The President who failed his nation

The Times -- 03 May 2001

by Martin Barrow

Peru is a chaotic nation, divided by mistrust among its own people. But there is one matter on which virtually all Peruvians are united: their hatred of Lori Berenson, a 31-year-old New Yorker. The scandal surrounding Berenson, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1996 for collaborating with Marxist guerrillas, reflects the anarchy and corruption of life under Alberto Fujimori's Government.

Berenson was accused of working with the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), on an abortive plot to take over Congress. She is widely perceived as an archetypal naive American; well-intentioned, but with no business taking sides in the complex and frequently violent politics that characterise the country. Berenson has pleaded not guilty. But if found guilty at the civilian retrial currently being held in Lima (granted last year after Alberto Fujimori, under pressure from Washington, overturned her original conviction), she faces another 20 years in jail.

Her refusal to denounce MRTA has infuriated ordinary Peruvians worn down by the corruption of their politicians and the decade-long campaign of terrorism waged by Shining Path, a Maoist guerrilla organisation that has bombed the country's infrastructure and electrity networks, set fire to farms and taken high-profile hostages. It is happening against a backdrop of grinding poverty that shows no signs of abating, at a time when other Latin American nations are enjoying a degree of economic recovery.

Peru, a country more than ten times the size of the UK, has a population of almost 24 million. More than seven million of its inhabitants live in Lima, one of South America's most crowded cities. Most of its residents have migrated from impoverished towns and villages in the Andes, where communities eke out a meagre living from smallholdings, using farming methods not seen in Britain since the 19th century. Lima is ringed by shanty towns, with homes made from sheets of corrugated iron or esteras, made from matted reeds. Sanitation is non-existent.

These swarming masses turned to Fujimori in 1990, when the hitherto unknown agronomist emerged as a presidential candidate with a promise to sweep away the old political elite with a new style of government. His Japanese origins became an asset, suggesting he could form a government with the business acumen that has brought prosperity to Peru's sizeable Japanese community. He dealt ruthlessly with Shining Path, giving the military a free rein to put down the insurgency. Thousands of innocent civilians, living in remote communities in the Andes, are believed to have been killed, caught in the crossfire.

Fujimori's Government stabilised the economy, ridding it of the hyperinflation of the 1980s. But on the streets of Lima today there is little evidence to suggest that the burden on Peru's poorest people has been lifted.

The failures of modern Peru cause as much bewilderment among its inhabitants as they do to students of the Inca civilisation that ruled the Andean region for centuries, leaving a rich legacy in architecture, art and education. In fewer than 500 years since the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores a civilisation has been wasted.

It should all have been so different. Peru remains rich in natural resources such as oil and gas, gold and silver. The country once had a vibrant fishing industry, based on the Pacific Ocean that has also formed some of the continent's most beautiful and uncrowded beaches and natural harbours. The Amazon jungle, the Inca ruins in Machu Picchu and the Nazca lines should attract hundreds of thousands of tourists.

Yet the immediate outlook is bleak. The country's next leader may well be Alan Garcia, a former president who left office in disgrace, with Peru's economy in a state of collapse. He was ousted after a campaign was waged against him by Fujimori's supporters. Garcia's ineptitude paved the way for Fujimori's arrival in the presidential palace.