A Peru 'Phenomenon': Rags to Presidential Bid

New York TImes -- 5 April 2000

by Clifford Krauss

LIMA, Peru -- Alejandro Toledo grew up shining shoes in the grimy port city of Chimbote, one of 16 brothers and sisters whose father was a bricklayer and whose mother sold fish in a street market.

It is an unlikely background for a would-be president in class-conscious Peru. But today Mr. Toledo is doing something that Mario Vargas Llosa, this century's most prominent Peruvian author, could not do in 1990 and that Javier Pérez de Cúellar, the former United Nations secretary general, could not do in 1995.

Mr. Toledo is giving President Alberto K. Fujimori, the "giant killer" in those two previous runs for the presidency, the toughest political battle of his life. Mr. Toledo is attracting votes from disaffected urban lower-class voters who are rejecting the traditional ruling elites.

Only five weeks ago, Mr. Toledo was a little known business school professor, one with a remarkable rags-to-middle-class story but no credible chance of defeating Mr. Fujimori. His extraordinary political climb -- leapfrogging over several formidable opposition candidates, including the mayor of Lima and a former director of the social security system -- has been called the "Toledo phenomenon" by the press here.

The polls indicate that he will probably stop Mr. Fujimori from winning a first-round victory in the presidential election on Sunday unless there is fraud and that he could even beat Mr. Fujimori in a runoff, which would be in May or June.

The "Toledo phenomenon" represents the coming of age of a huge class of Peruvians: the more than eight million people who have migrated from mostly Indian villages in the Andean highlands to cities across the country in the last 30 years. These Peruvians have given up their little plots of land to work in factories or on fishing boats or simply to beg in the streets.

Mr. Toledo has strong Indian physical traits, making him popular with Indians and those of mixed race, who are known as mestizos or, in Peruvian slang, "cholos." And at 54 he has accomplished the cholo dream of achieving an education, rising from poverty and marrying a woman of higher social status.

Mr. Toledo earned a doctorate at Stanford University, where he met his wife, Eliane Karp, a Belgian-born naturalized American citizen who is an anthropologist and consultant.

"When these people see that I can become president, they realize they can become president too," said Mr. Toledo, seated with his legs intertwined comfortably with his wife's in their rented campaign plane. "It is a matter of hopes and dreams. I'm an example of what people can do who have good health care and an education."

As Mr. Toledo travels across the country, the enthusiasm surrounding his candidacy has grown from week to week even though he has never held high office and who might make up his future cabinet is a total mystery. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people block his campaign caravans along roads and jump on top of his "cholomobile" van in what sometimes appears to be mad, uncontrolled excitement.

On the stump, Mr. Toledo mixes moving accounts of his youth with a centrist message that promises more government loans for small businesses and farmers and a gradual phasing out of government handouts of milk and cereal. He takes the time to explain the importance of balancing the government budget and attracting foreign investment -- and in a break from customary Peruvian politics, makes a point of saying that he cannot promise easy, instant solutions to this country's vast social problems.

"I didn't bring you rice or cooking oil because votes cannot be bought," he said, in a pointed criticism of President Fujimori's campaign tactics, before a screaming crowd of 25,000 in the agricultural center of Ica last Friday night. "I've come to bring my talents to bear to offer you jobs, jobs, jobs. I know my people and my people don't want charity. They want jobs."

The crowd responded by chanting what has become the unofficial slogan of Mr. Toledo's campaign, "Cholo si, Chino no!" a reference to Mr. Fujimori, who is popularly known as "El Chino" even though he is of Japanese descent.

Mr. Toledo went on to invite everyone to his inaugural party, where he promised to serve local favorites like fermented corn juice, sweet potatoes and ceviche, marinated raw fish. The crowded responded robustly, chanting, "Toledo is justice!" and "The dictatorship will fall!"

Many of those same people had turned in the past to Mr. Fujimori -- who comes from an immigrant family of fairly modest means -- as an alternative to Mr. Vargas Llosa and Mr. Pérez de Cuellar, representatives of the traditional light-skinned Lima elite who are the descendants of the Spanish colonial power structure. But now an increasing number of Peruvians are choosing someone whose features and background more closely resembles theirs.

"From the submissive cholo, Toledo has risen to the sure-footed cholo, and that automatically makes him a leader -- and with a blonde, gringa wife to boot," said Raúl Vargas Vega, director of Radioprogramas, Peru's leading radio network. "He has a story that is similar to hundreds of thousands of Peruvians but with a successful ending."

So far, Mr. Fujimori remains ahead in Lima, where he controls most of the news media and has delivered an array of social programs to the shantytowns, as well as in the rural Indian areas, where his free milk and cereal programs still benefit hundreds of thousands of poor people.

But about half of the population of Peru now live in middle-sized cities where people have given up their Indian ways but now appear to have a renewed respect for their ethnic identity. It is in those places, cities like Ica, Iquitos and Arequipa, where Mr. Toledo's campaign has taken off.

The crowds seem not to care that Mr. Toledo is entirely untested as a leader and that he is viewed, perhaps unfairly, as an untrustworthy opportunist by other opposition leaders. Those leaders have openly attacked Vladimiro Montesinos, Mr. Fujimori's intelligence chief, for engaging in dirty campaign tricks. Mr. Toledo has not been spared, but he has responded differently.

Newspapers that are said to take directions from Mr. Montesinos have bombarded Mr. Toledo with charges that he was an adviser to a shady financier whose pyramid scheme collapsed a few years ago and that he has an illegitimate daughter he does not support. But Mr. Toledo, who denies the charges, has quietly sent emissaries to aides of Mr. Montesinos to open talks with him. And with Mr. Toledo's poll numbers continuing to move skyward, he attributes his ability to overcome the attacks to his innate toughness, his wife's support and his ethnic appeal.

Mr. Toledo got his big break in life at 16 when Peace Corps volunteers helped him obtain a one-year scholarship to the University of San Francisco. He managed to continue his studies by pumping gas and getting a soccer scholarship.

He went on to earn two master's degrees and a doctorate in the economics of human resources. He eventually became chief economic adviser to the president of the Central Bank and the minister of labor during the Fernando Belaúnde government of the early 1980's. He has since worked for the World Bank and directed research at a prestigious Lima business school.

"I'm a dreamer," Mr. Toledo said, "and I don't apologize for it."