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A Year Later, Peru's Leader Defends Coup


LIMA, Peru — President Alberto Fujimori isn't exactly touting his "self-coup" as an example for other countries to follow. But he does argue that Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, for one, could deal better with his nation's problems if he could shut down the Russian Congress.

"I don't have the slightest doubt," Fujimori said in an interview. "Boris Yeltsin himself has said so, and the big setbacks he has had in applying his structural reform arise precisely from the effort he must divert to his relations with that Congress."

It has been a year since Fujimori closed the Peruvian Congress in a military-backed autogolpe, or self-coup, on April 5, 1992. He insists that he did what was needed to keep the country from collapsing in a growing maelstrom of inefficiency, corruption and terrorism.

Today, a newly elected Congress does Fujimori's bidding as he basks in opinion-poll approval ratings of more than 60%. There seems to be a general perception of greater order and progress.

Could the Fujimori coup indeed serve as an example of corrective surgery for dysfunctional democracies?

"I wouldn't be the one to call it an example," said Fujimori, 43. "But for Peru, after a year, it has produced results. Notable advances have been made."

For the pragmatic Peruvian leader, results clearly count for more than constitutional formalities. And the Fujimori formula does raise serious questions about sticking to the formal rules of democracy when democracy seems headed for disaster.

But his authoritarian alternative brings up other troubling issues: When is it really justified? What will keep authority from becoming arbitrary and abusive? How can a return to democracy be assured?

Those issues are vital today in Peru and, of course, should be weighed by anyone advocating the Fujimori formula for Russia or other countries in crisis.

Some analysts here recall that, like Fujimori, Germany's Adolf Hitler and Italy's Benito Mussolini were elected leaders who felt it necessary to shut down their country's Parliaments. In Latin American countries, uncounted military dictators have seized power under the pretext of saving or restoring democracy.

Fujimori and his supporters insist that he has the best interests of Peru at heart, that he has no dictatorial pretensions.

His critics, however, call him an autocrat and warn that he is bent on staying in power at least until the end of the century.

The president offered a blunt defense of his actions in the interview, saying: "There are three evils that affect many countries in the world, that particularly affect the people directly. They are corruption, violence and inefficiency of the state apparatus. That trilogy brings great harm to the population. And those evils, paradoxically, are covered up by what is called democracy.

"Today, I believe that, wherever that kind of problem may exist, options that are not the traditional ones can happen."

He noted that measures such as the one he took may lead to the imposition of a dictatorship.

"It is a risk, but it hasn't happened here," he said, adding: "Public opinion is decisive in this kind of measure. And the people do perceive which orientation best suits the country. And if they perceive that there is an absolutist, dictatorial, arbitrary power that harms the nation, then the people react."

Fujimori has shown himself to be a boldly unorthodox leader with an authoritarian streak, a wily manipulator of public opinion and a master of power games.

He keeps the military in line by filling key positions with officers selected for their unquestioning obedience to him. He is said to have the National Intelligence Service spy on the armed forces, monitoring any dangerous developments.

In November, intelligence agents discovered a coup plot headed by retired army officers. Several officers have been court-martialed for the plot, and there have been no coup rumors since.

Lourdes Flores, leader of the opposition in the new Congress, said the president's main power base is public opinion. She said the National Intelligence Service directs a "psycho-social campaign" aimed at enhancing Fujimori's popularity and besmirching the image of groups and institutions that could challenge his power.

"He sells an image of sureness, decisiveness, and he undermines the prestige of everyone else," Lourdes said. "His power is based on the weakness of the institutions."

Fujimori appears often on television talk shows, speaking softly but firmly. He tours the countryside, opening schools and handing out donations such as school computers, tractors, clothing and food. Those activities also receive ample coverage by Peru's notably uncritical television stations.

Most analysts say Fujimori is preparing to seek a second five-year term, which would begin in 1995.

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