Peru: Facade of Democracy Crumbles

September 25, 2007

Plagued by a fanatical guerrilla movement, a flagging economy and widespread drug trafficking, Peru hardly seems a propitious place for foreign investment. Yet making it so has been President Alberto Fujimori’s top priority since taking office in 1990. After several trips to Southeast Asia, he praised the “Asian model,” suggesting that only through a harsh dose of political authoritarianism could the panacea of a free-market heaven be achieved in Peru.

Instituting such a model proved difficult, given Peru’s wide range of organized political parties with a stake in the democratic process. After Congress thwarted his attempts to legislate authoritarianism with a façade of democratic rule, Fujimori decided it had to be all or nothing. On Apri 15, with military backing, he closed Congress and the judiciary. Both institutions, he argued, were inefficient and corrupt and allowed party hacks to irresponsibly block his freemarket reforms. Fujimoti suspended the 1979 Constitution and proclaimed a “Government of Emergency and National Reconstruction” to end corruption and rid the country of Shining Path.

This autogolpe––a “self-inflicted” presidential coup–– stunned the international community and sent shock waves throughout Latin America, already shaken by September’s military takeover in Haiti and a coup attempt in Venezuela in February. At the same time, many observers admitted that, given Shining Path’s steady advance in the cities, disintegrating state institutions and a prostrate economy, if any country in Latin America seemed ripe for a coup, it was Peru.

Incremental Authoritarianism

Fujimori, born in Peru of Japanese parents, ran for president as a political outsider, a true independent with no links to the traditional political parties. He promised to turn Peru’s economy around without resorting to the drastic austerity measures advocated by front-runner novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. Though he lacked a solid political organization and clear-cut policies, Fujimori won the elections, a fluke in a political game that Vargas Llosa seemed sure to win.

Within ten days of receiving the presidential sash, Fujimorii abandoned his “no shock” campaign promises, brought in neoliberal champion Hernando de Soto as his key adviser, and applied a stringent orthodox stabilization program. Prices skyrocketed, subsidies on basic goods were cut, and salaries were frozen, with no social programs to protect the poorest. Virtually overnight, five million more Peruvians joined the six million who already lived in a state of critical poverty.

The manner in which Fujimori implemented his neoliberal program revealed a profoundly authoritarian decision-making style. Not only did he impose policies that had been widely rejected by the people who voted him into office, but he did so unilaterally, without consulting Congress. Fujimori’s actions alienated the centrist APRA and the leftist parties whose electoral support helped bring him to power. He virtually abandoned Cambio 90, the embryonic political movement he founded for the campaign. Nor did Fujimori seek an alliance with the parties of the Right, despite their advocacy of similar free-market policies. Instead, he turned to the military as his principal ally.

Over the next year, Fujimori’s impatience with the compromises and negotiations required in a political democracy became increasingly evident. Such flexibility is critical in Peruvian politics, where implementing the President’s policy agenda is difficult without a legislative majority in Congress. Former presidents Fernando Belaúnde (1980-85) and Alan García (1985-90) commanded solid legislative majorities, so Congress served as a virtual rubber stamp for presidential initiatives. But Fujimori lacked such a majority and showed little interest in building a working coalition. Even so, Congress granted the President special decree powers to implement his reform measures, giving him great freedom to legislate economic as well as internal security policy.

Fujimori used these decree powers to advance a two-pronged project: a rapid liberalization of the economy––even education was to be privatized––and, to placate his hard-line military allies, absolute military control counterinsurgency policy. Congressional oversight was eliminated civil and political rights were drastically restricted. He acted as well on other issues without obtaining Congress’ approval, including signing a drug pact with the U.S. government. “[Fujimori] never had the commitment, respect, or desire to govern the country democratically,” leftist Sen. Enrique Bernales told Ideéle, the Lima mothly. “From the beginning, he tried to create the conditions that would allow a concentration of power.”

