Wealthy Peruvians derided him as a “filthy Chinaman.” But Alberto Fujimori, who is actually the son of Japanese immigrants, turned the racist smears to his advantage. He hitched a platform to the back of a tractor and campaigned in the impoverished Andean highlands, where Indians also suffer discrimination at the hands of the coastal elite. That strategy paid off. Last week, the 51year-old agronomist, almost unknown publicly until a few months ago, scored a resounding victory in Peru’s presidential runoff, defeating Mario Vargas Llosa, an aristocratic 54-yearold novelist, by close to 20 per cent, according to preliminary results. Addressing his supporters from a balcony in Lima, the capital, Fujimori reaffirmed his pledge to improve the lot of Peru’s poor, whom he called “the forgotten people.”
That will be a daunting task, but Fujimori has defied the odds before. The right-of-centre Vargas Llosa, backed by big business and the Roman Catholic Church, had led by as much as 55 per cent in opinion polls in March.
When Peruvians voted in the first round on April 8, however, Fujimori, who struggled up from humble origins helping his father sell tires and then flowers, finished a close second. Last week’s landslide completed the upset.
Fujimori describes the situation in Peru as “almost catastrophic.” A 10-year war waged by the Maoist Shining Path guerrillas has killed 17,000 people. Half the coun-
tryside is under military rule. The most profitable rural activity is growing coca leaf, the source of 60 per cent of the world’s cocaine, and that is largely controlled by the insurgents. Inflation is running at 2,000 per cent a year, the central bank has only $175 million of reserves, and many foreign banks have refused to lend Peru money since outgoing President Alan Garcia restricted debt payments in 1985.
Fujimori’s solutions are mostly negative: he has promised not to sell all state firms or fire public employees, part of a free-market program that Vargas Llosa had recommended. Fujimori also says that military force is not the way to stamp out the drug industry. He favors a more gradual program of crop substitution that
would give coca growers higher prices for other agricultural products.
Before he takes office on July 28, Fujimori plans to visit the United States, Canada and Europe. Japan has also invited him, although Japanese Finance Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto said that Fujimori should not expect more aid just because of his ancestry. Many Japanese-Peruvians may be relieved by that statement. Alarmed by the anti-Oriental sentiments
that surfaced during the campaign, many said that they
would rather not have more attention focused on the ethnic origins of their new president.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.