Peru, Part I
It was only a few years ago that the U.S. State Department liked
to crow about the spread of democracy in Latin America and
how the last holdout in the hemisphere was Fidel Castro. But,
today, that''s no longer the case, particularly with the Andean
nations of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela.
Latin America has a history over the last 100 years or so of rapid
changes in government, of constant advances and setbacks.
Generals replaced by civilian presidents, who are then replaced
by generals, that''s been the rule. In the case of the above five
nations, no one in Washington can be thrilled by the direction
they seem to be heading in.
Following are a few thoughts from experts in the region on why
democracy has found it tough to firmly plant its roots.
As is the case with the Andean nations, bad leadership has left
government institutions hollow. Michael Shifter points out,
"The one thing these countries have in common is deterioration
and decay in the quality and performance of institutions,
in their inability to produce the results that people demand
and will respect."
Another analyst added, "The institutional vacuum is the real
problem. The lack of leadership, the inability of parties to throw
up new candidates, and the absence of formal linkages to the
population is (both) striking and very, very worrying."
Often what happens in Latin America is you get a civilian leader
who may have campaigned as one imbued with democratic
principles, yet ends up ruling in an autocratic manner replete
with fraud and manipulation of congress and the courts, the very
institutions paramount to achieving true democracy.
As a professor of Latin American studies put it, "The box on the
outside is labeled a democracy, but inside you have an
This essentially is the case in Peru, a nation wracked by turmoil
this past week as President Alberto Fujimori announced he was
stepping down, just months into his 3rd term.
Fujimori took over in 1990 when Peru''s political system was
discredited by corruption. He came in a democratic. He ended
up ruling with an iron fist.
Reporter Clifford Krauss supplies a little Peruvian history.
"The model for the civilian strongman in Peru goes back at least
to the 1919 election of Augusto B. Leguia, a businessman with a
taste for top hats and thoroughbred horses, who served until a
coup upended his rule in 1930. Like Mr. Fujimori, Mr. Leguia
was a master builder of roads and ports who eagerly sought
foreign investment. He also displayed little compunction about
breaking democratic rules. He ordered the army to shut down
the Congress, he closed down newspapers that opposed him, and
his race horses had remarkable success at the track as soon as he
The military ruled in Peru from 1968 to 1980 and it tried to
implement significant land reforms, but this failed. Then, per the
natural way of things in Latin America, it was the civilians turn.
Hyperinflation, massive corruption and the eruption of terrorist
violence spelled their end.
By 1990, then President Alan Garcia was faced with an immense
financial crisis, both in terms of the nation''s foreign debt and
capital flight (both internal and external). Garcia decided to
nationalize the banks and other financial institutions, thus
exacerbating the situation. And he also had to deal with the
increasing terrorist threat from Marxist guerrillas.
At the time, the leader of the opposition was Peru''s most famous
living writer, Mario Vargas Llosa. Vargas Llosa declared that "a
totalitarian threat was hovering over the country."
Over 12,000 people had been killed by the terrorists and they
controlled one third of the country. Inflation rose to 2,000 per
cent, real incomes declined by 50 per cent, and in 1988 alone, an
estimated 150,000 Peruvians fled the land.
Garcia''s promised crackdown on terrorism never materialized.
The capital of Lima, itself, was increasingly threatened.
As the elections of 1990 approached, Peruvians thought that
Vargas Llosa was a sure thing. At one time a far-left ideologue,
he had emerged as a pragmatic, middle-of-the-road candidate.
Then, just months before the vote, a new figure burst upon the
scene - Alberto Fujimori, an agricultural engineer and university
president. Historian John Crow describes him.
"Fujimori had a down-to-earth quality as a speaker and he
persuasively espoused the causes of the underdogs. Not being
very well-known helped him, for the masses distrusted all well-
known politicians. The son of hard-working Japanese
immigrants, Fujimori was born and educated in Peru and was
well acquainted with the country''s strong caste system. In the
campaign he very effectively emphasized Vargas Losa''s elitist
connections, and his own humble beginnings. The opposition
often referred to him as ''el chinito,'' ''the little Chink,'' which
boomeranged and helped his case with Peru''s similarly derided
Fujimori won over the Indianist country masses and he had the
support of Peru''s powerful evangelical Protestant groups. He
ended up winning an impressive victory over Vargas Llosa.
Next week, Fujimori''s rule...the good, the bad and the ugly.
John Crow, "The Epic of Latin America"
Michael Shifter / Washington Post
Clifford Krauss / New York Times