Former Peruvian strongman Alberto Fujimori is due to stand trial for the 1992 killings of six farmers, just a month after he was pardoned on medical grounds having served less than a decade of a 25-year sentence for human rights abuses and corruption.
It looks set to be a forlorn and tainted end to a remarkable public life, destroying what could have been an amazing political legacy.
When Fujimori was first elected as President of Peru in 1990, few in the country knew who he was, let alone the rest of the continent. That he would stay in power for a decade – also winning elections in 1995 and 2000 – would have been a prediction few political forecasters made on his ascent to the highest office.
What was most remarkable about Fujimori’s election was his heritage. Born to Japanese immigrants, he was raised in a country where discrimination against Asians was common. Indeed, only 1.4% of the Peruvian population hails from Japanese stock, further demonstrating his unlikely rise.
The Japanese first arrived in Peru at the end of the 19th century, seen as a cheap source of agricultural labour at a time of political and industrial upheaval back across the Pacific.
Unlike the Chinese – who had been enslaved and indentured to work in the sugar plantations and guano mines earlier in the 1800s – the Japanese in Peru were quick to lay down semi-permanent roots. Given that almost all of the labourers were men they tended to marry into local communities, establishing businesses that developed a distinctly Japanese identity.
Successful as many of the Japanese were, their arrival and later residency caused resentment amongst many Peruvians, with politicians passing discriminatory laws to prevent their capture of too much of the economy. World War Two further soured relations, with more than a thousand Japanese Peruvians subsequently deported to the USA, where they were held in internment camps.
So that Fujimori – son of natives of Kumamoto Province who had migrated to Peru in 1934 – should have had the audacity to run for president, let alone win the election, is a fairytale story in itself.
That this man of action would then go on to dismantle the bloody left-wing insurgency that tore Peru apart during the 1980s is simply staggering. Fronted by the Communist Party of Peru (better known as ‘Shining Path’) and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA – named after an 18th century rebel leader, himself christened after the last Inca ruler), this internal violence brought untold misery to civilians.
Targeting ordinary people who they viewed as ‘bourgeois’ or foreign-influenced, these terrorists (for that is what they were) became notorious for their acts of indiscriminate violence, torture and executions. One need only read Mario Vargas Llosa’s Death in the Andes (1997) to get an appreciation of the cloud of fear these groups conjured up, seemingly intent on darkening the Peruvian landscape forever.
It was in 1997, however, that Fujimori’s relentless (some say immoral) counter-insurgency began to make inroads when the the MRTA surrendered and disbanded, their leader killed during a heroic raid by Peruvian commandos after the MRTA had taken the Japanese embassy hostage.
Shining Path, too, was on the ropes, and by the time of Fujimori’s re-election in 2000 the civil war had basically been won. Going hand-in-hand with a surprise economic revival, Peru was beginning to attract the tourists and investors that it’s famed history and beauty merited.
Of course, some of Fujimori’s actions during this period are what have led to his current predicament. Shortly after his 2000 victory, he fled office, seeking sanctuary in Japan. He was eventually detained in Chile in 2005 and extradited to Peru, where he was jailed in 2007 for abuse of power. A 25-year sentence for human rights abuses followed in 2009 and this latest charge means that Peru’s one-time saviour is now likely to die behind bars.
Whilst it is easy to condemn a politician for taking callous decisions, for using his office to retain power and stifle dissent, the situation he is facing is seldom considered. Fujimori was fighting a terrorist insurgency, a ‘war on terror’ far more threatening to domestic security than the one that preoccupied George W Bush for instance. Nobody batted an eyelid when his administration killed a terrorist did they?
You need only look at today’s democracies and chart their histories to see that, in the not too distant past, they too were ruled by authoritarian leaders who bent the rules in the name of political and economic progress. Unfortunately, development comes at a price and sadly innocent people will sometimes fall victim.
It is therefore hoped that Alberto Fujimori is remembered for more than his final days languishing in a jail cell. Whichever side of the fence you stand on, his journey was a remarkable one, a journey that thrust Peru into the 21st century in a far more stable and prosperous position than when he took power in 1990.
Long may the revival continue.