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A Land of Two Minds Faces a Choice

September 24, 2000|Michael Shifter | Michael Shifter is senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue and teaches Latin American politics at Georgetown

WASHINGTON — For the past several months, Peruvians have been evenly divided in the way they see their president, Alberto Fujimori. They either credit him with saving the country from chaos or condemn him for tyrannical rule. But virtually all Peruvians, have been uneasily aware that, over the past decade, the country has been run by a powerful and increasingly nefarious national intelligence apparatus, under the control of Vladimiro Montesinos, Peru's rough equivalent of J. Edgar Hoover. Many found such a state of affairs intolerable; others, fearing what an alternative might mean, kept quiet.

Last week brought a victory for those who relentlessly fought this sinister system. On Sept. 16, Fujimori, showing his flair for surprise and high drama, announced to a stunned nation that he would move to dismantle the intelligence service, step aside and call new elections. A coldly pragmatic leader, he reached the conclusion that his government's credibility had dropped so low that he could no longer sustain himself in power. In the wake of Fujimori's bombshell, those who feared an alternative to Montesinos must now face the unknown.

Though the country may endure a rough, uncertain and tense period, the long-term effect of Fujimori's decision is likely to be salutary for Peru's democracy. Fujimori and Montesinos were caught in a perverse logic: They claimed credit for having defeated a terrorist threat, yet, at the same time, justified their abuses in the name of fighting terrorism. This game ultimately collapsed of its own weight. Mounting scandals, including Montesinos' possible role in trafficking arms to Colombian guerrillas and a videocassette that showed him bribing an opposition member of Congress, exposed the rot and corruption at the center of the regime.

The scandals broke out after controversial elections in May that raised profound questions about the legitimacy of the Fujimori government. Fujimori's unsuccessful attempt to claim legitimate rule also underlined the shifting dynamics of global politics. Just as there is now a near-universal consensus about the key role of markets in the economic sphere, so there is widespread agreement about the importance of "free and fair" elections in the political realm. The Fujimori government, according to an electoral observation team under the auspices of the Organization of American States, violated such a standard. It also violated, according to the special rapporteur of the OAS and a variety of independent groups, a second core, broadly accepted element of democratic rule: freedom of expression. Montesinos surely had a hand in transgressions committed in both areas.

Fujimori sensed that his government was disgraced during his visit to New York earlier this month, when he attended the United Nations Millennium conference. He no doubt got the message that he had crossed the line. In the past, Fujimori was accustomed to criticism from the State Department and other groups monitoring political developments, which he easily shrugged off. But the most recent developments revealed that the markets, reflected by Wall Street, were increasingly uneasy with such sharp departures from democratic practice, which they feared were not conducive to the sort of orderly and predictable environment favorable to investment and economic progress. Such international financial institutions as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank also saw Fujimori's unyielding authoritarian grip with growing concern.

The surprise detention of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in London in October 1998 underscored the growing significance of applying internationally accepted standards to national situations. Chilean groups who long sought to hold Pinochet accountable for past human-rights abuses were unable to do so in light of their country's politics until a Spanish judge ruled otherwise. Now, nearly two years later, Pinochet may face justice back home for his alleged crimes. Key decisions made outside of Chile cleared the way for the pursuit of justice within the country. Regardless of what happens now, Chileans overwhelmingly believe that the country is finally coming to grips with its recent past and that the reactivation of the Pinochet case will make their democracy stronger.

The strong international reaction provoked by Fujimori's election shenanigans earlier this year may help make it possible to hold both him and Montesinos accountable for whatever abuses they committed in Peru over the past decade. Outside pressure worked with dogged Peruvian human-rights groups and democracy organizations to set in motion the unraveling of a regime that, when it came to government control, seemed to respect no bounds.

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