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In Peru, the strong man takes his leave

by Gwynne Dyer

LONDON — Alejandro Toledo, the man who would have won the Peruvian election last spring if President Alberto Fujimori had not cheated at every stage of the process, got it exactly right: “Alberto Fujimori’s government will be illegitimate, a source of permanent instability, and I don’t think it can last more than six to 12 months.”

Only six months after he dragged Peru through a huge political crisis in order to win an illegal third term as president, Fujimori has phoned home from Japan to say that he has resigned. In fact, he is probably going to stay in Japan. If he went home, he might end up in jail.

Fujimori is not a nice man, but he was not your classic Latin American strongman, either. The son of Japanese immigrants to Peru, he came out of nowhere to win the presidency in the 1990 election — and took over a country reeling from the twin scourges of hyperinflation and a savage guerrilla insurgency.

He beat them both, and won the gratitude of poor Peruvians who were the chief victims of both phenomena. As one of the protesters at his inauguration for a third term last July said: “If he had gone in 1995, he’d have been remembered as Peru’s best president in history.”

Fujimori’s methods were brutal. In the so-called self-coup of 1992, he dismissed the Congress and effectively destroyed the country’s traditional political parties. To get military backing for that action, he promoted his own supporters into key command positions in the armed forces. And his defeat of the Shining Path guerrillas involved tactics as ruthless as those used by the insurgents themselves.

Shining Path was a Maoist organization more radical and rigid in its ideology than Mao himself. It maintained control by murdering those suspected of disloyalty. It is estimated to have killed up to 30,000 people during the 1980s.

The Peruvian Army was doing a lot of killing itself: The government’s own ombudsman recently concluded that “there was a deliberate policy of disappearances by the armed forces in which at least 4,000 suspected rebels were kidnapped and murdered.” But until Fujimori took power, it was losing the war, and there were fears that those mad Maoists might actually gain control of Peru.

Fujimori’s key instrument in defeating the guerrillas was a disgraced ex-army officer called Vladimiro Montesinos who created and ran the National Intelligence Service. With a ruthless combination of blackmail, bribery and torture, Montesinos won the intelligence war that is the heart of any guerrilla struggle.

Only a quarter of the 4,000 people who were “disappeared” by the army were killed after Fujimori came to power in 1990, but they included the key leaders of Shining Path. By 1992 the organization’s founder and guiding spirit, Abimael Guzman, was jailed for life. Fujimori also ended the economic chaos of the 1980 by savage cuts in government spending, and in 1995 a grateful nation voted him a second term by a landslide majority.

The problem was that the monster he had created wouldn’t go away. Montesinos sat at the center of his web, silent and invisible, controlling the military, the judiciary and the tame Congress with his bribes and his blackmail, and tucking a fortune away for himself. And since this hidden empire could only survive as long as Fujimori stayed in power, he couldn’t be allowed to quit.

There is no evidence that Fujimori was weary of power, but Peru’s constitution clearly forbids a third term as president. Would Fujimori have put himself and Peru through the grotesque manipulations necessary to get round that fact — including firing three judges who said he couldn’t change the constitution, and holding an election where the votes cast outnumbered the voters by 1.5 million — if Montesinos hadn’t insisted on it?

In the end it bought Montesinos little time, for in September a tape came out that showed him bribing an opposition member of the newly elected Congress to defect to Fujimori’s party. Fujimori fired Montesinos and closed down the intelligence service. He cut his term short and decreed fresh elections in April in which he would not run. He replaced the three armed forces chiefs (all thought to be Montesinos’ men). And then he left the country.

What drove him to do all this? Canadian diplomat Peter Boehm, who has been the special envoy of the Organization of American States to Peru during this year’s crisis, suggests that he was looking for a face-saving way to undo some of the damage his reputation has suffered. He paraphrases Fujimori’s position this way: “I’m a Spanish-speaking politician in Latin America, but my entire background is Japanese. I was raised in that culture. My duty and my sense of honor are foremost.”

High-flown sentiments from a man who often behaved like a cheap thug, and whose right-hand man was a corrupt and murderous monster. Yet, even gangsters in Japan have a Japanese sense of honor. At any rate, he’s gone, and the elections will bring Alejandro Toledo to power just one year behind schedule.