Peru's Fujimori Seen Hindering Reform

Reuters -- 6 October 2000

by Jude Webber

LIMA (Reuters) - Peru's President Alberto Fujimori (news - web sites) is an obstacle to democracy and his continued presence in office, despite his announcement of early elections, is causing instability, according to a new poll published on Friday.

The findings were echoed by Jesse Helms, chairman of the U.S. Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, who warned of ``ample room for mischief -- or far worse'' in Peru and called on Latin America's longest-serving elected president to step down now.

``Latin American democracy suffered a great setback in Peru this year,'' Helms said in an Oct. 3 letter to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, made public late on Thursday.

``While the prospect of new elections is encouraging, we must do all we can to assist Peru in replacing its corrupt intelligence apparatus and to ensure that Fujimori and (disgraced spy chief Vladimiro) Montesinos are no longer impediments to democratic reform in Peru,'' he said.

Fujimori, in office since 1990, made the shock announcement of new elections and the deactivation of his notorious intelligence service (SIN) three weeks ago after a corruption scandal exploded over a video showing his spy chief and top aide, Montesinos, apparently bribing an opposition legislator.

Fujimori, whose autocratic leadership has straddled a line between dictatorship and democracy, said he would not seek re-election but would stay in office until July. Elections are expected in six months but no date has yet been set.

The news sparked fears at home and abroad that Montesinos -- accused variously of being a CIA (news - web sites) spy, profiting from drug lords, authorizing death squads and ordering torture -- was inciting his powerful friends in the military to stage a coup.

To calm tensions, Montesinos was bundled out of the country to seek asylum in Panama with U.S. and Latin American support.

But the survey, by pollsters Analistas & Consultores, found 62.6 percent of 450 Lima residents questioned believed Fujimori remained an obstacle to a strengthening of democracy in Peru.

Some 72 percent saw him as a factor of instability. The poll did not reflect opinion outside the capital. Fujimori, a former professor who burst into politics from nowhere in 1990, has cultivated a loyal following in Peru's poor provinces.

Clean Up ``This Trash''

Anti-Fujimori protesters washed Peru's red and white flag in protest at ``dirty politics'' in Lima's Plaza Mayor on Friday and handed out black garbage bags bearing mugshots of Fujimori and Montesinos and the slogan: ``Put trash in the trash.'' ''There won't be a democratization process until all vestiges of this mafia are out of power,'' said ``trash'' campaign organizer Emilio Santistevan. He wants people to fill the bags with rubbish and dump them in the streets every day.

Since Fujimori's announcement, Peru's Congress has approved a law to ``deactivate'' the SIN and has passed constitutional changes needed for elections in a key sign of progress.

Helms praised Fujimori for taking ``important steps toward restoring democracy'' but said Montesinos appeared to have blackmailed the international community by threatening a coup and was likely to continue ``behind-the-scenes manipulation''.

He hoped the United States and international community would agree that ``the rehabilitation of institutions and trust that are preconditions for democracy in Peru will be impeded if Fujimori insists on remaining in office for another year''.

``Given his controversial and divisive role ... should we not seek to persuade President Fujimori that he can best serve his country by turning over power to a caretaker?'' he added.

Despite progress toward elections, big questions remain.

Opposition leaders want to know why, if Fujimori was duped by Montesinos as Peru's first lady, his daughter Keiko Sofia Fujimori, claims, he has yet to ratify the SIN law.

Meanwhile, Montesinos' fate remains up in the air. Panama is expected to decide on his asylum request by mid-month and Spain is also working to find him a home, probably in Morocco.

Perhaps the biggest question is whether Montesinos loyalists will continue to run the military. The current chiefs are due to retire at the end of the year and military analysts say generals not loyal to the spy chief, who would have been in line for promotion, have been ousted -- and are now appealing.