WASHINGTON: Peru's leftist president-elect Ollanta Humala on Wednesday had a surprise meeting with President Barack Obama, a welcome bit of US outreach ahead of his inauguration later this month.
Humala earlier aligned himself with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a fierce and vocal critic of the United States.
But the Peruvian on the campaign trail and at least for now has tempered his rhetoric; amid fears in Peru he could undo his country's solid economic growth after his July 28 inauguration.
While meeting at the White House with National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, Humala, though not on an official visit, had a welcome bit of friendly personal diplomacy as Obama popped in to chat, Peru's ambassador Luis Chuquihuara said.
The several-minute discussion “was a gesture of great political deference and greatly appreciated by the president elect,” Chuquihuara added.
“My intention here is to come to strengthen our ties, which are good, but we need to improve them further during my term in office,” Humala said earlier at the State Department just before meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Clinton said Humala “has a very big agenda in front of him, and the United States stands ready to be his partner.” These are the first face-to-face contacts between the 48-year-old controversial ex-military officer and senior US leadership.
The two countries already have a free trade agreement, and did not announce any new program or initiative.
Once seen as close to Chavez, Humala distanced himself from the firebrand Venezuelan on the campaign trail, claiming instead to be an admirer of leftist former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Prior to the scheduled talks, Humala met Wednesday with Organization of the American States chief Jose Miguel Insulza, whom he urged to help forge a stronger OAS for a “very different and diverse region” tackling issues including drug trafficking and regional security.
“We talked about how to strengthen the OAS as a body, an institution that brings together all the American countries,” Humala told reporters after meeting with Insulza for about an hour at the bloc's Washington headquarters.
Insulza said he appreciated Peru's “very strong participation” in the OAS, and Humala stressed that “we will continue this pattern” of support for the continental body.
The trip is Humala's first to the United States since 2006, when his visa was revoked for political reasons.
Washington suspected him of involvement in a 2005 uprising led by his brother Antauro Humala against then-president Alejandro Toledo, according to State Department information disclosed by WikiLeaks.
But amid fears of upheaval in the mineral-rich Andean nation, Washington's top diplomat for Latin America, Arturo Valenzuela, who is among the US officials meeting Humala on Wednesday, said after the election that the United States is “very willing” to work with Peru's new leader.
Humala's win over conservative legislator Keiko Fujimori raised fears of a Venezuela-style crackdown on private firms, in a country that is a vital supplier of precious metals to the global market.
In the run-up to the vote, Humala had promised to share out Peru's mineral wealth - including gold, silver and copper -- while playing down his former ties to Chavez.
Humala has already made the rounds in South America, but his visit to Venezuela was postponed as Chavez underwent cancer treatment in Cuba.