This Revolution Is Being Televised

New York Times Magazine -- 24 February 2001

by Alberto Fuguet

Alberto Fuguet is the author of "Tinta Roja," a novel about tabloid journalism, which was recently made into a film in Peru.

The thick fog creeps into Lima in a B-movie kind of way. It's a Sunday afternoon, winter dark and already time for prime time. Though the multiplex across the street is full of movies, I know that the place to be is here: in my hotel, watching TV, a too-warm room-service ceviche by my side.

Clad only in dark boxer shorts, Kenyi Fujimori, 15, the son of President Alberto Fujimori, still in office at the time, is starring in a video being shown on "Tiempo Nuevo" ("New Times"), a Sunday news program akin to "60 Minutes." He steps out of the bathroom and stares into his brother Hiro's camera and smiles. He sure has a lot to smile about. He's young and proud, and he owns the world. Well, maybe not the world, but his world: Peru. Without losing his close-up (this family, after all, knows a thing or two about the media), he begins to sing "Las Mananitas," the classic Mexican birthday ranchera (cowboy ballad). His face, with its scattering of pimples covered with white acne medication, is full of glee.

This is not Peru's funniest home video, but it is making me laugh. Laugh and cringe. It was shot by Kenyi, his brother and various friends. But why is it on the air? Should I keep watching?

The year "1996" is clearly visible in the bottom left of the screen. But the scene has shifted to a meeting between President Fujimori and his shady and influential spy chief, Vladimiro Ilich Montesinos. It would be another four years before Fujimori would resign in disgrace and Montesinos would disappear under bizarre circumstances. In the video, they are talking mano a mano, plotting and scheming.

"Does this record sound?" the president, a tad nervous, asks his son.

Cut to jumpy, fuzzy scenes inside a house.

The camera steadies. The decor is all very huachafo -- kitsch, gaudy. Where are we? The presidential palace? A frail old Asian lady in a robe scolds her grandsons. They have been urinating on the toilet lid. Too much Gatorade, Kenyi says, laughing, teasing her. The Asian woman barely speaks Spanish. She's the president's Japanese mother. Where is the mother of these children? Susana Higuchi has fled the family long since and turned into a stern opposition congresswoman. The teenage Kenyi has opted to stay with his father.

Cut. Rewind.

Kenyi, angry, violent, is kick-boxing a heavy punching bag that hangs from the ceiling. He knows how to kick. He's the true Karate Kid. He has international awards to prove it.

Cut. Fast-forward.

Kenyi and his bodyguard pals, high up in the mountains. A military helicopter is behind him, and a hundred peasants stand in the background. Are they here to help, to rescue, to impose the law? It's not clear. Kenyi totes a rifle. Kenyi, with a Planet Hollywood baseball cap, screams and plays and sings and hollers. He shows off the gun, gets into military pose. Kenyi aims to shoot Tauro, his dog. Rambo Kenyi plays with the dog. Kenyi kisses the dog, wet tongue kisses, shows the dog all his adolescent love. Kenyi now cuddles and teases the dog, grabs him and then gets really down and dirty with the pooch, which looks embarrassed. Then he grunts and says, "The dogs in this country take better care of their soldiers than the women."

Cut. Kenyi urinating on the dog in front of the peasants.

Cut back to "Tiempo Nuevo." The program has just undergone a democratic face-lift to get in sync with these new post-Fujimori, times. "It's important to know all the truth," the talking head deadpans. Just a few months before, he -- like all the other talking heads on all the other broadcast stations in Peru -- was on the other side, Fujimori's side, delivering puff pieces on the government and dropping venom-drenched sound bites on the opposition.

"We will be back after these messages."

I went to Lima to cover a revolution (O.K., the end of a 10-year postmodern diet-lite dictatorship) and ended up watching TV. Not your usual CNN broadcasts of mobs running through tear-gas-clouded streets and anti-riot police clubbing bearded students. Post-Fujimori Lima was actually quiet, and the void of power was filled in the most civilized of ways. What scared and appalled and addicted me was what was on TV -- the new democratic TV. Fujimori and Montesinos were gone, but their TV ghosts were still all over the screen.

