Arequipa Journal

An Ex-First Lady's Tough Campaign

The New York Times -- March 25, 2000, page A4

by Clifford Krauss

AREQUIPA, Peru -- When Peru's Congress got in President Alberto K. Fujimori's way, he abolished it. When three judges wanted to uphold a constitutional ban on his running for a third term, Mr. Fujimori simply had them fired. Not even the most vicious terrorist group in Latin America could resist him.

But when it comes to toughness, Mr. Fujimori appears to be no match for his former wife.

Susana Higuchi, who as first lady became the object of international attention six years ago when she said she was being held prisoner and screamed out state secrets from a fourth-story window of the presidential palace, has now taken their domestic spat to the campaign trail.

Ms. Higuchi, divorced from Mr. Fujimori four years ago, is running a strong campaign for Congress, and many pollsters predict that she will win, even though she is attached to a minor left-leaning political party.

She carries a symbolic broom on the stump and calls for social justice and an end to what she calls the dictatorship led by her former husband.

"We have to say enough is enough with this immoral, corrupt system," Ms. Higuchi recently told an auditorium full of women attending a seminar here about women's issues. "There are journalists -- obviously bought off -- who ask if I am still angry at President Fujimori. And I say yes! What kind of political bossism is this?"

As the 250 women gasped in horror, she said Mr. Fujimori had treated Abimael Guzmán, the imprisoned leader of the Maoist-inspired Shining Path terrorist group, better than he had treated her.

"He sent him a cake for his birthday," she said. In an interview later, she said Mr. Fujimori never did the same for her during their 22-year marriage.

Ms. Higuchi, 49, a civil engineer and businesswoman, still has the political stature of a first lady. She is the object of long profiles in the political magazines, and her news conferences are often better attended than those offered by presidential candidates. She says little to muffle speculation that her ambition is to take the ultimate revenge on Mr. Fujimori by becoming the first woman to serve as Peru's president.

As her campaign caravan moved through the streets and markets of this enchanting Andean mountain city of pearl-white colonial churches, people shrieked and applauded as if she were a movie star. Some threw flower petals over her and handed her bouquets of white carnations, while others exploded firecrackers in celebration.

"Give Alberto a spanking," cried out one middle-aged man as her campaign van passed. Later, a woman pressed against a window of the van as it became snarled in traffic to plead with her to get back together with her husband so she could be happy.

Mr. Fujimori refuses to criticize her candidacy, and his intelligence service -- which serves up an array of dirty tricks to upend other politicians -- has so far laid off Ms. Higuchi's campaign. Mr. Fujimori appeared at the recent funeral of Ms. Higuchi's father and walked beside his former wife and their eldest daughter, Keiko Sofía, during the funeral procession.

In turn, even while Ms. Higuchi sharply criticizes her former husband's governing style, she has helped him a bit lately by publicly denying recurring rumors that he has cancer and that he is not a native Peruvian but was actually born in Japan.

She has also dropped her old habit of complaining about Mr. Fujimori's bedside comportment and questioning his commitment to Roman Catholicism. Nevertheless, Ms. Higuchi said in an interview that there was "zero" chance for a reconciliation.

When reporters in Arequipa asked her to comment on press reports about irregularities in Mr. Fujimori's campaign, including an accusation that his backers had forged a million signatures to get him onto the ballot, she seemed to pull her punch a bit and simply said, "He never keeps his word."

But even if her criticism of the president is somewhat more muted these days, opposition leaders say her campaign for Congress is putting a spotlight on the dark side of Mr. Fujimori's personality and hurting his chances for re-election on April 9.

The Peruvian press has taken to calling the saga of the couple's relationship "La Show Susana" and "Fujidrama."

Their marriage showed its first public signs of deterioration in 1992, when Ms. Higuchi said some of Mr. Fujimori's relatives were skimming off aid given by Japan. By 1994 the relationship had soured so much and Ms. Higuchi's criticisms had become so strident that she said Mr. Fujimori's bodyguards had locked her in a room in the presidential palace. Ms. Higuchi called reporters in the middle of the night to complain, and she later went on a hunger strike.

Ms. Higuchi announced her intention to run for president against her husband in 1995, but the national electoral tribunal disqualified her. Congress enacted a bill prohibiting presidential relatives from running for president, in what became known as the "Susana Law."

That is all history now, but Ms. Higuchi's campaign has revitalized speculation about the former first couple's love lives.

A few months ago, Mr. Fujimori told his favorite television talk show host, Laura Bozzo, that he did not have a girlfriend but was looking for one. He said he needed at least 10 dates to fall in love. In a previous interview, the president revealed that he had his first kiss when he was 32 -- not with Ms. Higuchi, but with a German teacher at the end of a class.

As for Ms. Higuchi, she said in an interview that she had no interest in meeting other men, and that she had dedicated her life to Jesus.

"I am too busy with my work," she said.