In Other Words

Adiós, Fujimori

Ideele, No. 134, December 2000, Lima

We live in another country," writes Peruvian lawyer Ernesto de la Jara. "Everything changed from one moment to the next." He's talking, of course, about last November's astonishing meltdown of President Alberto Fujimori's decade-long regime. The commentary appears in a special adiós-to-Fujimori issue of Ideele, a monthly magazine of the Peruvian Legal Defense Institute (in Spanish, IDL) that de la Jara edits with sociologist Carlos Basombrío. Launched a dozen years ago, a year before Peruvians elected Alberto Fujimori president in the most stunning vote in modern Latin American history, Ideele blends trademark irreverence with sharp political analysis and human rights advocacy.

In order to make sense of the dramatic changes facing his country with Fujimori gone, Basombrío takes a look back in a thoughtful postmortem of the ex-president's rise and ultimate fall. He argues persuasively that one cannot understand the regime that Fujimori and his intelligence advisor Vladimiro Montesinos engineered in the 1990s without considering the fundamentalist Shining Path insurgency that dominated Peru in the 1980s. The destruction unleashed on the country's infrastructure and institutions -- and the failure of Peru's democratic institutions to respond -- made the public receptive to an authoritarian takeover. Thus, for two decades, Basombrío suggests, the "logic of war" prevailed over the give-and-take of democratic politics. Under Fujimori, efficiency was prized, and his government took the steps it deemed necessary to subdue uncontrolled inflation and political violence. Basombrío readily acknowledges the regime's accomplishments, such as resolving long-standing border disputes with Ecuador and Chile, "an important record for a country used to failure and frustration."

But having the trains run on time wasn't, in the end, enough to maintain public support. Many followers who believed that a softer, more democratic side of the government would eventually emerge were disappointed and, ultimately, betrayed. Basombrío argues that as more and more information is revealed -- a special prosecutor has found that overseas bank accounts in Montesinos's name total at least $100 million -- the government appears to have been "little more than a mafia enriching itself through illicit businesses."

The bulk of Ideele's contributors share de la Jara and Basombrío's celebratory tone in their essays on Fujimori's past and Peru's future. But as de la Jara points out, Guatemala's former Foreign Minister Eduardo Stein was right to quip, "In Peru, politics is faster than the Internet." A new regime will quickly face the challenges of carrying out a democratic transition, delivering on a wide-ranging agenda including political and judicial reform, and tending to the long-neglected problems of poverty and unemployment. This "democratic spring," de la Jara argues, could bring forth many pent-up demands that will strain the capacity of fragile institutions to respond. Until a new administration begins a five-year term in late July, a caretaker government is attempting to make as much progress as possible on these fronts. The consensus cabinet includes Susana Villarán, formerly a member of Ideele's editorial board, who heads the Ministry of Women and Human Development. (The editors remind the new president, who picked Villarán, that she is merely "on loan.")

Though the December issue suggests a happy ending, Ideele's editors know Lima is a far cry from Hollywood: Whether the country's political class has learned the lessons of the past two decades, whether it will be able to restore public confidence and show that good performance is not incompatible with democratic politics -- these questions are far from settled.

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