And everyone was watching. From the minute you see the makeshift shantytowns with the dirt-floored cardboard houses unfailingly equipped with shiny TV antennas, you sense that in Peru, as elsewhere in Latin America, TV is important. But here it is even more so.

"In Peru, TV doesn't reflect the country, it is the country," Rafo Leon, a writer and satirist, tells me while sipping a decaf in a sidewalk cafe. And the broadcasters have a voracious audience, what Leon calls the "NewPe's." These are the Inca descendants and mestizos who have fled the Sierras for Lima, exchanging their colorful Peruvian wool caps for fake Nikes and secondhand Adidas T-shirts.

"A new Peruvian has been born, a Peruvian raised under Fujimori and globalization," Leon says. "The perfect example of the NewPe is the just-arrived-to-Lima teenage peasant, with a boom box blaring techno-cumbia that stimulates his most primitive impulses. That kid is Peru."

So it's no surprise that the endgame of the Fujimori years should be played out on TV, in a stream of raunchy and scandalous videos. While other countries in Latin America have had to dig up human remains tossed from military helicopters, Peru's transitional government (elections are scheduled for April) has had to deal with scratchy sound and bad focus to try to understand what happened and who did exactly what.

There are more than 2,400 compromising videos circulating in Lima today. Of those, only a relative handful have been made public, but each one lands like O.J.'s Bronco in Peru's overheated media culture. In one, Montesinos is seen distributing monthly "stipends" to a roomful of appreciative judges. In another, a legislator, Ernesto Gamarra of the Independent Moralizing Front, who was in charge of investigating Montesinos, is caught palling around with one of Montesinos's aides and, apparently, accepting a payment. (Gamarra denies taking a bribe.) Each time a new video emerges, regular programming is interrupted, news channels repeat the tape endlessly and late-night and Sunday news programs devote their entire time slots to analyzing the contents. At the end of the food chain, the video inevitably ends up as fodder for jokes on gossip and talk shows, as well as on late-night TV.

So far, there's only one home video -- Kenyi's. The rest were shot by that renowned auteur Vladimiro Montesinos. A narco-linked, gun-running fan of the Cayman Islands, Montesinos was the virtual commander of the armed forces and the boss of the aptly named S.I.N., the Servicio de Inteligencia Nacional. Favoring double-breasted suits, Italian silk ties and diamond-encrusted watches, Montesinos was also a sort of postmodern Nixon who liked to tape all of his conversations (he had cameras hidden in paintings) for the express purpose of blackmailing the journalists, legislators, judges and sundry public officials who trudged to his office through the years to negotiate bribes.

Reports in the Peruvian press say that at least 800 of these secret videos were obtained by Fujimori himself, after leading an illegal raid on Montesinos's apartment and removing 65 suitcases and 71 boxes. Once he found the 100 or so videos he wanted (the ones, presumably, with him and Montesinos), the soon-to-be-ex-president handed over the rest of the video-packed boxes (each one neatly labeled with the names of its "stars") to his Ministry of Justice, flew to Japan and resigned by fax.

All the "Vladivideos" -- the 700 donated by Fujimori and more than 1,600 others taken from Montesinos's full-of-70's-leather quarters in El Pentagonito, "the little Pentagon" -- are now being screened by Peru's Ministry of Justice as part of a continuing investigation of official corruption. The videos are being held in a tightly guarded bank vault, but a dozen are in heavy rotation on Peruvian television.

It's hard to recall now, but there was a time in the early 90's when Western leaders spoke approvingly of the "Fujimori revolution," a mix of neoliberal economic policies, globalization and democratization. But overlooked in all this was Fujimori's one truly revolutionary contribution -- the development and exploitation of a ubiquitous and influential mass media.

