Fujimori's Departure is Peru's Gain

Chicago Tribune, Editorial -- 20 September 2000

The big winners in this weekend's decision by Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori to call new elections--and not run in them himself--are the people of Peru.

It is both an auspicious step for democratic forces in the South American nation and a real victory for human rights and the rule of law. Fujimori has had his turn on the stage. He was right to call it quits at a time when his legitimacy has never been more in question.

Still, he failed to set a date for new elections, which could be six months away, and so far he has not indicated whether he will step aside in the interim. That would be a good first move. The Clinton administration ought to encourage it. Another open question is whether Peru's army, which ruled the country from 1968-1980, will stand back and allow a peaceful civilian transition.

Fujimori has ruled Peru in his own autocratic style for a decade, the longest-serving elected leader in Latin America. But his assault on democracy in the recent presidential election was a stretch, even for him. It was so riddled with vote fraud that the U.S., the Organization of American States, and independent election observers all vehemently protested. Most legal experts in Peru believe his running for a third term was unconstitutional. For some, it brought back memories of 1992, when Fujimori orchestrated the "Fuji-coup" in which he shut down Congress and the Supreme Court to press his battle against a bloody guerrilla insurgency.

But it was a scandal involving his feared intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, that was the straw that broke the camel's back. A videotape shown on Peruvian television last week showed Montesinos apparently bribing an opposition party member to join the president's party. Fujimori announced Saturday that he was deactivating Montesinos' intelligence agency--accused of innumerable human rights violations. Montesinos was said to be in Lima, under investigation.

The scandal destroyed any remaining credibility Fujimori might have had with Peruvians and the outside world. The Clinton administration and the OAS must keep pressure on the Peruvian government to make good on Fujimori's promise of free and fair elections.

One way to do that is for President Clinton and the U.S. Congress to continue to threaten Peru with economic sanctions, mainly withholding aid to the Peruvian army, and to be willing to impose them if necessary.

To be sure, Fujimori proved a good U.S. ally against drug traffickers. He tamed hyperinflation, defeated the guerrillas and introduced market reforms. But the cost came in thousands of lives and human rights abuses, tainting the achievements of which he is most proud.