Christine Stone practised at the English Bar as a lawyer specializing in crime and civil liberties before setting up the British Helsinki Human Rights Group with a number of academic and journalist colleagues in 1992. She has written for a number of publications including The Spectator and Wall Street Journal on Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union. Her column now appears Thursdays on Antiwar.com.
Archived Antiwar.com articles by Christine Stone
Peru is in crisis and its president, Alberto Fujimori, in danger of losing power. Although he won the first round of the election held on 9th April with 49.4% of the vote violence broke out soon afterwards with the main contender, Alejandro Toledo crying foul. Observers from the Carter Center in Atlanta, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the Organization of African States (OAS) have added their voices of protest: there were irregularities in the polling stations, faulty computers that had produced numerous technical glitches and an unacceptably long counting of the vote.
Despite attempts to remedy the situation, Toledo and the observers remained unconvinced that improvements had taken place. On Monday 22nd May the OAS demanded a postponement of the second round scheduled for 28th May, otherwise they would refuse to conduct any further monitoring. And, Toledo himself indicated that he would not take part in the poll at all. The Peruvian election authorities, on the other hand, deny the charges and say the vote must go ahead.
What is going on?
The Americans have decided "absolutely" not to let Alberto Fujimori rule again, I was told by a Peruvian academic. Even if he wins the election in the second round "they will force him to resign." Peru's vice-president, Francesco Tudela, has stated that US/Peruvian relations have been deeply wounded by the "unprecedented interference by Washington in [Peru's] election process"…
But is this an "unprecedented interference"? The Americans have fomented trouble in Central and South America for as long as anyone can remember but recent events in Peru more closely resemble the tactics used in Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the former Soviet Union over the past 5 years. Wherever possible, the Americans have tried to remove those governments and leaders they deem to be disagreeable through the ballot box rather than coup d'etats. In most cases, the sheer weight of the opposition: the US government and the CIA aided by their European allies and numerous (allegedly) non-governmental organizations all massaged by a compliant press easily achieve their goal. What can a handful of poverty-stricken Albanians or Slovaks do against such an onslaught?
The most perfect example of the beat-up, and the one most closely resembling the tactics being used today in Peru, occurred in Albania just four years ago this May. Parliamentary elections were held pitting the governing Democratic Party under its leader and the country's president, Sali Berisha, against the Albanian Socialists (former Communists). Like Alberto Fujimori, Berisha was a charismatic figure who had succeeded in turning around the devastated Albanian economy producing some of the highest growth figures in the former Communist bloc. He had also proved to be an obedient ally of the Americans – cooperating with them over the war in Bosnia and maintaining a 'hands off' policy towards neighbouring Kosovo, something demanded by the US at the time.
But to those who keep a close eye on events it was obvious that the US had turned against Berisha and wanted him out. Allegations of human rights abuses (always a useful pretext for demanding change) intensified and reports started to appear in the press early in 1996 from pre-election monitors that the election would not be conducted fairly.
It is true that many Albanians had lost out from the Berisha reforms but it was also true that they were not ready to re-elect the very people who had given them 45 years of the most hard-line Communism in Europe. Perhaps the international community was too eager to believe its own propaganda for, it became apparent as polling day unfolded that the opposition was not going to win. As the count was underway the Socialists pulled their election officials out of the polling stations and deemed the elections void. Hard on their heels, a group of monitors from the OSCE issued their own statement refusing to take any further part in the process.
However, despite the hullabaloo created by the OSCE monitors (many of whom had connections with Albania during the Hoxha regime), other election observers myself and my colleagues included failed to confirm their extreme criticisms. The situation was difficult for Berisha's Democrats – the State Department's spokesman at the time, Nicholas Burns, regularly demanded fresh elections in the months that followed – but the result was allowed to stand.
