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Undoing the Work of a Tyrant

November 26, 2000|Michael Shifter | Michael Shifter is senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue and teaches Latin American politics at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service

WASHINGTON — In the end, Peru's notorious strongman was scared. During his decade-long presidency, Alberto Fujimori projected supreme confidence, bordering on invincibility. But mounting accusations of corruption and the rapid meltdown of his regime forced him to retreat to Japan, where he resigned with a whimper.

Although the full story of Fujimori's rule remains something of a mystery, it is increasingly clear that Vladimiro Montesinos, Fujimori's former head of the National Intelligence Service was an even stronger pillar of the regime. After Montesinos was accused of involvement in an arms-trafficking scandal--and especially after he was caught on videotape bribing an opposition member of Congress--the machinery of control and authority that he and Fujimori built began to crumble. Fujimori tried to distance himself from Montesinos, but he couldn't stop the hemorrhaging. For Fujimori, Japan must have seemed a safe distance from Peru's high-risk intrigues.

Long-time critics of Fujimori's authoritarian rule have been vindicated in light of the relentless outpouring of reports of wide-scale corruption and abuse. Overseas bank accounts in Montesinos' name. totaling some $58 million may only be the tip of the iceberg. The Peruvian press have also reported that Fujimori may have transferred up to $18 million to Japanese bank accounts during a brief stop in Singapore. Even the most imaginative spy novels seem tame in comparison.

Fujimori and Montesinos have left many Peruvians with a profound sense of disillusionment and even betrayal. It is undeniable that Fujimori, having inherited a country in sheer chaos in 1990, succeeded in bringing both hyperinflation and political violence under control. Few believed he would be able to deliver on his promise of crippling Peru's two insurgencies by 1995. Although Fujimori supporters often acknowledged, and lamented, the increased authoritarianism that accompanied his achievements, they mistakenly believed that Fujimori would eventually pursue a more democratic course.

Valentin Paniagua, who took over after Congress deemed Fujimori "morally unfit" to lead and two of his vice presidents resigned, offers a refreshing contrast to the country's decidedly confrontational politics. A moderate of the Popular Action party who served in the administrations of former President Fernando Belaunde in the 1960s and 1980s, Paniagua was elected president of Peru's Congress on Nov. 16. So far, he has exhibited equanimity and, to add a measure of credibility and legitimacy to his interim government, brought in former U.N. Secretary-General and presidential candidate Javier Perez de Cuellar as prime minister. At his swearing in, Paniagua emphasized consensus and dialogue, two qualities that hardly distinguished the Fujimori era.

Since the unraveling of the Fujimori regime began, it is striking how rapidly Peru's political institutions have regained some respectability and independence. In one of its first moves last week, the new Congress reinstated the three judges on the Constitutional Tribunal who were dismissed in 1997 after refusing to accept the legality of Fujimori running for a third consecutive term. Peru's former chief public prosecutor, a close collaborator of Montesinos, has been replaced by a judge highly respected for her independence and professionalism. There has also been a discernible opening up of the country's media.

To be sure, the country's armed forces and intelligence community, Montesinos' strongholds, haven't changed much. That Montesinos remains at large complicates matters. But the Fujimori regime is history, and there is no support for or possibility of a military takeover. It is only a matter of time before Montesinos' allies are purged.

Paniagua's interim government faces two principal tasks until Peru has a new, elected president next July 28. The first is to carry out the essential business of governance, including economic management and instilling confidence among international investors and financial institutions. The second task is to define the rules of the presidential elections scheduled for April 8 and to ensure that the elections will be free and fair. The new Congress will, for example, need to work up measures regulating political parties and television coverage for the candidates. Revitalized Peruvian institutions will allow outside actors, including the Organization of American States, to gradually step aside and play a declining role in setting a reform agenda for a democratic transition.

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