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Peru President’s Power Grab Raises Doubts about Latin Democracies

April 16, 1992

LIMA, Peru (AP) _ Although it is unlikely that a ″Fujimori Syndrome″ will sweep Latin America anytime soon, the Peruvian president’s grab of dictatorial powers with military backing has raised some fears in the region.

The coup is ″a warning to Latin American democracies: Either the system changes or democracy collapses,″ said Gonzalo Ruiz, a political analyst and director of Radio Quito in Ecuador.

On April 5, Fujimori suspended Peru’s Constitution and closed Congress and the courts, accusing lawmakers of sabotaging free-market reforms and shackling his fight against drug traffickers and leftist guerrillas. He said corrupt legislators and judges defended special interests to the public’s detriment.

In imposing one-man rule, he fell back on a deeply embedded Latin American tradition of looking to a strong man to save the nation in times of turmoil.

Two months earlier, young military officers in Venezuela failed to overthrow what they called the corrupt government of civilian President Carlos Andres Perez.

Most of Latin America only recently emerged from military rule. Coups began toppling civilian governments in the 1960s and generals held sway into the mid-1980s.

Politicians, scholars and diplomats agree the fledgling democracies have faults aplenty. But despite widespread discontent, they say Latin Americans prefer democracy.

Rejection of dictatorship is especially strong in nations such as Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia, which cast off brutal rule by their armed forces. Those regimes practiced secret arrests, torture and murder.

Zadoki Costa dos Santos, a Coca-Cola delivery worker in Rio de Janeiro, said: ″We have all kinds of problems but a dictatorship would make things worse.″

In Bolivia, where generals involved in cocaine trafficking returned power to a civilian government in 1982, the anti-military sentiment is overriding.

″The worst democracy is better than the best dictatorship,″ said Bolivian labor leader Victor Lopez.

But in many cases the democracies do not respond to the needs of the region’s poor masses, representing instead the interests of political elites. A congressman in Brazil pays himself a salary of $6,000 a month; the minimum wage, earned by worker Costa dos Santos, is something like $50 a month.

″Things are not going well for Latin American democracies,″ said Luis Pasara, a Peruvian political scientist. ″Despite periodic elections, there is a growing loss of trust by citizens in political institutions.″

Corruption is rampant. Justice often goes to the highest bidder. Bureaucrats refuse help without the customary bribe.

Citizens often feel their political leaders remember them only at election time.

In Ecuador a dozen candidates are running for president in the May 17 election, the fourth since elected government was restored in 1979. But voter apathy is high.

″We’re in another election where the candidates are promising a thousand and one things, but we’ve heard it all before,″ said Jose Villacis, a sidewalk vendor in Quito.

Sociologist Carlos Ivan Degregori, director of the Institute of Peruvian Studies, said Latin Americans have their own concept of democratic government.

A democracy in Latin America is judged on whether it is effective in improving the welfare of citizens, Degregori says.

″The fact that Fujimori continues as president makes many people believe there is still a democracy because they identify democracy with a civilian president rather than with a set of rules,″ he said.

In Peru, one of the region’s poorest nations, little public spending reaches the vast majority of Lima’s 7 million people, most of whom live in bleak shantytowns.

Hundreds of forgotten villages in the Peruvian Andes receive no government services of any kind.

Despair fuels the social cauldron and feeds the ranks of the Shining Path guerrilla movement, one of the most violent ever to appear in Latin America.

In justifying his power grab, Fujimori pledged reforms to create a true democracy responsive to the people’s needs.

″We have never blamed democracy for Peru’s problems,″ Fujimori said this week. ″We blamed the false democrats.″

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