Subsidized and state-controlled under a series of leftist governments in the 70's and 80's, the country's seven broadcast channels and several cable channels were unleashed in the early 90's by Fujimori. Within a few years, Farrah Fawcett and David Janssen had given way to home-grown stars and talk-show hosts: today, 90 percent of Peruvian programming is locally produced. Raucous, sexy tabloids sprouted everywhere; you can choose from 12 in Lima today. No longer controlled by Peru's elite, the media began to cultivate a new audience the NewPe's who were flooding the capital.

But while the media were no longer state-supported, neither were they independent. The NewPe's had numbers, but not much disposable income. State subsidies were still needed to support what the immature advertising market could not. "Fujimori's aim was to get the most people to watch TV," Fernando Vivas, a television critic, says as he sips his yellow Inca Kola. "Call it digital demagoguery. The TV channels turned populist, and the government was their biggest advertiser." And as a result, their master.

The co-optation started innocently enough, with appeals to support the campaign against the terrorist group Sendero Luminoso. But one thing led to another, and pretty soon the stations were following Montesinos's dictates, reporting scurrilous "leaks" from the spy chief about his opponents or running fake stories about terrorism victims, designed to make the government look good long after terrorism had been defeated.

By last year, virtually all the TV channels were following Montesinos's scripts, and it isn't hard to see why. A recently surfaced video shows Montesinos apparently distributing $2 million among Eduardo Calmell del Solar, the editor of Expreso, a pro-Fujimori newspaper; Vicente Silva Checa, director of CCN, a local cable station; and a top military general. (None of them have been charged with a crime, and none admit any wrongdoing.) The money is apparently a payoff for supporting Fujimori's second, fraudulent re-election last year and for attacking the opposition (with embarrassing material supplied by Montesinos himself, naturally). Even Canal 11, which ran a nightly opposition-friendly talk show, was under Montesinos's thumb. (There is reportedly a video, of course, of the co-owner of Canal 11 meeting with Montesinos to receive a payment. The video has not yet surfaced, however, and the executive, who denies accepting a payoff, has not been charged with a crime.)

There were still a few truly independent voices, like El Comercio, the broadsheet paper. But its audience, as Fujimori and Montesinos knew, was too elite to count. "This is not a literate culture," Vivas says. "That is why television is so important here. Writing is not as important as images. It's all about image. Populist images invented by Montesinos that soothed and confused the population. What we have seen on the screen these last years is, without a doubt, the most sick form of mass entertainment ever seen or staged in all of Peru's history."

Before all the videos flooded Lima, there was the one that started it all. This one got the highest ratings, as well as international distribution, and brought down Peru's shabbiest video stars, Fujimori and Montesinos. In the almost-hourlong film, Montesinos is apparently bribing a Peruvian congressman, Alberto Kouri (who once appeared as an Arab in a television ad for spaghetti in Ecuador and had a small part in a soap opera), to change sides, from the opposition to the government.

"How much you want? Ten? Fifteen?"

Kouri, who fled the country, has been accused of violating Peru's anti-corruption law, a charge he denies. In the same room, as a sort of a consigliere, was Jose Francisco Crousillat -- the son of the owner of Canal 4, America TV, one of Peru's most highly rated channels, and the station's No. 2 man (who is heard on an audiotape editing the nightly news over the phone with Montesinos).

The video was exposed at a news conference by Congressman Fernando Olivera, head of the Independent Moralizing Front. But the real hero was a television journalist, Luis Iberico.

Iberico isn't saying precisely how he got the tape. He says he obtained it in a Deep Throat sort of way, after a series of meetings in strange, dark places. The video was a copy passed to Iberico by a go-between, a "patriot" he says he has sworn to protect. Most analysts assume it was a disgruntled aide to Montesinos, perhaps a military man linked to the S.I.N.

Iberico was not just any TV man, but a Canal 2 TV man. Of the seven open-air stations, Canal 2 was the last to maintain its independence. Iberico, along with Ivan Garcia and Fernando Viana, was part of an elite team of reporters for Canal 2's "Contrapunto," a Sunday news program of which Luis Iberico was the star.

