Between the Andean Landslides

April 06, 1995|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- In the early 1960s, when I spent two exhilarating years working in the Peruvian Andes, a road I traveled regularly crossed a boulder-strewn valley which had been the site of a village that was no longer there.

The village, called Ranranhirca, had been recently destroyed by an avalanche that had roared down from the glaciers high above and buried it, in seconds, beneath 20 feet of mud and rubble. Several thousand died. The survivors thanked God and went on with their lives. It was a lovely spot they lived in, with snowy 22,000-foot Mt. Huascaran looming above them to the east, and most agreed that another such awful calamity wouldn't happen soon.

They were right; it took about nine years. In 1970 a bigger town ZTC just to the north, Yungay, was similarly demolished. More than 10,000 died. An airphoto showed the tops of four palm trees still visible above the debris. The trees had shaded the Plaza de Armas, the town square, where I had often stopped to talk with friends.

When I was in Peru, during that period between the Andean mudslides, the entire country had seemed stable although desperately poor. The cities and the countryside were safe for travelers, even gringos. The government was democratically elected. The currency was one of the soundest in Latin America.

But all that was an illusion. Politically and socially, Peru in those years was no more stable than the slopes of Mt. Huascaran.

In 1968, a left-wing military coup ousted the president. The fragile economy, except for that devoted to producing cocaine for Colombians to sell to North Americans, almost instantly fell apart. A secret terrorist organization, Shining Path, began to strangle the country, controlling vast areas in the Andes. By 1990, annual inflation had reached 8,000 percent.

These horrors are noteworthy now because they are either over or ending, replaced by a new period of stability which, while still fragile, looks a lot more secure than the last one. Peru has changed. How it has changed, and how much, is of some significance to Americans, who could use a little stability themselves.

This spring, Peru's unlikely president, Alberto Fujimori, will probably be re-elected in a democratic election. This is expected because of Mr. Fujimori's accomplishments, not because of his personal popularity, of which he hasn't much.

Mr. Fujimori, who is of Japanese extraction, is expected to win even though he 1) temporarily suspended constitutional government and the national legislature; 2) is the subject of mild nationwide ridicule, the more so since he fired his wife Susana as First Lady and she responded by running against him; and 3) is opposed in the presidential election by the respected Javier Perez de Cuellar, the former secretary general of the United Nations.

During his five-year term he smashed the Shining Path movement, imprisoned its leader Abimael Guzman, and brought security to the countryside. Inflation in Peru is now under 10 percent. He has privatized the telephone company and other state-owned businesses, and instituted other free-market reforms like those that have worked so spectacularly in Chile. The Peruvian gross domestic product (GDP) in 1994 was the fastest-growing in the world.

The Clinton administration doesn't like Mr. Fujimori much, and shows it. This pointless policy is of little practical use to Mr. Clinton, but probably of solid benefit to Mr. Fujimori. Since John Kennedy, Peruvians haven't cared much for American presidents personally, and still like to demonize the United States.

The Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, whom Mr. Fujimori unexpectedly defeated for president in 1990, once observed that it is a national shortcoming of his countrymen to blame others -- the Americans, the Spanish conquistadores, whomever -- for their miseries.

That's probably accurate, although it could be said as well about others than Peruvians -- wouldn't you agree, Mr. Clinton? And now, at the moment when Peru is at last beginning to succeed, Mr. Vargas Llosa is busy sniping at Mr. Fujimori.

That's unfortunate. As James Como points out in a piece on Peru in the current National Review, it was Mr. Vargas Llosa whose eloquent criticism of the disastrous Peruvian governments of the 1980s made possible Mr. Fujimori's election, and thus the subsequent reforms that turned the country around.

In a complicated world, there is a need for both doers and talkers. The charismatic Mario Vargas Llosa is a brilliant talker. Alberto Fujimori, with all the charisma of a potato, is a doer. Together they've brought some stability to a place where even the mountainsides are dangerously insecure.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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