Lima

As five Peruvian lawmakers stood wide-eyed on the ground at a military airport north of here in early March, a MIG-29 fighter jet crashed in a blazing ball of flame. The plane was being given a test flight as part of an investigation into whether a fleet of Russian-built MIGs bought in the 1990s from Belarus were defective and thus an elaborate ploy by the recently collapsed government of Alberto Fujimori to skim off millions of dollars in kickbacks. The plumes of black smoke rising from the debris confirmed the congressional committee’s worst fears.

The pilot of the plane escaped unhurt. But with presidential elections set for April 8, just how Peru itself will survive the wreckage of the past decade of Fujimori’s authoritarian rule remains an open question.

Whatever government arises from the vote, at least it won’t have to face the onerous tasks that have plagued postdictatorial administrations in Chile and Argentina. Peruvians won’t have to navigate through official walls of silence, nor will they have to sift through unmarked graves to unearth the record of the past ten years. They’ll be saved those tedious labors because as Fujimori was absconding to Japan last November, his regime was thoughtful enough to leave behind a full video record of the calamities it visited upon the 26 million people who live in Peru. “Every night now is a special night on Peruvian TV,” says Marco Zileri, editor of the weekly Caretas. “The Vladi videos are the new form of national entertainment, national fascination–and national shame.”

Indeed, the “Vladi videos,” some 2,400 of them, are mostly the handiwork of now-fugitive Vladimiro Montesinos, not only the CIA’s main liaison in Peru but also Fujimori’s Rasputin-like intelligence chief and closest adviser. With at least three cameras hidden in his office inside Peru’s “Pentagonito,” Montesinos obsessively taped one meeting after another as he bullied and bribed his way into a position of absolute power.

Move over, Dick Nixon! The tapes first came to light last September, when national TV showed a leaked tape of Montesinos handing $15,000 to an opposition congressman. There’s open speculation in Peru that the leak was facilitated by the CIA after Montesinos was implicated in the sale of 10,000 automatic rifles to Colombian guerrillas. “For years the US turned a blind eye to Montesinos, even when he was involved in drugs,” says analyst Hugo Cabieses of the Peruvian Center for Social Studies. “But with the huge investment the United States is making now in Colombia, Montesinos broke the camel’s back when he sold those guns.”

Soon Montesinos was on the lam. Investigators estimated that he might have taken as much as $1 billion with him. As popular anger mounted, Fujimori was next to go, abandoning the presidency and Peru itself. With his departure, the entire strong-arm regime he and Montesinos had built with a decade’s worth of American support crumbled overnight.

As the videos played on, and the staggering losses to the national treasury were tallied, a dozen separate investigations got under way. Hundreds have been arrested, including dozens of military officers and former ranking generals. Three Supreme Court justices have been unseated, along with a former interior minister. A vast telephone spying network is being slowly dismantled, and a courageous justice minister is struggling to free hundreds, maybe thousands, of wrongfully jailed citizens. The Peruvian government is now moving to indict and extradite Fujimori on charges ranging from treason to murder. “After the collapse of Fujimori, here’s the balance of the decade he spent in power,” says editor Zileri. “In 1990, 50 percent of Peruvians lived below the poverty line. And today 50 percent still live below the poverty line and make less than a dollar a day. The only difference is that today there are 5 million more Peruvians.”

With national elections now only days away, most Peruvians still can’t get past scratching their heads over the recently concluded past. On the dingy and crowded streets of Lima there is an overwhelming feeling of having been had. Fujimori came to power seemingly out of nowhere in the elections of 1990. Running as a consummate outsider, he handily defeated the preferred candidate ofthe conservative elite, the novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. But as soon as he took office, Fujimori applied some Chicago School “shock therapy” and smothered the 600 percent inflation rate he had inherited. He also unleashed a brutal army and crushed the unpopular Shining Path insurgency. Even when he temporarily shut down Congress in a “self-coup,” he remained popular. As he privatized and sold off state enterprises he was warmly applauded by Washington. “The confidence the US State Department put into Fujimori was deep and broad,” says Peru studies expert Cynthia McClintock of George Washington University. “It became unreal. There was an egregious unwillingness to understand Peru. For the United States it was a primitive notion that Fujimori beat the guerrillas and put Peru on the free-market track. Period.” Multinational investors had a similarly rosy view and, for a few years, flocked to cash in on a cheap labor market. Fujimori promised his people he was leading them toward global “modernization.”

Instead, Peru ended up mired in an embarrassing and banal banana republic miasma of economic collapse, corruption, gunrunning and narcotrafficking. Apart from the bankrupt state, the most visible economic legacy Fujimori leaves behind is a rash of sleazy casinos he allowed his cronies to open a few years ago. For the past year, new foreign investment has all but vanished, and the only economic growth now palpable is the phenomenal boom in electrified fences–not only around businesses but on top of the ever-higher walls surrounding the homes of the middle and upper classes.

For the past four months, Peru has been led by a caretaker government of respected national elders. Among them is former UN Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, now serving as Peruvian Prime Minister. What he most laments is how democracy was traded away for stability under Fujimori. Taking a diplomatically worded swipe at Fujimori’s biggest former backer, the United States, Pérez de Cuéllar said in an interview: “Some foreign governments have an obsession with stability. That’s unfortunate because we Peruvians no longer have any interest in stability at any cost.”

