The New Republic

October 6, 1997

Creeping Coup: Lima Dispatch

By Roger Atwood

To the outsider, it seemed like just a few innocuous words. During the annual Armed Forces Day parade on July 28, Peruvian General Nicolás de Bari Hermoza Ríos spoke before the nation extended to his troops “my most immense gratitude, on behalf of the Peruvian people,” for defeating the Marxist guerrillas. But Hermoza Ríos’s arrogation to himself of the right to speak in the people’s name sent an unmistakable signal to the millions of Peruvians watching on television: President Alberto Fujimori no longer controls his own government. A few days after the parade, when a poll asked Peruvians who they thought governed the country, only 35 percent said Fujimori. Thirty-four percent said Vladimiro Montesinos, Fujimori’s shadowy presidential intelligence adviser, and 23 percent said the armed forces.

There is good reason for such skepticism. Creeping authoritarianism is everywhere in Peru. Judges are appointed and removed at the whim of the government. The opposition’s initiatives in congress are blocked by Fujimori and Montesinos’ allies. And the press is routinely intimidated. Baruch Ivcher, owner of Lima’s Frecuencia Latina TV channel and an Israeli citizen until 1984, was recently stripped of his nationality after his station broadcast reports on human rights abuses committed by Montesinos’ intelligence agents. Ivcher’s treatment was relatively mild by current Peruvian standards. The general editor of the opposition newspaper La República, Blanca Rosales, was kidnapped, interrogated and threatened with death by armed thugs who demanded she reveal her news sources. Most Peruvians assume her assailants were state security agents.

Even Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, the former U.N. secretary-general and Fujimori’s opponent in the last presidential election, has had his phone bugged for nearly a year. We know this because a local television station produced a transcript of months of Pérez de Cuéllar’s phone conversations, which it obtained from military sources and turned over to Pérez de Cuéllar’s lawyers. “This has become an addiction, a vice, this way the intelligence services have of spying on people,” Pérez de Cuéllar said. Life under Fujimori, he added, had gotten so bad it reminded him of his life as Peru’s ambassador to Moscow where, he said, “the whole house was bugged.”

Until now, ironically, the biggest threat to Peru’s democracy seemed to be Fujimori. In 1992, he dissolved congress and took over the judiciary with the army’s support. More recently, when three of the seven judges on the Constitutional Tribunal prevented him from seeking reelection in the year 2000 because of a constitutional ban on three successive terms, Fujimori’s allies in congress effectively fired the judges. Seventy-four percent of Peru’s judges are now either temporary appointees or substitutes, meaning they can be shunted aside at any time by the executive.

In the effort to rid Peru of the Shining Path, the brutal Maoist guerrillas who crippled the country during the ’80s, Fujimori gave the military a free hand and often shielded them from the accusations of international human rights monitors. Guerrilla suspects are still tried by infamous “faceless judges” who allow no cross examination and wear hoods while they hear cases. This Faustian bargain with the military initially helped bolster Fujimori’s image as a man in control of a country once seemingly uncontrollable. While he unleashed the military to defeat Shining Path, the military gave him the chance to rebuild the chaotic economy along the lines of the free-market model of Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet, who is deeply admired among Peruvian officers.

But the balance of power may be shifting. With the military still rightfully proud of having defeated the Shining Path and of its lightning commando raid on the Tupac Amaru rebels who were holding seventy-two hostages at the Japanese [ambassador’s residence], Fujimori realizes the officer corps remains his best – and perhaps only – ally. As a result, even though the guerrilla threat is neutralized, he has permitted them to go after the government’s more conventional civilian political opponents and showered officers with more and more expensive military toys, like a fleet of MiG-29 fighter jets bought last year from Belarus. (The Soviet jets are believed to cost as much as $350 million, but no one has seen them fly, and no one is sure they can.)

The problem is that, with the economy stalling and Fujimori’s popularity sagging, the armed forces are getting nervous. And Fujimori may be the next to get purged. “The military men around Fujimori have the power in their hands and think that to give it up means the country will return to chaos, and that they will lose their privileges,” said a former high-ranking official who recently left the government. “Power is a nice thing to have.”

Instead of a traditional Peruvian military coup, which is messy and risks international condemnation, the military appears to be carrying out a kind of slow-motion seizure of power: gradually assuming more control of the country and searching for a suitably malleable political partner in 2000. That partner may be Alberto Andrade, the popular mayor of Lima, who has swept prostitutes and illegal street vendors from city sidewalks, restored crumbling old plazas and planted flower beds and ornamental trees where stinking heaps of garbage once lay. Polls show that the conservative Andrade is the country’s most popular politician. Montesinos is widely reported to have been in contact with Andrade and to have met with him twice. (Andrade denies any such meeting.) If 1999 rolls around with Fujimori’s popularity rating stuck where it is now, 30 percent, Andrade might emerge as the military’s new “official candidate.”

Either way, Peruvian democracy, which survived a decade of brutal guerrilla violence and economic meltdown in the 1980s, may be unable to withstand the military’s latest push. Two-thirds of Peruvians say the armed forces are not under the president’s control; and “authoritarianism” is cited as the government’s number one defect, according to a poll in Debate magazine. Indeed, about half of Peruvians already believe they live in a dictatorship.

Roger Atwood worked in Peru as a reporter from 1989 to 1991 and returns frequently.