Fuerza Aérea del Perú. The Peruvian Air Force. This was the emergency operations center (COEN) of the Ministry of Defense and it had been my place of work for the preceding week. At the moment, the room was empty except for an old man and his beautiful assistant having an intense conversation at the center of the table. Their backs to me, they didn’t notice the intrusion but the stunned silence behind me stopped me dead in my tracks. Seated in front of me was the President of Peru and I had just blown past his security detail.
A week earlier the phone rang in my office at home. It was nine o’clock on a Monday night but I was expecting the call. Northern Peru had been suffering through terrible flooding in the last three weeks and the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) was busy helping them respond. My team at OFDA, the Military Liaison Team, only gets involved when the response calls for military capabilities, something that only occurs about eight percent of the time. Though our Regional Advisor had repeatedly indicated the response in Peru would not require US Military help, there was a rumor in the air. I answered the phone. It was my boss, Scott.
“Lino,” he said, “you know what this is about so I’ll get right to the point. This afternoon, President Trump had a phone conversation with the President of Peru and promised to send two C-130 aircraft to help with the flood response.” I raised an eyebrow at his mention of the President but I remained silent as Scott continued.
“There’s a lot of mystery surrounding the call. No one knows what led to the conversation, whether it was previously scheduled or specifically prompted by the disaster, or whether the Peruvian President requested the planes or Trump simply offered them up. Nor do we know exactly what President Trump offered except that the Air Force would be in Peru for ‘about two weeks’. We don’t know when he expects flight operations to begin, how they will be organized or commanded, or exactly what he wants them to do.” I rubbed my forehead and Scott continued.
“None of that matters.” he said, “The Air Force is on its way and you need to be waiting for them when they arrive. I need you to ensure everyone is smiling at the end.”
Ambiguity and direct Presidential interest made this one of the rarest and most interesting of government missions; the high stakes kind where the only rules would be legality, morality, and ethics. All other regulations and procedural obstacles would be waived by senior bureaucrats eager to be seen as getting the job done for the new President. This was no small thing. President Trump had already shown hostility towards the foreign aid budget and a preference for military solutions to challenges overseas. There was no evidence he knew of OFDA’s leading role in international disaster response and this was our first opportunity to show him we deserved our budget. The humanitarians in the office objected to the involvement of the military when we didn’t need them but the pragmatists knew the success or failure of this relatively tiny response would have strategic impacts on the future of American soft power. I was hooked. These circumstances piqued my addiction to the pursuit of interesting things and I was nearly laughing at my good fortune. I hung up the phone and started getting ready but my thoughts kept returning to how this all came about. I realized it all came down to one man whose story begins with a German bacteriologist in the First World War.
Maxime Hans Kuczyński must have seen the worst of humanity. A medical student at the University of Rostock, the Great War interrupted his studies and carried him to a place where the world came together to kill. During the war, the Balkans consumed 200,000 German casualties and untold quantities of men and material from dozens of other nations on the eastern fringes of Europe. Over 2 million men in uniform and untold numbers of civilians on both sides would be killed or wounded there before the guns fell silent. Deciding he had had enough of death, Maxime set out to study healing. He roamed the former German and Russian empires to study indigenous health care. “Ethnic Pathology”, as he called it, took him to Brazil and eventually gained him notoriety in the field of medicine. Seeking to escape the growing tide of anti-semitism in Germany, Professor Kuczyński accepted an invitation from Peruvian President Óscar R. Benavides in 1936 to establish a modern health service in the emerging nation. Kuczyński, a German Jew of Polish descent, had found a new home and Peru had gained a new leading family.
The eldest son of Maxime and his French-Swiss wife, Madeleine Godard, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski Godard grew up in proximity to power, traveled internationally, and understood service to those less fortunate. He journeyed the length and breadth of Peru, setting up clinics with his father and studying the people that used them. The country’s extreme geography, from Amazonian jungles, to Andean grandeur, to the barren pavement and towering dunes of the Sechura desert, gives Peru a kaleidoscopic cultural and economic makeup. By Maxime’s side, the young Kuczynski would learn what it takes to get things done in Peru; how decisions are made in different communities, where power and money flow, and who was trustworthy and who had to be managed. It was the education of a leader and he made good on the opportunities presented by his upbringing. He earned a degree in philosophy and economics from Exeter College in Oxford and later a prestigious fellowship at Princeton University where he developed a lasting relationship with the United States. He married the daughter of a US Congressman — a Massachusetts Democrat — and took a position at the World Bank where he served as a regional economist for Central America and the Caribbean. He was successful in his work and, like his father, he was called to serve Peru by the President, Fernando Belaunde Terry.
Belaunde’s presidency was beset by political infighting and scandalized by corrupt oil contracts and the under-performance of the newly established central bank. A 1968 coup d’etat cut his term short and though the initial putsch was non-violent, the junta grew vindictive as they struggled with the unfamiliar challenges of governance. Under increasing pressure by the military government for his role in managing the central bank, Kuczynski eventually joined his boss in exile in the United States. There he resumed his role as an economist at the World Bank before moving firmly into investment banking, mining, and private equity development. The technocrat had become a tycoon.
In a unique reversal, the military junta that had ousted Belaunde succumbed to bureaucratic exhaustion in 1980, paving the way for an election won by their old nemesis. Not surprisingly, the second Belaunde administration recalled Kuczynski to Peru to serve as the Minister of Energy and Mines, a portfolio of interest to the Shining Path guerilla movement that was inflaming the Peruvian countryside. Once again under pressure, this time from a violent Marxist group — Shining Path attacked his apartment — Kuczynski resigned in order to pursue private endeavors in the United States. It was about this time that Pedro Pablo Kuczynski became a household name, alternately loved and loathed by the Peruvian people that by now referred to him simply as “PPK”.