In 1996, after years of supporting Fujimori's fight against terrorism, Iberico's team began to investigate and broadcast some of Montesinos's latest accomplishments: a massacre of 15 "supposed" Sendero sympathizers, the "disappearance" of nine students and their professor and the uncovering of the S.I.N.'s complex web of telephone tapping of key opposition figures.

In response, the government stripped the station owner, the Israeli-born Baruch Ivcher, of his nationality and then -- because the law prohibits foreign ownership of the media -- his station. In 1997, Ivcher was forced into exile, and the channel was taken over by his partners, Samuel and Mendel Winter, who swiftly tuned their antennas to Montesinos's frequency.

Though off the air, and kicked out of the channel, Iberico's team obtained the famous video and two more (showing Montesinos with the military) and soon became known as the Blockbuster Team. Since Canal 2's executives were toadying to Montesinos, Iberico gave the material to Canal N, an all-news cable channel run by a bunch of 20-somethings and, until then, watched by just about no one. But when the world got hold of these videos, even the government-friendly stations got in on the action. A couple of days later, Fujimori announced that he would dismantle the S.I.N. and resign in a year. He escaped two months later.

All this makes Canal 2 a symbol -- democratic Peru's Bastille. The country's interim president, Valentin Paniagua, restored Ivcher's citizenship, so he is now back, "Contrapunto" is on the air and Canal 2 has cleaned up its S.I.N.-scented act and now has the best talent in town. Iberico, who won a seat in Congress last April, must decide whether to resume his journalistic career or stay in politics.

Meanwhile, having chewed up the dictator and his henchman, the media circus plays on. While in post-Fujimori Lima, I was treated to a nonstop parade of bizarre images, harsh language, colorful sets, tons of cleavage, crude double-entendres and just plain vicious, not-so-funny, shocking, I-can't-believe-I'm-watching-this malice. It occurred to me after a few days of this onslaught that Lima may well be the Los Angeles of South America.

Many times I felt as if I'd been there before, and on more than a couple of occasions it seemed to me that I was, in fact, in L.A., but in a tougher, sleazier, pre-corporate Hollywood. You could easily set a gritty, sordid film-noir epic of sex, rumors, betrayals, blackmail, bribes, scandal and corruption in Lima. For it seems that everyone here has a sordid story (an accusation of pedophilia has never hurt the ratings), a tough rumor, an unexplainable video. Almost anyone can be accused of almost anything, because nothing seems too low, too scandalous to be true.

Lima is no company town, but like Hollywood, it produces more entertainment than art. Montesinos's digital revolution has been exported all over Latin America, Spain and the United States. Peruvian soaps and the revolting-but-fascinating talk show "Laura en America" (in which the host, Laura Bozzo, rakes in money and ratings with cheap shots like inducing peasant women to lick the armpits of sweaty, pint-size bodybuilders) are all hits and are exported worldwide. (One soap star even has a following in Romania.)

Add to all this too many humoristas callejeros (street vaudevillians), gossip queens and the dozen dirt-cheap, colorful, awful, blood-infected chicha tabloids with spread-eagle centerfolds, and you've got a setting. Sprinkle it all with great food, too much readily available, almost-free cocaine, a throbbing soundtrack of techno-cumbia and a cast full of charming, colorful, funny, double-timing, badly-dressed characters, and you get a new kind of magical realism. Who needs Garcia Marquez's Macondo when you've got Fujimori's McOndo?

On my last night in Lima, while I was walking down Jiron de La Union, Lima's narrow pedestrians-only main street, just blocks from the presidential palace, which is still bugged, a young bronze-colored woman began to follow me. She carried an ultra-thin state-of-the-art Walkman.

"Hey! You want something to suck?"

"Perdon? Excuse me?"

"Un aparato para chuponear, pues," she explained to me, "a sucking gadget."

What the street vendor was selling wasn't drugs or some kinky sex toy. It was a sort of spy toy designed to let you eavesdrop on conversations that take place in another room.

"Why would I want something like this?" I asked her.

"To see if they are talking about you. You never now what people might be saying."