Post-Coup Peru

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.

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