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COLUMN ONE

Fujimori Takes On El Nino

The Peruvian president, who thrives on crisis, plunges into yet another one--the fight against fierce flooding. Critics say his notoriously hands-on style hurts as well as helps relief efforts.

March 02, 1998|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ICA, Peru — After climbing aboard a police helicopter bound for the next destination in his whirlwind crusade against El Nino, President Alberto Fujimori did what he often does at such moments.

He took a nap.

Fujimori donned earphones handed to him by a military aide, gestured and smiled at two passengers to make room for him on their bench seat and lay down. Using a green duffel bag as a pillow, he went instantly to sleep in front of journalists and bodyguards crowded into the deafening Russian-made helicopter.

A wide-awake Fujimori, dressed for action in boots, jeans and a windbreaker, hit the ground running in the flood-pounded southwestern town of Ica half an hour later. He strode through startled crowds at a market under reconstruction, promised irate housewives he would restore their water service and deployed shirt-sleeved Cabinet ministers to direct recovery tasks, all the while exhibiting a prodigious command of rainfall statistics, street names and other minutiae.

As his round-the-clock micro-managing and airborne catnaps during this recent trip suggest, Fujimori has a singular, solitary leadership style that thrives on crisis. Last year, it was the hostage drama in the Japanese ambassador's residence that culminated in a globally televised commando rescue. This year, it's the El Nino-driven storms drubbing Peru.

"I am accustomed to this kind of managing of problems. After [the hostage crisis], in fact, I was getting bored," Fujimori said, cracking the smile that periodically creases his steely demeanor, as his pickup truck rolled through mud-caked streets where floods had peaked at chin level.

But critics say the notoriously hands-on president has hurt relief efforts by failing to delegate responsibility or communicate with local authorities.

"He can't do it alone," said Santiago Pedraglio, a political commentator. "A president is there for moral gestures, not to command in practical terms. He becomes the national, regional and provincial chief of civil defense. The whole system collapses. They can't do anything until Fujimori arrives."

The Fujimori vs. El Nino showdown is the latest chapter of Peru's national drama. Because recent scandals have weakened him politically, and because he has so closely identified himself with the fight against an unpredictable meteorological force, this challenge could be the most formidable yet.

During two days in which a Times reporter accompanied him around the nation, Fujimori proved a curious combination of two personas: the pragmatic technocrat and the vintage Latin American political strongman.

Fujimori, 59, has an unorthodox, detail-obsessed approach to a job that consumes and enthralls him. He radiates confidence in his own judgment and responds with a blank look when asked if he has historical idols or political role models.

"No, I haven't noticed," he said. At the mention of Fidel Castro--a leader he has praised despite the obvious differences between the legendary Cuban Marxist and the right-leaning Peruvian--Fujimori offered this assessment: "Well, he's undeniably a leader, no?"

After his upset election in 1990 put him in charge of a nation on the verge of chaos, Fujimori's aggressive tactics produced victories and human and institutional casualties. His shock-treatment economic plan cut inflation and spurred growth and foreign investment, though everyday Peruvians are increasingly impatient about their lot. He dealt crushing blows to dangerous terrorist groups, using draconian laws and unleashing the military and intelligence services that are considered vital to his rule.

Critics call Fujimori a vindictive authoritarian who has weakened democracy by abusing power, first with a shutdown of Congress in 1992 and again last year, when his legislative majority ousted high court justices in the wake of a ruling that would make it more difficult for him to run for a third five-year term as president. His approval ratings sank to record lows--in the 20s--because of that scandal and others involving alleged persecution of opponents.

In a human rights report released in February, the U.S. State Department expressed concern about physical abuses and spying by security forces and the "perception of an organized campaign of intimidation" against the press.

But Fujimori's response to El Nino's devastation has been a breakneck marathon of trips to direct disaster prevention and relief that has driven his popularity back up to 45% in polls.

Fujimori is exploiting El Nino, opponents claim, to advance a third election bid in 2000. (He has yet to declare his candidacy.)

"The El Nino phenomenon has not paralyzed this race for reelection. In fact, the disaster is being taken advantage of for this very purpose," lawmaker Anel Townsend said. "I think there is an awareness on the part of the population that could be a boomerang against the president."

Fujimori retorted: "Let them keep talking."

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