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Journal of Democracy 12.2 (2001) 46-58

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High Anxiety in the Andes

Peru's Decade of Living Dangerously

Ernesto García Calderón

In 2000, Peru experienced an extraordinary political transformation. After a decade of President Alberto Fujimori's increasingly authoritarian rule, during which he systematically dismembered virtually every institution that could stand in the way of his insatiable thirst for power, the entire structure that he had erected suddenly came crashing down. As recently as August 2000, no one would have believed that we would be speaking of the Fujimori regime in the past tense before the year was out. Against all odds, though, it happened. All it took to set the process in motion was the leaking of one videotape, showing Fujimori spy chief and "legal adviser" Vladimiro Montesinos bribing a congressman-elect.

The pace of change has been stunningly dramatic, and the process is by no means over yet. On 8 April 2001, after this article has gone to press, Peruvians will elect a new president. As of this writing, Alejandro Toledo, who finished second behind Fujimori in the 2000 election, and Lourdes Flores, the only woman candidate and the head of a right-of-center coalition, lead the presidential polls. Trailing them are Fernando Olivera, the congressman who first unearthed the corruption that lurked behind the Fujimori regime, and former president Alan García (1985-90), just back in Peru after spending eight years in self-imposed exile while he waited for the statute of limitations to expire on the corruption charges against him.

Yet during the early months of 2001, Peruvians were less interested in the ongoing election campaign than in a Pandora's box of [End Page 46] incriminating, or at least compromising, video tapes that destroyed many a political career and sent the hopes of several candidates down the drain. The effect of these tapes, seized during a police raid on Montesinos's home in Lima, was devastating. The "Vladivideos," as they came to be known, dominated the political scene, keeping people glued to their seats as they watched to see which politicians, congressmen, judges, electoral authorities, mayors, and journalists had been on Montesinos's payroll.

Neither the "moral cleansing" of the political class promoted by the airing of the "Vladivideos" nor the favorable prospects for a free and fair election in 2001 would have been possible without the downfall of Fujimori. His regime expired like a balloon that was not punctured but simply deflated, flying around aimlessly with a pfft after its protective knot came loose. Fujimori fell because forces from within his own ranks tore aside the veil to let people peep into the rotten world of corruption inside. Public indignation did the rest.

How It All Began

Alberto Kenya Fujimori, the son of Japanese immigrants to Peru, appeared on the political stage in 1990 when he decided to run for both the presidency and the Senate as leader of a modest independent movement called Cambio 90 under the catchy slogan of "honesty, technology, and hard work." A farming engineer who was then 52, Fujimori directed La Molina Agrarian University and was president of the National Assembly of Rectors. Politically, he was a total unknown who would have faded out as an also-ran but for an extraordinary set of circumstances that catapulted him to center stage.

Mario Vargas Llosa, the renowned Peruvian novelist who ran for president on a free-market, libertarian platform, led the election polls in 1989 and early 1990, attacking the populist policies of President Alan García, especially his highly unpopular and eventually unsuccessful attempt to nationalize the banking system. In retaliation, García endorsed and actively promoted Fujimori, who emerged in the last published pre-election poll as a dark-horse alternative to Vargas Llosa and his proposals for "shock therapy." As a result of García's support, Fujimori managed to finish second in the first round of the 1990 presidential election and then to defeat Vargas Llosa in a runoff.

Fujimori's first move as president was to abandon the populist platform that he...