- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 20, 2000

Peru hardly expected President Alberto Fujimori to leave office in any conventional way. Indeed, the president's announcement late Saturday to step down should have been anticipated precisely because no one was expecting it.

One hopes the president's abdication of power will help strengthen democracy in Peru. And Mr. Fujimori's exit could shift the dynamics of power in the whole region. Mr. Fujimori's accomplishments in Peru have been so impressive that he provided a living justification for authoritarian tactics in Latin America. The fact that he ultimately felt compelled to leave the presidency amid scandal will serve as a warning to other aspiring autocrats.

Reportedly, the Peruvian military's apparent unwillingness to continue to back Mr. Fujimori pressured the president to give up power. But the role of the international community shouldn't be underestimated. The Organization of American States (OAS) had criticized Mr. Fujimori for alleged irregularities in May's presidential elections and called on the president to advance democratic reforms.

Amid this backdrop, scandal broke in Peru last week. The head of Peru's brutal intelligence agency was filmed doling out bribes to various politicians in exchange for political support. Again, the OAS called on Mr. Fujimori for action. A few days later, the president announced that he was dissolving the intelligence agency and that he was stepping down. Shortly afterwards, the shadowy Mr. Montesinos, who has both allies and enemies in the armed forces, disappeared. Mr. Montesinos' disappearance appears to be in some way connected to Mr. Fujimori's resignation.

But even after the criticized election in May and the bribery scandal, Mr. Fujimori continued to command considerable support in Peru. A poll taken last week in Peru gave Mr. Fujimori a 44 percent approval rating, while opposition candidates Alberto Andrade and Alejandro Toledo picked up just 42 percent and 25 percent respectively.

This support is not surprising. Mr. Fujimori liberated his country from one of the bloodiest insurgent movements in history often through brutal tactics that generated considerable criticism from the human rights community. When the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, a terrorist group, staged its high-profile siege of the Japanese embassy in Lima during Christmas in 1996, Mr. Fujimori dealt with the crisis in his signature style: He didn't negotiate with the terrorists and launched a commando raid on the embassy, killing all the terrorists and miraculously saving all but one of the 72 hostages.

Mr. Fujimori's abuses of power have been in equal proportion to his successes. The Peruvian president reined in galloping inflation and gave much of the country's poor access to hospitals and schools. His economic reforms stimulated the highest rate of economic growth in Latin America in the mid-1990s.

But he failed to strengthen democratic institutions. In 1992, Mr. Fujimori ordered tanks into the streets and unilaterally suspended Congress and the courts. And in 1997, he had judges from Peru's Constitutional Court fired after they ruled he couldn't run for a third term.

These sorts of stunts have occurred all too often in Latin America. Although Mr. Fujimori has done much for Peru, it was time for him to leave the country in other hands. Latin America will be the better for it.

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