AS PRESIDENT Alberto Fujimoro suspended democracy in Peru Monday, one could hear Americans across the country asking the burning question: Peru? Where the hell is Peru?
Well, it was first found by Francisco Pizarro, an illiterate swineherd. It's west of Brazil and north of Chile. First faltering democracy on your right. You can't miss it.
It's a messy society, where institutions are weak and don't mean much to the people. There's not much consensus on the system (which was democratic until Monday), and most real authority lies with groups outside of the formal structures of government--like the vicious Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas.
And the economy is a basket case, boasting the second lowest per capita GNP in Latin America. Despite impressive metal resources, the only time foreign investors got really excited about Peru was during the 19th century, when 80 percent of government revenues were derived from the export of guano (which is, well, bird shit).
In fact, there were widespread rumors in 1989 that the only reason why the military hadn't pulled a coup yet was that they could not deal with the sliding economy.
Despite the economy, Peru managed to look pretty democratic until the government fell apart. The 1979 constitution is a model of liberalism--it allows for a diverse and noisy political spectrum that keeps politics lively. And since 1975, both Spanish and the native Quechua have been the official languages.
The problem, as Tina Rosenberg of the Overseas Development Council has argued, is that the commitment to democracy and fairness was largely formal. Money and connections still mean more than formal rights. Civilian control over the military exists in name only, and the government has not had the guts to send a single Peruvian soldier to jail for their many human rights abuses.
Result: a government by, for and of rich white people, seen with general contempt by everyone else. Result: everyone else seeks representation outside the system, which in extreme cases means casting their lot with the urban-based Marxists of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement--or, even worse, with the notorious Sendero Luminoso.
THE MOST VIABLE force in Peruvian politics has been, traditionally, its hugely popular left-wing political party, APRA, or the Alianze Popular Revolucionaria Americana for short. (APRA is also sometimes known as the Partido Apristo Peruano--that is, PAP.)
It started out as violent and seriously revolutionary in the 1920s, under the leadership of your standard Latin American charismatic type, Haya de la Torre--known affectionately as "el Jefe." EI Jefe's messianic Marxism and anti-imperialism found a receptive audience in underdeveloped Peru, forging what Peruvians call APRA's "mistica."
El Jefe's firebreathing brand of leftist politics soon led APRA into perpetual and sometimes violent conflict with the conservative government, which in its turn carried out in 1932 a rather horrendous massacre of Apristas in Trujillo. By the 1950s, APRA had finally calmed down, and spent the next two decades sucking up to the conservative establishment. But there was a sense that when it gave up on el Jefe's revolt, APRA had sold out, lost its soul.
With the military still leery of APRA, a more moderate politician, Fernando Belaunde Terry of the Accion Popular, came to power. Belaunde is the Herbert Hoover of Peruvian politics--the economy took one look at him and promptly plunged into chaotic inflation. When he messily nationalized an oil company and the exteme left started clearing its throat in the wings, the military threw him out of power and took over themselves.
THEN IT GOT really weird. What you might expect to be the usual sordid rightist military junta actually went on to implement, of all things, an APRA progressive reform agenda. The regime courted the Church, sympathized with the landless peasants, stressed social justice and generally confused the life out of every political scientist in the world. In 1980 the brass realized Peruvians were getting sick of them and returned power to--of all people--the befuddled Belaunde.
Guess what? The economy, still allergic to Belaunde, went blooey again. When the kinder, gentler APRA went head to head with Belaunde in 1985, it thrashed him. APRA's Alan Garcia, a populist who was liked but not as revered as el Jefe had been, campaigned on such perennially crowd-pleasing issues as screwing the International Monetary Fund and not paying off Peru's debts.
He won (the first kosher transition of government since the 1940s), and then proceeded to blunder on his economic program, boldly seizing the banks and in the process terrifying the establishment. At the same time, hyperinflation raged (prices went up literally 200 million percent) and unemployment soared.
Again, as usual, everyone was distinctly unimpressed with the government and the system. Protest voting brought in Fujimoro in an election characterized above all by the rejection of anyone who had ever had anything whatsoever to do with the Lima government, including APRA.
Fujimoro, known as "the Karate Kid" (no, "Fujimoro" is not an Iberian surname), has faced an increasingly bloody war with the Sendero Luminoso, costing 25,000 lives so far.
Lima has not found a decent way of fighting Sendero. The army has taken to shooting up whole villages that are suspected of harboring Senderistas, which doesn't endear the government to anyone. "Civilian response has been to ignore it," one U.S. official told The New York Times. "The military response has been to blow everyone away."
ALL OF THIS leaves two legacies for Peruvian politics. First, steadily decreasing legitimacy, to the point that now even APRA isn't respected. (That didn't stop Fujimoro from jailing or harassing the top Apristas, although Garcia himself may have escaped.)
Second, APRA left a taste for messianic solutions to the endemic problems of underdevelopment and poverty that plague Peru. Sendero plays off of that quite handily--indeed, some Apristas have a certain grudging sympathy for Sendero. After all, they considered violent solutions too.
Still, Sendero is in a class by itself. With a human rights record that makes one's head spin, Sendero's leader Abimale Guzman Reynoso aims not just at revolution, but at a society modeled explicitly on China during the Cultural Revolution.
If it takes a million deaths to do it, that's just fine with Sendero. The only nice thing about Sendero is that it's not getting much help--yet--from the outside. Guzman reviled the Soviet Union, and China hasn't stepped in to help out these Maoist purists (remember, Deng Xiaoping got purged a few times during the Cultural Revolution).
Now, Fujimoro may have a repeat of 1968 in mind--pull a putsch, but don't behave like a putschist. Such progressive authoritarianism is sort of like smoking a joint but not inhaling. Bad idea. Fujimoro's best bet against Sendero is U.S. support (if Bush were wise, he'd think about debt relief instead of just throwing aid dollars into Peru), and Peruvian popular support.
Both will evaporate in some haste if Fujimoro goes authoritarian. Instead of a dictatorship--even a humane one, if that's what he has in mind--he ought to think in terms of presenting himself as an alternative to Sendero.
This can work. When the Catholic Church or APRA offers itself as a viable political option, Senderistas run scared. (Actually, that's not entirely true. Sendero has also been known to react by shooting nuns.)
And if it expects to gain any support, Fujimoro's military should stop doing stupid and brutal things to Peruvians. Fujimoro may also have been forced into this by the military, who have gained power in the struggle with Sendero. In other words, returning to democracy, fragile as it is, may be a tall order.
But ultimately, that is what must be done. Only a government with legitimacy--a Peruvian oddity--can stand up to Sendero and the poverty and desperation it feeds on.
Despite having a horrible economy, Peru has managed to maintain at least the appearance of democracy... ...until last Monday. Now a civil-military coup will destroy even that. Bad idea.