- Fujimori’s Coup and the Breakdown of Democracy in Latin America
This is the best book in English or Spanish on Alberto Fujimori's rise to the Peruvian presidency and his turn to authoritarianism. The book is theoretically engaged, driven by a keen intellect, and well written. Yet, I believe that its success is due ultimately to the author's mastery of a very complex and intense period of Peruvian history. Thanks to his nuanced command of detail, this work is compelling in its conclusions but not deterministic.
The initial chapters introduce the major themes, provide essential background on Peru's political history, and analyze the breakdown of the country's nascent party system in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Kenney convincingly argues that multiple failures by Peru's political elites, especially with regard to the economy and political violence—rather than the growth of the informal sector or variations in electoral rules over time––led to the collapse of the party system. My principal criticism is that the book does not sufficiently treat the pivotal 1990 election. Many readers may be left with the mistaken impression that Fujimori's victory that year inevitably followed widespread repudiation of the traditional parties. In fact, Mario Vargas Llosa, the right-wing outsider, was the overwhelming frontrunner until the very end of the first-round campaign. A victory by the famous Peruvian novelist would have probably led to a realignment of the party system––rather than to its eventual destruction under Fujimori––and perhaps to its renovation. Consistent with Kenney's argument, the behavior of various elite actors during the critical 1990 electoral cycle, especially Vargas Llosa's overzealous and polarizing campaign, created an opening for Fujimori, a little-known candidate. Moreover, electoral rules did play a key role in the specific case of the pivotal 1990 election, as I too have argued and Kenney appears to acknowledge.
The core of the book provides an overview of Fujimori's presidential powers and meticulously traces events during the complex period from his election to the April 1992 autogolpe. Given Fujimori's weak position in Congress and the severity of Peru's economic and security crises, Kenney maintains that it was virtually impossible for him to govern effectively or to fulfill the expectations of key elites, especially the military, over a five-year term while adhering to the 1979 Constitution. In fact, Fujimori defused a likely coup attempt before his inauguration by reaching an understanding with the army. Although a leader with a less authoritarian personality might well have refused to assume dictatorial powers, inter-branch conflict or [End Page 143] compromise policies that were unacceptable to the armed forces almost certainly would have led to a military coup or another sort of democratic breakdown. Indeed, the implementation of an early 1992 agreement between Fujimori's premier and congressional leaders would have been an unconstitutional "petit coup" against the APRA-dominated judiciary.
Kenney's account is clearly superior to explanations of the autogolpe based on personality (Cynthia McClintock) or elite coalescence (Philip Mauceri). The major caveat is that the virtual inevitability of a democratic breakdown––though not the increased odds stemming from Fujimori's lack of a legislative majority––hinges on the role of the armed forces, which were manipulated by Vladimiro Montesinos, the president's shadowy advisor. Might an independent military institution have been more flexible vis-à-vis legitimate concerns raised by the congressional opposition? Did Fujimori and Montesinos create an impasse in order to justify the autogolpe, which facilitated their continuation in power? Throughout the book, Kenney places the complex events leading up to the autogolpe in historical and comparative perspective. Moreover, in the final chapter, he shows that democratic breakdowns have been more likely in other Latin American countries when presidents do not have legislative majorities. Although this argument is not original, I found Kenney's comparative analysis to be the richest and most insightful treatment of the topic in the literature...