Commentary: Latin America's Not Quite Dictators

To hear the victor tell it, Peru's May 28 runoff presidential election was strictly by the book. Twelve million Peruvians turned up at the polls to cast their ballots, and computers swiftly tallied up the count. Two-time President Alberto K. Fujimori was promptly pronounced the winner, with 51% of the vote. Of course, the outcome of the contest was never in doubt. The other leading candidate, Alejandro Toledo, pulled out weeks earlier, saying he could not take part in an election that was already rigged. Toledo went on to claim a moral victory of sorts. "The dictatorship has taken off its mask," he told a crowd of 50,000 supporters who gathered in Lima on election night.

Truth is, though, that Fujimori is no dictator--at least not in the old-fashioned sense of the word. Latin America has had its share of tyrants, but most were men of military stripe who had no use for elections. Fujimori, on the other hand, belongs to a younger breed of what Moises Naim has dubbed post-modern authoritarians. "These are regimes that have all the trappings of democracy," says Naim, a former minister of trade in Venezuela. That means there is a supreme court, a congress, and privately owned media. Fujimori and his kind never shut down these institutions permanently--unlike some of Latin America's past military dictators. And these new leaders always insist on contested elections. Yet somehow, things always go their way--which is why leaders such as Fujimori may have more staying power than anyone imagined.

Fujimori's Peru fits Naim's description to a tee. When the son of modest Japanese immigrants first ascended to the presidency in 1990, he promised to rebuild Peru's democracy from the ground up. Instead, he systematically dismantled it without actually abolishing it. Fujimori shut down the legislature and replaced it with a body that has only half the number of seats and is dominated by his supporters. He carried out a purge of the judiciary. And over the years, he has used the media and the National Intelligence Service to harass and discredit opponents.

Peruvians might be expected to bristle at their President's undemocratic ways. Yet Fujimori's brand of authoritarianism has always been tempered by a potent dose of populism. By some estimates, about 43% of Peruvian households receive food aid from the government. Such programs have helped ease some of the pain for the 12.5 million Peruvians living below the poverty line.

Fujimori may qualify as Latin America's first new-style caudillo. But he's likely not the last. In Venezuela, former coup leader turned President Hugo Chavez has gutted the Supreme Court, closed down Congress, started a new assembly, and pushed through a new constitution that permits presidential reelection--all in just 14 months. Chavez has executed what his opponents call a constitutional coup. He remains overwhelmingly popular despite a biting recession and is likely to win a new mandate in upcoming general elections.

AWKWARD. Washington is not sure how to cope with Latin America's post-modern authoritarians. They may trample on Congress and the courts, but they do so with the blessing of the majority of citizens, who do not appear to hold such institutions in high regard. And they are not averse to testing their popularity through the ballot box.

That puts the U.S. and other countries in an awkward position: It's easier to condemn a coup than an election. Officials at the U.S. State Dept. have expressed "deep concern about the transparency and fairness of the elections in Peru." That's not exactly tough talk.

What's more, the U.S. does not have much leverage over Fujimori. It can press international financial institutions to withhold assistance to Peru, but that would be no more than an irritant. Washington can cut off the $70 million or so Peru is slated to receive for counter-narcotics operations--but that risks an explosion in coca production. Economic sanctions are another option, but these rarely help bring about a regime's demise, as Cuba's case shows. Fujimori is a clever survivor. And his disturbing tactics may prove an inspiration to a new generation of Latin leaders.

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