Other ways had, therefore, to be found to destroy Berisha and his party. In January 1997 violence broke out in Albania over the collapse of pyramid lending schemes. By March this had become an overall insurrection. The government was forced to resign and fresh elections were called for June. The Socialists duly won them and the US was happy. Happy, yes, to have restored the successors to Enver Hoxha's Communist Party to power including many who had held top-level posts in the old regime.
In the past three years Albania has become a byword for crime, drug and people smuggling an economic basket-case barely kept going with loans from abroad. The number of people fleeing the country, often under the pretext of being Kosovan refugees, is a testament to the success of the present (U.S. supported) government's policies.
Now, let us turn to Peru. Alberto Fujimori came through as the outsider to win Peru's presidential election in 1990. In doing so he broke, as it were, the mould of Peruvian politics which had been dominated by the military, corporatist leftism and a caucus of right-wing families with old, colonial roots.
Everyone knows about the 7,649% rate of inflation, the drugs and the violent insurrection by Sendero Luminoso guerrillas that faced Fujimori at his election. They also know that the president combated these problems with remarkable success. "There is no question that Mr. Fujimori has been an extraordinarily successful leader" confirms Peter Hakim in the Christian Science Monitor on 24th February 2000. He continues "one notable triumph of his administration was to restore personal security to Peru's ordinary citizens by defeating two virulent guerrilla movements ...another was conquering hyperinflation …since his first election…Peru's economy has grown by an average 5% a year." We also learn that Fujimori solved the border dispute with Ecuador and assisted the Americans in their war on drugs by reducing the production of coca by one third.
Ordinary Peruvians would agree. "He's the best thing that ever happened to us" says an Indian woman to the Washington Post's Anthony Faiola on 22nd March. "Ten years ago I had to hide from the guerrillas. But he made us safe."
What, then, is the problem? Apparently, Fujimori is "not a democrat." Even worse, according to the Washington Post, "people still care more about bread than democracy." "Poor people," that is.
Various bits and pieces are then dredged up to support this thesis: the president's suspension of the constitution (the so-called autogolpe) in 1992; the constitutional impropriety of standing for office for a third term and the lack of press freedom.
Suffice to say that the constitution was suspended at the height of the terrorist threat in 1992 when Shining Path guerrillas had infiltrated Lima from the countryside and were blowing people up and dynamiting their bodies in the street. Criticism relating to whether or not the constitution permits Fujimori to seek a third term in office is a bit ripe coming from pundits in the United States who never batted an eyelid when presidents Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia and Milan Kucan of Slovenia did precisely the same thing. As for a free press, there are numerous opposition newspapers in Peru including the leading dailies El Comercio and La Republica as well as influential magazines like Caretas. In fact, the media in Peru is a great deal more diverse than it is in the US
However, as with Albania in 1996 Peru's economic miracle has had its losers. And, no doubt, there are people who would genuinely like a change. There were also those, including the leftists, Catholics with liberation theology instincts and the old right who had always viewed Fujimori who appealed to a wide range of Peruvians including Protestants and peasants as an outsider. In a part of the world with still-stifling social mores, snobbery was never far from the surface.
None of this though explains the virulence with which both Republicans and Democrats in the United States have turned on Peru. Conservatives like Elliot Abrahams, Reagan's assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, and Senator Jesse Helms have attacked the Fujimori regime. Helms and two other senators have threatened Peru with being an "outcast" over the allegations of electoral fraud.
But is Alejandro Toledo really Jesse Helm's cup of tea? Despite the fact that he has been reinvented by spin-doctors as a poor, Indian shoeshine boy he is an American-educated economist whose globalist credentials have been honed by years of working for the World Bank and as a business school professor; a leftist who burbles on about his happy, hippie days in Hashbury Heights while at Stanford University in the 1970s. More revealingly, Toledo was one of a handful of hostages released by Tupac Amuru guerrillas during the siege of the Japanese embassy in the winter of 1996-7 deemed suitable to negotiate with the Peruvian government. It is alleged that some of those around him are connected with the Shining Path.