Congress reacted swiftly to Fujimori’s growing abuse of the decree powers. It overturned his December 1990 decree that defined any crime committed by a soldier in the emergency zones––at any time of day, whether or not the soldier was on patrol––as an act of service, and therefore to be tried by military courts, where proceedings are secret. In November, as his special powers were about to expire, Fujimori passed 126 draconian decree laws, which the weekly Caretas characterized as an “undeclared coup.” Congress overturned or modified the most offensive of these in a special session two months later.

Over the past year, Fujimori relentlessly attacked Congress and other democratic institutions for their ineffectiveness. As congressional opposition mounted, Fujimori stepped up his attacks. There was some truth to his charges. Congress did seem unable to respond to the country’s dire problems. And their $2,000-per-month salaries made members of Congress look like fat cats in comparison to the $50-per-month minimum wage earned by ordinary Peruvians.

Fujimori’s attacks on the judiciary also resonated with the public. Drug traffickers and terrorists were known to pay off and intimidate judges. Convicted Shining Path guerrillas had free reign inside their cell blocks, which prison authorities dared not enter. Reports that 235 convicted members of Shining Path and the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) had been freed since February 1991 lent further credence to Fujimori’s charges that the judiciary was a hindrance in the counterinsurgency effort.

A Calculated Plan?

Though difficult to prove, the autogolpe seems to have been the culmination of careful calculations and planning. Fujimori manipulated popular sentiment against malfunctioning democratic institutions with Machiavellian precision. And he meticulously groomed military support with the help of Vladimiro Montesinos, the ex-army captain and close adviser to the President who many believe was the chief architect of the autogolpe. Fujimori’s decrees were reportedly authored by a team of military officers under the supervision of Montesinos. Together, Fujimori and Montesinos purged uncooperative officers and manipulated promotions. When the autogolpe occurred, the top officers fell predictably in line.

Fujimori also played off the worst fears of the public, increasingly desperate after 12 chaotic years of war and economic paralysis. People were groping for a solution–– any solution––that promised to restore some semblance of order. At the same time, fear was growing within the organized popular sectors, as the guerrillas mercilessly killed members of communal soup kitchens and the glass-of-milk program, whom Shining Path leader Abimael Guzmán accused of “selling out the revolution for a plate of beans.” After the February 15 murder of community leader and Vice Mayor of Villa El Salvador María Elena Moyano by Shining Path, “the outcry was so great,” journalist Gustavo Gorriti pointed out in The New Republic, that “for the first time since the war began, there was a distinct prospect of grass-roots organizations’ cooperation with the security forces.” Rather than develop that option, Fujimori chose a heavy-handed approach to Shining Path.

According to polls, between 70% and 90% of the population supported the autogolpe, apparently willing to give Fujimori the benefit of the doubt. Trapped between an authoritarian guerrilla movement that only represents its own will to power, and a repressive, otherwise unresponsive government, Peru’s poor lacked alternatives. The muted response to Fujimori’s upscaling of the counterinsurgency war was indicative of the exhaustion many felt, and their willingness to countenance abuses if order could be restored. Few protested Fujimori’s new anti-terrorist legislation––a warmed-over version of the 1991 decrees––which defines collaboration so broadly that journalists and human rights activists could be jailed for doing their jobs. And, in sharp contrast to reaction to the 1986 prison massacres, there was no public outcry after the army killed some 50 Shining Path members in an operation seeking to reestablish control over the maximum-security prison Castro Castro shortly after the autogolpe. But popular support remains contingent on Fujimori’s ability to deliver on his promises. If he fails, that support will erode.

International Reaction

In the wake of the autogolpe, Fujimori seemed to be in complete control. Traditional politicians and democratic institutions were discredited. The opposition was weak on all fronts: the Left was in shambles, widely cut off from its social base; and APRA, which showed signs of reemerging under the leadership of former President Alan García, was quickly neutralized with the arrest of key figures (García barely escaped). The public in general was fed up with the inefficiencies of the democratic process, and yearned for a return to normalcy.