The problem now is that just when Peruvians most desire a democratic political leadership they can believe in, the national body politic is at its weakest. “This is one of the most curious and atypical of Latin American transitions,” says former leftist congressman Javier Diaz Canseco. “It took place almost without political parties per se. And it has taken place without any need to negotiate between the dictatorship and the opposition because the old regime simply collapsed.”

But that also meant that the democratic opposition had not hardened into a coherent political leadership. Combine that with an angry, cynical and untethered electorate, and it becomes nearly impossible to forecast who will emerge from the coming vote. Historically, polls have meant nothing in Peru. Fujimori was barely a candidate a week before he won in 1990. In last year’s marred first round of presidential elections, Fujimori’s major opponent, Alejandro Toledo, was showing about 4 percent shortly before the election, only to receive more than 40 percent.

Now there are nearly a dozen slates, or “lists,” in the running. Ideologically, the major contenders differ little. They hew to the center-right, free-market “Washington Consensus.”

Toledo, a Stanford-educated economist who is part Indian, is leading the pack with more than 30 percent in the latest polls. Most analysts agree that if last year’s runoff presidential election had been honest, Toledo would have beaten Fujimori. Instead, he withdrew from the race, refusing to give legitimacy to what was clearly a government-rigged electoral show. For that, Toledo is regarded by millions as courageous and clean. But, says Marco Zileri, “Toledo is a political blank slate.” Zileri notes that Toledo says he is for the “Third Way,” but asks, “what does that mean in Peru?”

Toledo says his first priority would be jobs–in a country where only 20 percent of the population has stable employment. But when pressed in an interview for details on what he would change in the former regime’s economic policies, he answers: “To be honest, on the macroeconomic level, I would make no changes.” What about privatization initiatives? “They will continue,” he says.

Toledo’s most serious challenge comes from conservative congresswoman Lourdes Flores, who has recently shown a meteoric rise in the polls, drawing nearly even with Toledo. An unmarried “Social Christian” who is “absolutely” opposed to abortion, she openly capitalizes on popular rumors that she is so pure that she is a virgin. And yet, she genuflects to the weak Peruvian left by running a Communist union leader as one of her two vice-presidential candidates (the other is a conservative businessman).

The closest thing to a serious left-of-center candidate is former President Alan Garcia of the social democratic APRA party. That is, if anybody on the left deigns to welcome him back, now that he has returned after a decade of exile. Garcia is a gifted and stirring orator, but his 1985-90 tenure was marked not only by economic chaos but by some of the worst military-inflicted human rights abuses in modern Peruvian history. And yet, Garcia should not be counted out.

With Fujimori’s heavy hand lifted, free-flowing political debate in the streets and in the media has almost fully blossomed–“almost,” because one crucial issue remains taboo: the 900-pound gorilla of drug policy. Its absence is particularly strange, given that Peru is not only neighbor to Colombia, where the United States is spending $1.3 billion supposedly to fight the drug war, but also because Peru remains the number-two cocaine producer in the world.

The silence on the drug war stems from the enormous political influence and often direct pressure that Washington exerts on the issue. The United States, with a contribution of $48 million this year, is the primary financier of Peru’s drug war, helping to fund and train the national police as well as antidrug air and river patrols.

A handful of high-profile Peruvians have spoken out against the prevailing policy. Among them is the highly respected human rights advocate Diego Garcia Sayan, now the caretaker Justice Minister. He pushes aside US claims that coca-eradication efforts of the past five years have shown significant success, saying, “It’s not at all clear that drug production in Peru is any lower than it was some years ago.” What is clear, he says, is that Peruvian jails and prisons are overflowing with the victims of the drug war. “I hope I can lay down a foundation for reform of drug policy that can be pursued by the nation as a whole,” he says.

But his chances are slim. US officials boast of the heavy political pressure they have exerted to make sure there is, in fact, no change in Peruvian drug policy. Some critics, like Hugo Cabieses, who has worked as a consultant to US-funded development programs, say the policy has been a failure from every angle. “Not only is coca cultivation up maybe 10-15 percent over the past year,” he says, “but the US government has no moral authority to ask Peru to continue a failed drug policy when for ten years it supported a government led by two of the biggest traffickers, Fujimori and Montesinos.” (Drug-trafficking flourished throughout the top levels of the past administration, and as far back as the 1970s, Montesinos served as legal counsel to top narcos.)

And yet no presidential candidate dares to depart from the prevailing policy. Asked his view of the drug war, Toledo says: “We need to reinforce it, need to go head on, we will have an even more aggressive policy than Fujimori.” Lourdes Flores, who once signed a public manifesto criticizing the Washington-backed drug war, now says that on this issue “the United States will find no closer ally than my government.”

These views lead to a pessimism that in spite of the best democratic intentions of the next administration, its compliance with Washington’s drug policies will give an inordinate role to the military. Critics argue that the implementation of Plan Colombia will damage Peru in three ways: as eradication increases in Colombia, coca production in Peru will rise; the prevailing hard line in Washington will make it more difficult for Peru to negotiate a more moderate posture; and Plan Colombia treats each Andean country individually, short-circuiting a more effective and coherent regional approach. “Whoever wins the vote,” says Cabieses, “expect no changes in the drug war. The US resistance is just too great.”

Against that backdrop, the April 8 elections provide Peru with a limited set of possibilities. No one can or should expect much serious reform to come out of the resulting administration. At most, the next government can restore a minimum of confidence in democratic institutions and remain committed to prosecuting the crimes of the past decade. “We found our common identity in opposing and defeating Fujimori,” says Marco Zileri. “The great challenge now is to find common ground in favor of some defined national agenda and future.”