A pattern emerged where Kuczynski would leave government, make a fortune in the United States, and return to serve Peru. In 2001 he became the Minister of Economy and Finance, resigned, and returned to that position again in 2004. In 2005, President Toledo named him Prime Minister. He served his country in other ways as well; sponsoring legislation that reinvigorated oil exploration in the country’s north, founding an organization that improves drinking water quality, and advocating for large infrastructure projects including Lima’s international airport. Though he successfully weathered charges of corruption in conjunction with the infrastructure deals, he lost a 2011 bid for the Presidency. Not one to give up, he built his own political party and took on his biggest challenge yet: a run for the Presidency against Keiko Fujimori, daughter of Peru’s notorious strongman leader, Alberto Fujimori. During the brutal campaign that followed, PPK would narrowly prevail in a runoff widely considered a vote against the bitter memory of the elder Fujimori rather than a mandate for the winner. The younger Fujimori’s opposition challenged PPK’s presidency at every step. When the flooding in Peru’s north united the country in a prolonged sense of pain, PPK’s administration invented a slogan to encourage national solidarity: Una sola fuerza, ‘a single force’ and it was to the United States that PPK turned for help.
A Single Force
My introduction to Peruvian politics would commence immediately after my initial meeting with Ted, the OFDA Regional Advisor and response leader. Ted was known as a no-nonsense kind of guy. He did not suffer fools and had tremendous experience in the region. He later told me he modeled himself off his predecessor, a man that spent 23 years in the job until dying in office in his late 70s. Ted had been the Regional Advisor for the 12 years since then and he also intended to die in place. He wasn’t kidding. He was passionate about what he did and about taking care of those he considers “Friends of Ted”. His guidance to me was broad but crystal clear. “Take care of the military stuff so I don’t have to worry about it.” he commanded. Ted turned out to be one of the best supervisors I ever had. He gave clear, uncomplicated guidance and stayed out of my way while I executed it. He made decisions quickly and without drama and he listened to input from the “Friends of Ted.”
A notable “Friend of Ted” at the US Embassy was an attractive and savagely competent woman named Raquel. Ted trusted her implicitly and according to him, so did the Ambassador. She would prove to be a critical source of local knowledge and a much-needed link to the Embassy. Though I tried to build rapport with her, she eyed me with skepticism. She was probably expecting me to prove myself just another beltway suit trying to take charge without having a clue about Peru. Fortunately, I was savvy enough to ask for her help in understanding the situation. She obliged and in bits and pieces I came to understand the unhelpful dynamics between PPK, the Chief of Defense, and the national disaster management agency, INDECI.
During PPK’s American sojourns in the 1980s and 1990s, he had become a US citizen. He also became a small but important donor to Republican candidates in the United States. The mystery of PPK’s access to President Trump was not really a surprise to Raquel. “Sure,” she said matter of factly, “PPK’s got friends in the Republican Party. Remember, he was the first Latin American leader, and one of the first globally, to meet with Trump. We keep an eye on that.”
I smiled. We should have thought to ask our people in Peru about it. Lesson learned. The problem with PPK’s connections – aside from bringing me to Peru at the last minute – was that the military-centric response from the White House inadvertently reinforced the deepening subordination of INDECI to the Peruvian military. During a recent disaster response in another part of the country, the military had to be employed to fill gaps in INDECI’s capability. With some justification, the incident was seen as INDECI’s failure and the military’s success. Demands increased for reform and though PPK tried initially to protect INDECI’s independence, he relented when the Chief of Defense unexpectedly staked his reputation on the matter.
From that point forward, disaster operations were managed from the COEN instead of INDECI’s control room. The mild-mannered retired admiral at the helm of INDECI was no match for the more aggressive COEN Director, Major General Chavez, an active-duty two star with the backing of his Minister. Now, with American C-130s on the ground to push logistics out of Lima, the only commodities moving to affected populations were the rather useless hodgepodge of donations sitting in Air Force warehouses rather than the more appropriate stockpile of supplies in the INDECI facility across the street. Our invitation to brief PPK and all his Ministers on the night I slipped past his security detail was an attempt by INDECI to raise their profile at the expense of the military. Not surprisingly, General Chavez thwarted the move by simply speaking the entire time.
I spent my two weeks with COEN in occasional combat with General Chavez and his Colonels as I tried to shape Peruvian priorities – really just General Chavez’s priorities – in ways that made more sense from Ted’s seasoned humanitarian perspective. I helped charitable partners of OFDA to transport their commodities to places where it was really needed and worked with Raquel as she coordinated for the Ambassador to visit their work in affected communities. At one point, I had to tell the General he could not task the US Air Force directly and instead he had to work through me; an uncomfortable conversation to have on my own turf in my first language but a real nightmare in a foreign capital using Spanish. Twice I had to invoke President Trump as first the US Air Force, then the Peruvian Air Force tried to end the mission early. It was an exciting time.
At the end of it all, when the C-130s were finally preparing to fly home, I attended an excellent party at the US Ambassador’s house to celebrate a job well done. On my way back to the hotel I stopped by COEN to say goodbye to General Chavez, a good man and a good officer despite his abrasiveness. He kept me waiting an hour before finally sending word he was unavailable. I knew how this game worked and though annoyed by the slight, I knew I had been a worthy adversary. Una sola fuerza indeed.
Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. He is a “Friend of Ted” and will happily drink beer with General Chavez.
Nothing in this story represents the official views of the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Embassy in Peru, or of Ted.