The coup-mongers’ crucial miscalculation was at the international level. Fujimori and his military allies knew that some criticism was inevitable, if only because of diplomatic necessity. But they were certain that within two months the international outcry would fade, and business would proceed as usual. It was not an unreasonable assumption: in the wake of the autogolpe, numerous editorials––most notoriously in the Wall Street Journal––called for the intemational community to go easy on Fujimori. The subtitle of one New York Times article said it all: “Are calls for democracy really the answer now?”

Fujimori did judge his neighbors correctly; they were too fearful of a Shining Path victory to oppose his actions strongly. But the United States immediately announced a cut-off in economic and military assistance, and later pulled out special forces that had been training soldiers in counterinsurgency tactics. Spain and Germany, important donors, also announced the immediate suspension of economic aid. Perhaps the harshest blow was the withdrawal of a crucial $1.1 billion package, negotiated by a special Support Group to bring Peru back into the international economic fold after years of pariah status because of Alan García’s unilateral debt moratorium. A month after the coup, bowing to U.S. pressure, Japan also withdrew assistance. Fujimori blinked.

Without international assistance, Fujimori’s efforts over the last two years to regain international confidence, secure foreign assistance, and liberalize the economy were sure to collapse. In an about-face, Fujimori made a surprise appearance at the May 17 meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Nassau, called specifically to consider tough sanctions against Peru. He promised a constituent assembly by October, speeding up his original timetable of 12 to 18 months. This bought Fujimori the time he needed: the OAS refrained from imposing sanctions and foreign aid began trickling in once again.

The United States seemed to be taking a clear stand in support of democracy in Latin America. Yet even before the autogolpe, over half of the population lived in a state of emergency, with basic constitutional rights suspended, as part of the government’s counterinsurgency strategy. According to the United Nations, Peru topped the list of countries with the greatest number of people “disappeared” by state security forces. Torture, arbitrary arrest, massacres, and paramilitary assassinations were grotesquely commonplace.

The Bush administration managed to live with this reality––and even gloss over it––in its eagerness to support Fujimori’s economic program and secure economic aid for the Peruvian security forces to fight on both the drug and the terrorist fronts. But in the “New World Order,” open support for tyrants is bad press. For political reasons that transcended geopolitical interests in the southern hemisphere, the United States demanded that a civilian, constitutional regime be restored. Once Fujimori was on the road to some kind of constitutional legality, aid could be resumed as could, presumably, the same brutal counterinsurgency war, without modification and without guarantees.

The key question now is whether the political parties will play Fujimori’s game. With good reason, they have already been openly skeptical about participating in a forum that might serve to legitimize a dictator. From exile in Colombia, Alan García said that APRA will refuse to participate, and it is unlikely that Fernando Belaúnde’s Popular Action Party or the leftist parties will join in either. Without the participation of the parties, it is not clear how the constituent assembly will take place.

What is clear is that the April 5 autogolpe was a watershed. Under the façade of democracy, Fujimori’s regime became increasingly authoritarian, reflecting a logic of militarization that only aggravated the violence that wracks the country. With the autogolpe, Fujimori discarded the trappings of formal democracy and freed up the military’s hands to begin a major counter-offensive intent on wiping Shining Path––and, in the process, Peru’s myriad grassroots popular organizations––off the map. Fujimori closed off the option of working democratically with the grassroots organizations to combat the Maoist guerrillas. Shining Path appears to be happy with the recent turn of events. With the lines clearly drawn, and democratic alternatives suffocated by the autogolpe, Shining Path’s brutal logic can only flourish.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Jo-Marie Burt is a doctoral candidate at Columbia University. She is co-author, with AldoPanfichi, of Peru: Caught in the Crossfire.

Tags: Peru, Alberto Fujimori, foreign investment, neoliberal, autogolpe

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