WHEN I lived in Lima in 1964 and 1965 as a young foreign correspondent, Peru was one of the most promising countries in Latin America. It was one of the exciting "new democracies," a country that was going to burst the chains of the bitter Spanish conquest.
But Peru was also the purest mystery of almost any country on earth. In its great Andean mountains, which rise above the coastal plain like black walls reaching into eternity, the ruins of the Incas are in many ways greater than those of Egypt. On the vast sand dunes of the coast, great cities stand mute, evoking magnificent nations lost centuries ago.
But last week, "pobre Peru," the historically doomed "beggar sitting on a beach of gold," staggered still another step into the purgatory it now faces.
What seemed shocking -- that Peru's unorthodox President Alberto Fujimori joined finally in a ruling union with the armed forces to squelch first civilian politicians and then the terrorist Sendero Luminoso, or "Shining Path" -- was, by far, not the most important event in and around Peru last week. For the situation had become so horrendously chaotic that something obviously had to be done.
For the last 10 years, Peru has been caught in a vortex of economic collapse and political paralysis, of drug mafia control in the high Andes and military frustration that is now turning to rage. Above all, the country faces a takeover by the murderous Sendero Luminoso guerrillas, who now control between 25 percent and 40 percent of the country, who have killed upward of 25,000 people, and who would put into place a Khmer Rouge-type government that would surely match Cambodia's worst horrors.
More important, at least when we think of what America's foreign policy expects of the "democracies" that are increasing so rapidly around the world, are other factors. They are not, unfortunately, ones that are easy to stomach for any of us democrats.
The minute Fujimori's effective coup against his own government occurred, for instance, the United States denounced his actions as "a regrettable step backward" for democracy and immediately suspended nearly all of the $236.5 million in American aid to Peru. The 34-member Organization of American States also acted immediately, deploring Fujimori's actions.
But, does not even the most impassioned democrat, if he or she is honest, need to think in terms of greater complexity than these knee-jerk actions? The terrible, yet most important, fact of Peru this week is not being mentioned. Elected democracy, that newcomer political system to much of the world, which Washington now treats as a veritable icon, can under certain conditions be only a fair-weather system.
Democracy and elected government have not worked in Peru. They have not provided answers, and very probably they cannot in the face of a group such as Sendero Luminoso, any more than democracy could have faced down the Khmer Rouge or the Nazis.
So, when a country is in the throes of one of those fanatic national disorders, does not one have to question whether one can blithely insist upon systems that are far more appropriate to normal times? What if there is no other way out, except a Sendero takeover, with a million Peruvians dead and maimed? Are we to insist that all democrats be killed in order to sustain our pure faith in democracy?
Nor is the questioning of democracy as the only system for everybody pertinent only in Peru. The other most worrisome example in Latin America is Venezuelan democracy, always the most praised and promising, and now falling apart -- because it, too, has not been truly "representative" in solving the people's problems. And this is only the beginning.
No one knows how this will turn out, of course, because Peru is indeed such a "mysterious" country. But the day after Fujimori cracked down on the opposition (which he said was stopping him from moving effectively against Sendero), it was reliably reported that he went walking through Lima's dangerous crime-ridden downtown and that hundreds of people fell in line behind him.
What is certain is that Peru as it was going was doomed. What is certain is that, in the absence of order, people will choose an authoritarian leader, or a dictator, who might threaten part of their lives above chaos and anarchy, which will threaten everything in their lives. And certainly we ought to be more sophisticated and at the same time more humble in our foreign policy about what democracy can really accomplish in troubled lands.
Georgie Anne Geyer writes a syndicated column on international affairs.