Peruvian Leader's Image Problems Add to Political Woes

New York Times -- 4 November 2001

by Clifford Krauss

LIMA, Peru - Peruvians, who are not known for their punctuality, have a new explanation for their tardiness. When late for an appointment, they now typically say they are on "Toledo Time" or "Cabana Time" a reference to the town where President Alejandro Toledo grew up.

The jokes are just one sign that three months after his inauguration, Mr. Toledo has mounting image problems that are distracting from his efforts to resuscitate an economy hobbled by three years of political unrest.

Peruvian news organizations appear fixated on how many hours Mr. Toledo keeps his cabinet or foreign dignitaries waiting for appointments, on which five-star restaurant he ventured to the night before, and whether he arrives on any particular day at the presidential palace for work before noon.

Mr. Toledo's personal life, which involves a continuing paternity suit and a jaunty social life, hurt him during his 2000 campaign against former President Alberto K. Fujimori and again in his campaign that won him the presidency in a race against another former president, Alan García, by a narrow margin earlier this year.

Now they are translating into plummeting popularity in the polls, growing friction within his cabinet and his party's congressional delegation, and stinging public criticisms from the business community.

"We need to define ourselves better," Justice Minister Fernando Olivera conceded in an interview. "There's an impatience among the people and I understand that but it is being pushed by certain elements and parts of the press that want to destabilize the government."

Mr. Toledo's advisers say that his accomplishments since his inauguration on July 28 are not getting the recognition they deserve.

They note that his call during his inaugural address for a regional cutback in military spending has generated meaningful negotiations with Ecuador and Chile that appear to be advancing. Pleas for donations from Spain, the United States and other allies recently bore fruit with pledges of more than $1 billion in fresh foreign assistance that will go to a variety of rural development programs over the next two years.

And despite criticisms that Mr. Toledo has not advanced a coherent economic policy, supporters say he has resisted pressures to increase government spending that would cause inflationary budget deficits and raise interest rates.

"I ask the press to let us function," Doris Sánchez, the minister for women's affairs and an increasingly important spokeswoman for Mr. Toledo, pleaded this week. She promised that Mr. Toledo "will re-launch his government" in the coming days, an implicit admission that the normal honeymoon period following the inauguration has been rocky.

Governing Peru has never been an easy task given a history of terrorism, corruption, tensions between military and civilian authorities, and a population divided by geography and racial division. Mr. Toledo faces a particularly difficult task in taking over the country at just the time that prices of its main mineral and fishing exports are low, and the economies of its main trading partners are slowing.

Mr. Toledo has set out to purge the security forces of elements allied with Vladimiro Montesinos, Mr. Fujimori's former intelligence chief, who still exerts influence from a high- security naval prison while awaiting trial for gun-running, money-laundering and leading death-squad activities.

Cleansing the military is all the more difficult because Mr. Toledo must also confront the recent re- emergence of some Maoist Shining Path terrorist units in remote jungle regions. Western diplomats say they fear that an apparent increase in coca plantings in recent months could fuel the rebels' cause with protection money, much as it has in Colombia.

Such long-term threats are hard to manage when day-to-day problems flare up with regularity.

There have been almost daily street protests around the country and they have become increasingly violent in recent weeks. Doctors and nurses recently went on a 24-hour strike charging that Mr. Toledo had abandoned his campaign promises to increase spending on public health. Other groups have faulted him for not keeping his manifold campaign promises. Protesters in several southern cities have blocked roads to advance their claim that Mr. Toledo is not fulfilling campaign pledges to improve their local transportation systems.

Mr. Toledo has blamed the protests on mayors who in his view are still allied with Mr. Fujimori, who resigned and fled to Japan last year to escape prosecution on corruption and human rights charges.

"A lot of money is being spent with the aim of destabilizing democracy," Mr. Toledo said in a recent national television address.

In recent days, Mr. Toledo has returned to some of the poorest provinces to improve his image, riding horseback through villages, wearing Indian clothing, dedicating new public works, and appearing with young students using computers for the first time.

Mr. Toledo has pledged to make education and jobs his first priorities, but his message has been muffled by a number of missteps.

One of his first decisions, taking a raise the lifted his salary substantially, to $18,000 a month, the highest of any head of state in Latin America, has been roundly criticized as insensitive at a time when Peruvians are suffering through a recession.

His recent trip to a summit meeting of heads of state in Shanghai was overshadowed by the Japanese government's denial of a statement from Mr. Toledo, that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told him that Mr. Fujimori would be tried in Japan on corruption charges.

After Mr. Toledo returned home, the news that his nephew, Jorge, had joined in the official travel delegation raised questions and a variety of contradictory responses about what the nephew was doing in China, and what agency was paying him and his expenses.