Applause for 'El Chino'

April 13, 1995|By Georgie Anne Geyer

Washington -- AS A FOREIGN correspondent in Peru in 1964, I saw the dramatic, still unnoted events that were making that wondrous but tormented land a microcosm of change in the Third World.

As the descendants of the great Inca empire were awakened to the modern world, they simply got to their feet and began walking down the black and barren Andes from their historic home in the high cordillera to the elegant and unprepared Spanish cities on the coast. They formed "bariadas," or "new towns," around Lima, Trujillo and Arequipa; these were hopeful places -- at first.

When I returned to Lima in the 1970s, they had veritably taken over the city. On every street and sidewalk, they crouched, sat and lived, selling whatever they could find. Soon, Lima was inundated; the old Spanish-Peruvian politicians, with their stuffy, formal manner, had no means of dealing with the inundation. By the late 1980s, the fragile country buffeted by these vast migrations and by a disastrous economy, was about to fall to the then Maoist Shining Path guerrillas.

It was fair enough to think of Peru as still another of those countries to "write off," and one feared we would see an important developing country ruled by some of the world's most maniacal killers.

And then came "El Chino"! Anyone who mistakes Alberto Fujimori -- just overwhelmingly re-elected president of Peru -- for a Japanese-Peruvian political force of nature loosed upon the world could surely be forgiven.

Last year, for instance, I spent a day with "El Chino" (Peruvians ZTC call all Asians "Chinese") and found him to be one of the most impressive leaders I had met in 30 years as a correspondent. Good-looking, charming and humorous -- and, yes, authoritarian -- he was "on stage" every minute that we spent in the mountains.

Once as our little bus was bouncing along the rough roads, "Fuji," as he is also affectionately called, suddenly told the driver to turn in to a university, formerly a veritable arsenal of the "Shining Path." The students, surprised at seeing the president of Peru in their midst, went wild over him!

As for El Chino-Fuji, he just got out of the bus with his stool, climbed atop it, raised his hand, and then demanded with his slightly self-deprecating smile, "Applause, please!"

These are admittedly frivolous, if revealing, memories of the man who will lead Peru for another term. The fact is that Mr. Fujimori, with 63 percent of the vote, will become a force in Latin America itself. And that is all to the good.

For Mr. Fujimori is a true new man in the hemisphere. He replaces, probably for good, the stultified and most often corrupt old Spanish politicians. He is a talented mathematician and agronomist in contrast to the old lawyers and theological ideologues. He runs the government with the help of a Toshiba 4400 computer and, when I was there, was asking Japan for 600 parabolic antennas to connect interior towns to Lima.

The fact that he dissolved the old congress two years ago -- an act that shocked many American purists, particularly in the U.S. Congress -- bothered virtually no one in Peru. They knew their democratic congress, as it was, was irrelevant in their troubled -- country.

"Actually, Mr. Fujimori is the least authoritarian-type president we have had," Jaimede Althaus, the respected editor of the daily Expreso, told me then. "When I interview him, I can ask him anything. He listens. He acts as an equal-to-equal with every person. The rest of our presidents were vertical in their relationships."

He thought for a moment, then summed up. "A better word than 'authoritarian' for him is 'arbitrary.' But the thing that differentiates Mr. Fujimori is that he identifies a problem, confronts it and resolves it. This is an experience we Peruvians have not had in memory."

In his first five years, El Chino-Fuji was able to accomplish two stunning things: 1) He turned the state-run economy around to a free enterprise one, and 2) he defeated the Shining Path. And those were exactly what the people most desperately wanted. Even the squatters have begun to move out of downtown Lima as the economy rights itself.

The democratic purists can say what they will about the "authoritarian leaders" they so love to hate, but Mr. Fujimori's kind of effective and "arbitrary" leadership is increasingly respected in developing countries that want results and not form.

Or, in the words of a restaurant owner in the Lima suburb of Rimac: "As they say here, 'He has his pants on right.' "

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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