Peru Spotlights Democracy Woes in Latin America

Los Angeles Times -- 28 May 2000

by Sebastian Rotella, Times Staff Writer

LIMA, Peru--Only three years before the landmark political crisis that has engulfed Peru, former Argentine Foreign Minister Guido di Tella scanned a wall map during an interview and called democratic conditions in Latin America "too good to be true."

Free elections, free speech and free markets had sunk roots across the region, the foreign minister said, allowing leaders to concentrate on the "next wave" of reforms in areas such as education and justice.

The map looks a lot different today. After a decade in which clean elections were a solid achievement of societies struggling to build truly democratic institutions, the foundations of democracy tremble across a large chunk of the region.

Peru is the most urgent case in point. Peruvians will elect a defiant President Alberto Fujimori to a third five-year term in a one-candidate election today that has been condemned by the international community.

Peru crossed a dangerous line when Fujimori's government rejected appeals from election observers and diplomats last week to postpone a vote marred by charges of fraud.

This panorama makes Fujimori's latest step toward authoritarianism a disturbing paradigm for Peru's neighbors. David Scott Palmer, a Peru expert at Boston University, fears a "progressive erosion of democratic principles" in the region.

"If Fujimori can pull off a clear exception to democratic procedure and practice, that could encourage other non-democrats," said Palmer. "The U.S. knows that what happens in Peru is related to what is happening in Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico."

Mexico will soon hold elections in which the opposition hopes to unseat a ruling party that has held power for seven decades and is widely regarded as corrupt. Ecuador recently suffered the continent's first military coup in 20 years. Venezuela's increasingly authoritarian regime just postponed a presidential election amid technical problems and wild talk of a U.S. conspiracy. Paraguay imposed a state of siege last week after a coup attempt; Bolivia did the same last month. Lawless Colombia is mired in a war against guerrillas.

In a statement whose toughness underscored larger U.S. concerns, President Clinton warned Friday that the failure to hold free and fair elections will inevitably affect Peru's relations with the United States. The warning suggests that the United States will back a strategy of diplomatic pressure on Peru that could involve cuts in economic aid and other reprisals. The lead player will likely be the Organization of American States, whose foreign ministers will surely consider the Peru issue at an upcoming meeting in Canada. Already, the OAS has led international condemnation by refusing to endorse Peru's election process and withdrawing its team of observers.

Because Fujimori has a keen sense of his international image, he is likely looking at the map as well. With his typical mix of combativeness and pragmatism, he seems convinced that any reprisals will be short-term and largely symbolic. Fujimori withstood a similar barrage of diplomatic pressure after shutting down Congress in a 1992 "self-coup"; he knows that the current turmoil in the continent helps him more than it hurts him.

The U.S. and other international forces will be reluctant to impose sanctions or other harsh measures because Peru remains one of the most economically and militarily stable nations in the Andean region, analysts say. Peru's aggressive campaign of coca eradication and downings of smuggling planes makes it a key ally in the drug war, for example.

The Fujimori camp has mounted a nationalistic counterattack on its foreign and Peruvian critics.

"I'm not worried about Clinton's little tantrum," congressional Deputy Marta Chavez said Saturday. "The external front doesn't worry me."

Chavez, a Fujimori die-hard, seems feisty as ever despite two campaign-trail rock attacks, one of which damaged the vision in her left eye. Blasting what she called a U.S. "double standard," she accused U.S. leaders of exaggerating Peru's transgressions while forgiving undemocratic abuses by China and Russia. She downplayed the potential for reductions of U.S. anti-drug funds and, for good measure, alleged that high-ranking U.S. officials are involved in the international drug trade.

The congresswoman also scoffed at a plan by former candidate Alejandro Toledo, who is boycotting the runoff, to lead opposition to the regime with a campaign of civil disobedience and with his bloc of congressional deputies. If Toledo forges coalitions with other opposition forces when a new Congress convenes in late July, he could deny the president a legislative majority for the first time since 1993. The most optimistic opposition leaders hope to force Fujimori to call early elections.

"There will be some effervescence among students and certain unions, but Toledo's support is already declining," Chavez said. "The Peruvian people do not like disorder; they do not like violence. He has lost presence in the streets."

The streets were calm Saturday after days of unrest. But the Toledo forces planned to express their anger today by either staying away from the polls or writing "no to fraud" on their ballots. Toledo has announced that he will lead peaceful protests after the polls close.

The president's insistence on holding the election represents "the death of democracy in Peru," Toledo told journalists Saturday. "I have made the firm decision to lead the fight for the rebuilding of democracy."

Toledo reiterated his commitment to nonviolence and said he will not make overtures to the military because that could further weaken democracy here.

"I fervently hope that the armed forces do not play a role," he said. While he refrained from calling for foreign sanctions, he said the government has all but invited retaliation by an international community that increasingly views democracy as a key aspect of globalization. "We could end up isolated. The government is trying to be selectively globalized."

And Toledo joined international human rights and press organizations in denouncing the latest case in which Fujimori's powerful intelligence service is accused of manipulating the election process and persecuting journalists.

The case involves journalist Francisco Salazar, who was hospitalized last week after he allegedly was tortured by agents of the national intelligence service. Salazar claimed that the agents burst into his office and cut his arm with a saw-like instrument while interrogating him about compromising videotapes of Vladimiro Montesinos, the presidential advisor who heads the intelligence service and is considered a power behind the throne here.

Salazar told journalists and investigators that military sources gave him videotapes that, according to Salazar, show recent clandestine meetings between Montesinos and top election officials. He alleged that the spy chief directed the officials to ensure the outcomes of specific legislative races.

Although he said he will back up his allegations, Salazar has not yet made public the videotapes. The government and pro-government media have attacked his credibility, noting that he has ties to enemies of Fujimori.

Chavez said the opposition should not seize on the case until Salazar's allegations have been thoroughly investigated.

"I think he is lending himself to a scam," Chavez said. "He should be ashamed of himself."