WASHINGTON—I feel a little blue today, so forgive the personal touch.

I was ready to take my son and daughter to the Yankees-Orioles game in Baltimore last weekend when I got an urgent call from Peru telling me my grandfather was near death.

I flew to Lima on Saturday for a one-day trip that turned out to be more poignant than I expected. My grandfather, who died before I arrived, was a noble man who taught me multiplication, the opening chess moves of the legendary Jose Raul Capablanca, the philosophical beauty of an afternoon stroll, and one or two clues to help me explore the delightful mysteries of the opposite sex.

It so happened that the crucial runoff in the presidential election was taking place in Peru on Sunday—one in which I had previously decided not to vote because I had no trust in either candidate.

One of them, former President Alan Garcia, brought ruin to Peru in the 1980s—hyperinflation, corruption, abuse of power. My family, which lived in Peru at the time, actively opposed his administration and my father sought to succeed him in the 1990 election. At one point, someone in the Navy brought to us information (subsequently made public) that thugs close to Garcia were planning an attack on my family, myself included, during a meeting in the basement of a national museum (Garcia claims he was not involved).

The other candidate, Ollanta Humala, was a former military officer accused of human rights violations who led a coup attempt against dictator Alberto Fujimori in 2000. He is now close to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and sought to replace the fragile republican institutions with an authoritarian, or caudillo-style, nationalist regime.

As I accompanied my mother through the dignified process of my grandpa’s cremation last weekend, I gave a second thought to the election and looked at its significance in the larger picture of a hemisphere facing important choices.

Many countries are experiencing a revival of pernicious ideologies that try to pit the indigenous population against what they decry as the false values of the Western civilization that has been a part of this hemisphere since the 16th century. Nowhere is this struggle more acute than in the Andes, with its strong indigenous roots, and to some extent in Mexico. Venezuela and Bolivia have already taken the anti-Western path, Ecuador could follow and Peru is torn between those who want to be a part of—and to enrich—a liberal democracy and market economy, and those who resent them. In Colombia, President Alvaro Uribe is a solitary bulwark against this Andean trend.

Behind the ethnic fracture is an ideological scam. Anyone who has traveled in the Andes understands that Indians and mestizos want to own property, to trade, to cooperate peacefully and, yes, to practice their many rich customs—just like anyone else. They do not want a caudillo expropriating every aspect of their lives in the name of liberation. But indigenismo, the fraudulent ideology whose roots lie in decrepit European social utopias, has cleverly manipulated people who have a justified frustration with a liberal democracy that has not delivered the goods. So potential caudillos such as Humala have become powerful social symbols.

On Sunday morning, I went to vote in Barranco, my old neighborhood. I voted for Garcia, the lesser of two evils because not voting or casting a blank vote would have helped Humala. Garcia, now a moderate populist who says he does not want to break away from globalization, won with roughly 53 percent of the vote against Humala’s 47 percent.

In the 1960s, American historian Carroll Quigley explained in "The Evolution of Civilizations’’ that decadence starts when social arrangements that serve social needs turn into institutions that serve their own needs. That, precisely, is part of Latin America’s plight. The disconnect between official institutions and social needs—the legacy of too many caudillos and the absence of the rule of law—has thrown many people into the hands of leaders who espouse nationalist ideologies. The challenge is to heal the rift, not to widen it as Humala was planning to do.

The night before the vote, a tiny group of family members drove to a quiet beach south of Lima. As we gently poured my grandfather’s ashes into the Pacific, I wondered remorsefully what he would have thought of the choice I had made to vote for Garcia rather than abstain. While I watched his existence dissolve forever into the freedom of the sea, I thought to myself—with a twinge—he would have approved.