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SAIS Review 21.2 (2001) 155-176

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Democratic Dictators: Authoritarian Politics in Peru from Leguía to Fujimori

Roger Atwood

Throughout Alberto Fujimori's ten-year rule as president of Peru, his Japanese heritage always loomed large. He played cleverly on stereotypes about the Japanese to win election in 1990 with his campaign slogan "Work, Honesty and Technology," and he loved it when Peruvian voters affectionately called him "el Chino." As president he cultivated good relations with Japan, making it Peru's top aid donor and traveling there frequently, and at this writing the disgraced former president is living in exile in Tokyo as the Peruvian Congress, once compliant to his wishes, draws up plans to extradite and try him on corruption charges. Further, he cited the economic success of Japan, Singapore, and South Korea as examples that Peru might emulate in its quest for development and self-sufficiency. 1

With the president evidently feeling a deep personal connection to the land where his parents were born and occasionally willing to exploit that connection for political gain, and with his avowed admiration for Asian economic models, some analysts have turned to Asia to find parallels, explanations, and political context for Fujimori's singular rise to power and his authoritarian rule that followed. His strong-arm style and disdain for democracy earned him comparisons with Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and Mahathir Mohamed of Malaysia, and he himself boasted of the "samurai spirit" of his Japanese ancestors. 2 Some writers have taken a more biographical tack and looked to Fujimori's Japanese background to shed light on his political education and values. 3 Others have seen in his Asian "otherness" one of the keys to his appeal to Peru's Indian constituencies, who for generations shared the Japanese community's exclusion from the European-blood elite. As analysts begin their post-mortems [End Page 155] on Fujimori, all these interpretations may help us understand where this enigmatic figure was coming from and where he might have been going had he not overreached his grasp on power by taking a third term in fraudulent elections in May 2000 and then been forced to resign by the military.

This paper will show instead that Fujimori's political antecedents were in fact entirely Peruvian. They were set by a series of authoritarian governments that dominated Peruvian society and politics in the twentieth century and which created an institutional framework lasting through intervening periods of civilian rule and shorter-lived military governments, and which Fujimori inherited on coming to power. The parallels between these three popular authoritarian governments, those of Augusto B. Leguía (1919-30), Manuel A. Odría (1948-56), and Juan Velasco Alvarado (1968-75) and Fujimori's regime have been noted before. 4 But this paper will show that these parallels run much deeper than mere historical coincidences. In the most critical and defining aspects of Fujimori's rule, the Leguía regime set a template for authoritarian rule for the rest of the twentieth century which was followed in some aspects by the Odría and Velasco regimes and then by Fujimori in the form of common policies, political discourses, institutions, and even budget priorities. The pattern has been reflected in extreme centralization, a heavy reliance on intelligence services to isolate political opponents, government takeover of influential news media, and perpetuation of the regime through constitutional "reform" and dubious elections. Peru's modern authoritarian tradition began with the crucially important Leguía oncenio (eleven-year rule), was reinforced in several key aspects by the Odría and Velasco regimes, and then reached a kind of culmination during Fujimori's ten years in power.

The Birth of Modern Authoritarianism

Leguía was in many ways Peru's first modern president. 5 He connected Peru's economy as never before to international financial markets and sought to build a national infrastructure of roads, ports, and railroads and turn Lima into a modern world capital. Leguía's goal was to wrench the country out of what he and his followers saw as...