June 29, 2001

Cynicism Is Biggest Challenge for Peru's New President

By Andres Tapia

LIMA, PERU — After visiting victims of the earthquake and making statements about the capture of spymaster and embezzler Vladimiro Montesinos, Peru's President-Elect Alejandro Toledo flew to Washington as planned to drum up support for a shaky country.

His visit has the U.S. press making much of the symbolic importance of a ruler with dark Indian features for a nation that is 80 percent Indian or mixed blood.

But for us Peruvians, this all has a "been there, done that" feeling.

Our most recent president, Alberto Fujimori, was a dark-skinned outsider. This son of Japanese immigrants amazed us with how far pragmatism, not ideology, in the care of the marginalized could take a country for all, including Indians, mestizos, and the white elite.

He reduced five-digit inflation to single digits and the ferocious guerrilla movements to irrelevance. But then his government plundered the public treasury. Bribed congressmen. Stole an election.

Before Fujimori, another outsider force with an Indian face promised to liberate Andean peasants. But Shining Path's scorched-earth tactics created bitter enemies among the very peasants they claimed to be saving.

And before that, in 1968, another ruler with Indian features, General Juan Velasco Alvara-do, led his tanks into Lima's central plaza — also in the name of liberating the Indian — and began a 12-year dictatorship. Finally, after disappearances, states of emergency, curfews, and an economy in shambles, it came to a whimpering close. All of us, including Indians, ended worse off.

A few years later we were swept away by the silver-tongued charismatic, Kennedy-esque Alan Garcia — a white populist of 36. We were enthralled by his message. He was going to stand up to the imperialist powers like the World Bank and the IMF. But it all backfired and in the end his policies also decimated our economy.

Is it any wonder we have turned cynical? As the U.S. praises the "cholo from Harvard," we focus on allegations of drug use and fathering a daughter out of wedlock. As the U.S praises his Belgian-born wife for her longstanding concern for the Indian and her knowledge of their language, Quechua, many Peruvians see only personal ambition and a class warfare agenda.

While the foreign press praises Peru's anticorruption crusade, the populace is debilitated by daily airings of some of the hundreds of videos secretly taped by Montesinos showing politicians, journalists, business people, and media personalities compromising their personal and the nation's principles.

All this has taken a toll on how we treat each other. We have succumbed to the loss of the rule of law. As our leaders — white, mixed, or Indian — took what was ours, we felt justified in taking what was others'.

There are too many stories in families, among friends, at workplaces, of someone cashing in on some else's good faith or misfortune.

For example, the clinic where my dad works as a physician has, for 25 years, held on to insurance payments for three months before passing them on to the doctors who performed the services. In recent years, the clinic lengthened the delay to six months. Now they propose to pay in somewhat more timely fashion — if the doctors agree to forget the six months in owed back payments.

Toledo steps into the middle of a tug of war for our souls.

The only rulers that all Peruvians, regardless of race, look up to are those from the ancient Incan civilization who were decimated and then enslaved by the Spanish conquistadores. And this is the image Toledo wraps himself in as he dons ancient Indian garb and posters show him with Incan warrior Pachacutec as his patron saint.

In this way, he contrasts himself with Francisco Pizarro, Peru's conquistador, who, by betraying the Incas set the stage for a spirit of greed. This spirit seems to have taken residence in the government palace that he built during colonial times and has been the home of Peruvian presidents ever since.

To show his resolve, Toledo will not move into Pizarro's home. Instead, he will commute from his current house in a Lima neighborhood.

Will it be the spirit of Pizarro or the spirit of Pachacutec that will possess Toledo as he rules Peru? If it's the latter, then we, too, may have a chance at our own personal redemption.

Chicago-based Andres Tapia, who grew up in Lima, Peru, visits often and writes on Peruvian culture and politics.

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