Peru Under a New Dark Cloud

The Los Angeles Times -- 17 March 2002

by Hector Tobar

LIMA, Peru -- This nation's true-life soap opera, a saga of bribes, lies and videotape, has finally gone into reruns. The intelligence chief who blackmailed much of the Peruvian political elite with secretly recorded tapes is completing his ninth month behind bars.

Democracy is flowering again--which means angry crowds are free to take to the streets nearly every working day to demand jobs and food. And Peruvians can say openly how little they think of their new president, Alejandro Toledo, a hero of the battle against the regime of discredited President Alberto Fujimori.

Poverty and unemployment are proving to be as much a test to Peru's fragile democracy as any plot cooked up by Vladimiro Montesinos, the jailed spymaster who, along with Fujimori, transformed Peru during the 1990s into a Kafkaesque empire of venality and fear. "People think that if you restore democracy after 10 years of corruption, then automatically everyone will have work," Toledo said in a recent interview with editors and reporters in New York. "This is a difficult mission to complete."

When Toledo plays host to President Bush here this month, he will do so with one of the lowest overall approval ratings of any Latin American leader: about 30%, according to two recent polls.

Toledo blames Montesinos for many of his difficulties, saying the ex-spy remains a dark force undermining efforts at recovery and reform. The president argues that Montesinos still wields influence over judges, television stations and reporters--even from prison, where he is awaiting trial on dozens of corruption and homicide charges.

"This guy is a meshuggena," the U.S.-educated Toledo said in New York, using a Yiddish word for a crazy person. "He goes to court, and he has the supreme judges by the you-know-where."

Polls Find High Disapproval Ratings

But Peruvians appear more worried about Toledo. They wonder if the president, who proved so adept at organizing the street protests that helped end the reign of Montesinos and Fujimori, can run a country.

According to a poll by Apoyo, a Lima-based firm, 62% of respondents disapprove of Toledo's performance as president. A similar poll by the University of Lima found that 63% of respondents were disaffected. It is an astonishing fall for a man who won a resounding election victory last June.

"People aren't that worried about corruption anymore," said Augusto Alvarez Rodrich, managing director of Apoyo. "But Toledo has this mental block. He tells himself: 'Things are going bad for me because Montesinos is working behind my back to undermine me.' "

Apoyo also found that 49% of those polled thought that Toledo should make creating jobs his priority. Only 2% thought that he should focus on investigating Montesinos and Fujimori, while 3% thought that he should concentrate on fighting corruption.

Toledo could be forgiven for being paranoid about the lingering power of his nemesis, Montesinos, who is imprisoned at a high-security base outside Lima, the capital. Fujimori is living in exile in Japan, defying a Peruvian warrant for his arrest on corruption charges.

Sifting through the detritus of the Fujimori-Montesinos era continues to occupy several dozen government inquiries. The latest "Vladivideos," released in December, featured top television executives accepting six-figure bribes from Montesinos in 1999 and 2000. In February, prosecutors replayed in court the first "Vladivideo" made public; a congressman on trial for corruption was forced to watch himself on tape through the bars of a courtroom cell.

With much of Toledo's energies focused on the corruption inquiries, the wave of protests seems to have caught the government by surprise.

"I think it's true that Montesinos still has power," Alvarez Rodrich said. "But that power has been exaggerated. Let's say you took Montesinos out of the equation. The economic problems would still be there."

In February, cotton workers demanding better wages blocked roads into the capital for several days. Demonstrators looted stores and attacked government buildings in the provincial town of Chimbote, where Toledo spent his childhood.

Construction workers are planning to strike this month, as are provincial government leaders in southern Peru who are angry at Toledo's privatization plans.

Leaders of Toledo's political movement, Peru Possible, have been locked in a power struggle. An ongoing war in neighboring Colombia is threatening to create havoc in northern Peru. More than a few Peruvians fear that their country is slipping into the sort of anarchy that brought Fujimori to power.

"What this country needs more than anything is a bit of order," said Mary Gonzales Diaz, a mother of three who works as a driver for the city of Lima. "There are too many demonstrations. I voted for Toledo. I don't think he's a bad man. But they're not letting him govern. You get the impression that he's not going to last very long."

Will Peruvians give Toledo enough time to sort out the country's profound economic and social problems? Unemployment has been rising steadily for four years and stands at about 10%, though some studies put the level of underemployment as high as 40%.

"There is a strong desire among the political class to give Toledo a chance," said Julio Cotler, a sociologist at the Institute of Peruvian Studies in Lima. "That, in itself, is a sign of progress. Not everyone is trying to bring him down. They realize that if Toledo goes down, they all might go down."

Cotler believes that Toledo has made important gains in restoring respect to Peru's battered democratic institutions, especially to its court system. At the same time, he thinks that the new president's inexperience has come into play in the first few months of the new administration, as Toledo quickly became known for making contradictory promises and public gaffes.

"Politics is an art form, one that Toledo is still learning," Cotler said, adding: "People want to see leadership. They want Toledo to say, 'This is where we're going and how we're going to get there.' "

Having grown up in a provincial family, Toledo was rescued from poverty by religious workers who sent him away to the United States to be educated. Now, his support has dropped most precipitously among the sector whose votes helped make him the first person of indigenous descent to be elected Peru's president: the poor.

"We understand Toledo hasn't had much time [in office], but there are still so many things to do," said Belen Ocona, 31, who joined a group of shantytown residents in a recent march on the Government Palace. "We want potable water, light, work and food, the basic needs. We're not asking for miracles."

Job Program Hasn't Had Much Impact

In central Lima's Plaza de Armas, Cesar Gonzales, 23, said he would be willing to give Toledo more time--"at least a year more"--to sort things out. His patience is laudatory considering his position: He shines shoes, just as Toledo used to as a youth.

"There isn't much work where I live," Gonzales said. "You go to apply for a job, and 100 people show up for one opening."

Toledo's job creation program, called To Work, has yet to have much of an impact since it began last year. The government says 40,000 rural jobs have been created. The urban portion of the program was launched in January, with a target of 60,000 jobs.

All the while, the controversies surrounding the reign of Fujimori and Montesinos linger, threatening to become a permanent distraction to the government. The top prosecutor in the Montesinos case said recently that it could take five years to sort through all the charges surrounding the spymaster.

This month, an unnamed "witness one" told members of the Peruvian Congress investigating the alleged crimes of the Fujimori-Montesinos regime that army intelligence had an incinerator in the basement of its headquarters to burn the bodies of suspected guerrillas who fell into their custody.

On March 5, two members of Congress toured the basement of the headquarters to see whether the story was just another rumor, like many others that have surfaced about the dark days of Peru's recent past.

Using a map provided by the witness, the lawmakers found something hidden behind plates of scrap metal--an incinerator. Tests will be conducted to determine whether it was used to burn bodies.