WASHINGTON -- The Organization of American States, declaring that democracy's faults can't be allowed to doom it, prepared yesterday to send a high-level mission to demand restoration of Peru's Constitution.
OAS foreign ministers, meeting here, hoped that a hemisphere-wide condemnation would persuade President Alberto K. Fujimori to reconsider his action and thereby prevent stern international measures, such as economic sanctions, from being taken.
Canadian and U.S. officials refused to rule out sanctions if the mission fails, but sanctions do not have broad support in the OAS. A U.S. official noted that sanctions were imposed on Haiti only after its military leaders refused to back down from last fall's coup, after a similar mission was dispatched.
President Fujimori last week suspended Peru's Constitution and dissolved the Congress, saying the nation's lawmakers and judges were obstructing his fight against drug trafficking, terrorism and poverty.
In a series of speeches at OAS headquarters, foreign ministers voiced sympathy for Mr. Fujimori's frustration. But they rejected the claims of Peruvian Foreign Minister Augusto Blacker Miller that Mr. Fujimori had no choice but to grasp all power in cooperation with the military.
"You cannot destroy democracy in order to save it," Secretary of State James A. Baker III told the meeting, summing up points made by several colleagues.
Mr. Fujimori's suspension of the constitution has underscored the fragility of democracy in a continent where entrenched military establishments fear little restraint, and where populations receive the brunt of painful steps taken to correct past economic mismanagement.
It also presents a crucial test for the OAS, which has failed to restore President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to the presidency in Haiti and which has also been unable to get European cooperation with an anti-Haiti trade embargo.
A resolution being prepared yesterday was expected to "deplore" Mr. Fujimori's actions and may urge countries to exert international financial institution leverage against Peru.
The OAS mission dispatched to Lima is expected to be headed by OAS Secretary-General Joao Clemente Baena Soares and Uruguayan Foreign Minister Hector Gros Espiell. An OAS human-rights team also was expected to be sent to monitor events in Peru.
Meanwhile yesterday, a van loaded with dynamite exploded before dawn near the main police station in Callao, Lima's port, ripping the front off an adjacent apartment building, killing four people and wounding 14, the Associated Press reported.
The bombing, believed caused by the Shining Path guerrilla group, was one of the most destructive bombings in the Maoist group's 12-year-old insurgency, in which more than 25,000 people have died. It was the third major attack in the area since Mr. Fujimori closed Congress April 5.
The foreign ministers heard privately from Peru's first vice president, Maximo San Roman Caceres, but denied his bid to represent Peru at the meeting, allowing Mr. Blacker Miller to speak for Mr. Fujimori.
In a dramatic appeal, Mr. Blacker Miller detailed Peru's horrific problems, saying its very existence as a state was threatened.
Poverty has meant malnourishment for 70 percent of the nation's children under 6, he said; nearly half of those under 12 must work. Yellow fever, tuberculosis and cholera, diseases once thought defeated, have returned. Thirty percent of the population lives in "extreme" poverty, he said.
Terrorism and drug trafficking have placed the country close to civil war, he said. Shining Path insurgents, whom he compared with the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia, have not hesitated to murder children as young as 3 to 5 years old, he said, and is prepared for Peruvians to die in the millions.
Drawing $100 million a year in profits from coca production and trafficking, the Shining Path has forged links with groups in surrounding countries, threatening to destabilize other governments.
Mr. Blacker Miller, citing polls showing strong support for Mr. Fujimori, pledged that democratic institutions would be restored, with a more efficient judiciary, as soon as possible, and repeated Mr. Fujimori's promise of a plebiscite in six months.
But his pledges fell on skeptical ears from neighboring foreign ministers. They recalled similar promises from previous military dictatorships in the region that then gave way, as one put it, to torture chambers and unmarked graves.
"All dictatorships start off on a popular footing," said Venezuelan Foreign Minister Humberto Calderon Berti.