Toledo also boasts a Belgian-born wife from whom he has been separated for some time but who has, nevertheless, been co-opted into the presidential campaign. Mrs. Toledo, Eliane Karp, is supposed to appeal to native Peruvians with her mastery of the Quecha language; "the force of the Inca" she says, can help her husband to form "a great government."
If the situation were not so serious it would be very funny. These people are straight from central casting with their folk dancing, flattop Indian caps and invocations of the Incas. But the Toledos' agenda isn't all from a brochure for holidays in Machu Pichu. Ms. Karp has a radical feminist message, not unlike Hillary Clinton's we are told. Her husband, meanwhile, is promising the earth to the peasants, including higher wages and the creation of thousands of jobs. Enough, as Fujimori points out, to reactivate the chronic inflation he has curbed over the past 8 years. But, the world of Jesse Helms is given the passing nod when the candidate promises other kinds of audiences that he will cut taxes and speed up privatisation.
If Toledo were ever to become Peru's president these promises would go the same way as similar election proposals have done in places like Croatia and Slovakia. Last week the Croat government announced a hike in taxes and reneged on its election promise to reduce VAT from 22% to 19%. The Slovak government never built the 500,000 flats promised in their 1998 election programme Slovakia now has the highest rate of unemployment in Europe. No matter – the lavish promises helped their respective governments to electoral victory.
Why should anyone least of all conservative-minded American politicians- wish to bring such a person to power? Why would the United States want to destabilize a country where the threat of renewed guerrilla activity and drug production (the two feed upon the other) still lurks? Accusations of dictatorship and a 'democratic defecit' are sheer bunkum when put next to some of the places and people supported by the US government. Perhaps it is the fact that Fujimori has bought Russian MIGs for the Peruvian airforce or, as George Szamuely suggested, that various privatizations have not been awarded to the right cronies of those in the White House and Congress.
The explanation cannot be sought in terms of left and right. To understand this one has to look north to where another Latin American election is scheduled to take place on 28th May – unless it, too, falls prey to technical problems. After coming to power in 1999 Hugo Chavez is putting himself forward for election. Chavez has also sidelined the old Venezuelan apparat (including the Catholic church) and appealed directly to the poorer sections of the community where he has garnered enormous popularity. He, too, is hated by the United States who have also produced an opponent more to their tastes from among Chavez's former supporters.
OAS election observers are also present in Venezuela uttering their Cassandra-like warnings of fraud and computer failure. It seems that the the Venezuelian government hired a Nebraska firm, Election Systems and Software to supply computer technology for the election. Leaving aside the fact that co-opting an American supplier in the circumstances is an act of national suicide, the wretched machines do not seem to work. As in Peru, we are told that the tabulation of ballots and results cannot be trusted.
Who is responsible for all these technical problems in Peru and Venezuela which never seem to happen anywhere else? Or, when they do, are conveniently overlooked by the State Department. An Associated Press article "Los Hackers on the Loose" by Margarita Martinez published on 15th February may help to explain the problem. "In Latin America" she says the internet " is easier than elsewhere to break into.".. "The security portals are extremely weak." In fact, on the day her article appeared Peru's election office Internet pages were crippled. "Seven of the 27 attacks registered in Peru over the past six months originated in the United States" according to the president of the National Informatics Society, Caesar Vargas.
The outcome of all this is that Fujimori will be toppled, probably by public unrest. The OAS and the other (independent) observers in Peru were silent when Toledo's supporters wreaked havoc after the first round of the election, throwing rocks and stones and setting fire to the gates of the presidential palace. Similar acts of violence have occurred at the president's campaign rallies. The mob will come to the rescue as it did in Albania.
In Venezuela the public may be less open to manipulation and the Americans may have to rely on disaffected members of the military to depose Hugo Chavez, something they are rather queasy about nowadays. Whichever means are chosen, both men will both have to go. It seems that the United States demands rule by puppets rather than real human beings, whatever their political complexion. The future of democracy and the rule of law in Latin America is truly in peril. And no one is able or prepared to do anything about it.
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