The Americas: Peruvians Are Growing Weary--and Wary--of 'El Chino'

The Wall Street Journal -- 29 October 1999

by Mary Anastasia O'Grady, who edits the Americas column.

Last week, at a luncheon in Washington, I chatted with a Peruvian immigrant who was waiting tables. Eager to talk about his country with someone who had been there, he tried to impress upon me how it much it has changed for the better since the election of President Alberto Fujimori. After a cascade of compliments about the two-term president and the recitation of a litany of "Fuji" accomplishments, he concluded with "But it is time for him to go."

After taking office in 1990, in the aftermath of the disastrous socialist Alan Garcia presidency, Mr. Fujimori conquered hyperinflation and the Maoist Shining Path guerilla movement and reignited growth by privatizing and liberalizing the economy. He might well expect to be popular. Nevertheless, with less than six months to go before the April presidential election, polls indicate that a good number of Peruvians, like the Washington waiter, favor a change in the executive office.

A strong voter sentiment that Peru would be best off with a new president appears to have put Mr. Fujimori, who promises that he will announce his candidacy by December, on the offensive. Now there is a growing suspicion that the bold and decisive "El Chino," who strutted through the Japanese embassy in Lima in a flak jacket after the rescue of the hostages, is too willing to sacrifice any number of civil liberties in Peru's nascent democracy in order to reach his goal.

If this is true, it is indeed unfortunate since part of a successful legacy for Mr. Fujimori requires that he participate in the strengthening of democratic institutions, including a smooth transition to a new president. Yet allegations coming from an ever-widening circle of critics, indicate that he is instead hungry for continued power.

The controversy begins with the fact that in order to launch a bid for re-election, Mr. Fujimori first needed some help in skirting the prohibition against a third term set out in the 1993 constitution. Congress, which is heavily weighted with his supporters accommodated him in 1996, arguing that since the 1993 constitution was introduced after his first term began, he is entitled to two full terms post-1993. Court challenges to the new law failed but that didn't inspire confidence from the opposition. As is typical of many Latin American countries today, Peru's courts are not entirely free of political influences. Indeed, Mr. Fujimori's opponents contend that the firing of three constitutional tribunal judges who were against the new legislation proves the lack of judicial independence.

Critics charge that the president already is committing offenses against liberal democracy, aside from whatever pressure he puts on the courts. In 1995 Mr. Fujimori used increases in "social" spending to lock up his election. Now he is accused of engaging in additional activities to boost his popularity, promoting yellow journalism and making pernicious use of the tax authority to clamp down on opponents.

There are now two leading oppostion candidates, Lima's Mayor, Alberto Andrade, and Luis Castañeda, a lawyer and the former social security chief in the first Fujimori government. Mr. Andrade has a solid reputation, having cleaned up both the bureaucracy and the streets of Lima. Mr. Castañeda gets credit for modernizing the country's social security administration.

The president's standing in the polls with respect to both candidates suggests he might not be able to win outright in the first round and could lose in the second, possibly to Mr. Castañeda.

Still, Mr. Castañeda has been slipping in the polls, a fact some attribute to a government financed media campaign to weaken the opposition. Last week several Peruvian journalists resigned in protest from the Lima tabloid El Chato, alleging that the Fujimori government had paid handsome sums to the paper over the last ten months in exchange for banner headlines trashing Mr. Andrade and Mr. Castañeda. Journalists from the Lima tabloid, El Tio, have made similar allegations. Examples of stories printed in El Chato include, "Castañeda Continues with Nonsense Supporting Chilean Terrorists" and "Candidate Says 'Terrorists are not that Bad.'" There was also "Fatso Andrade Rabid Against the Press; Won't Permit Them to Air His Dirty Laundry." El Chato's Hugo Borja, one of the editors who resigned in protest, says the objective was to plaster kiosks with sensational headlines in order to defame the opposition.

Allegations of abuse of power by the government's internal revenue service, known by the Spanish acronym Sunat, are also disturbing. There are reports of Sunat agents harassing Fujimori opponents and, in at least one case, searching their offices. And in August, Fernando Viaña, director of the opposition daily paper Referéndum, reported that the paper had to shut down temporarily because its printing firm was being harassed by Sunat, which refused to refinance its tax debt if it continued its Referéndum relationship. Mr. Viaña is associated with Baruch Ivcher, a leading government critic and an Israeli-born Peruvian whose citizenship was revoked in 1997 along with his control of a television station.

The Fujimori government contends that while there are imperfections in the way the government handles the press, "In Peru there is complete freedom of the press and of expression." It also stresses that Peruvians have a long history of tax evasion and that the complaints with respect to Sunat stem from its increased efficiency in tax collection.

Nevertheless, in May, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists named Mr. Fujimori one of the world's top 10 enemies of the free press, placing him in the same category as Cuba's Fidel Castro and Serbia's Slobodan Milosovic. The committee stated that "a systematic state-run campaign to discredit Peru's independent press bears the stamp of Fujimori's 'infotatorship.'"

Criticism from abroad is not likely to rattle Mr. Fujimori. After all, few foreigners approved of his 1990 decision to shut down the Peruvian Congress, which he claimed was incapable of governing the country. But local pressure might be different. In spite of the negative press that the competition is getting, a more self-satisfied Peruvian electorate might not be manipulated as easily as it once was. Ironically, this is thanks to the newfound confidence that Mr. Fujimori has brought to the country.