Magazine article New Criterion

The Outgoing Tide

Magazine article New Criterion

The Outgoing Tide

Article excerpt

Peru is beguiling. Its polyphonic mixture of history, geography, and cultures are a travel writer's dream. Peruvian society, though, is also like a quipu--the indecipherable system of knots the Inca used as a narrative and bookkeeping device. In that light, Peru can be a nightmare for its own population. And this cloud-piercing, dirt-bound country is, again, about to do battle for its own soul.

In Peru, such battles come in waves; the amplitude may modulate but not the frequency. Now, after a ten-year crest, the country faces the inexorability of a trough. Only on June 5, when Peruvians go to the polls for the second (and last) round of presidential elections, will we know just how deep it will be. Alas, it seems that, whereas Peruvian cultural memory is long, Peruvian socio-political memory does not last for even one generation.

For the past ten years--after the defeat of a grotesque Pol Pot-like movement known as Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and the end of the autocratic and abusive rule of Alberto Fujimori--the changes have been evolutionary and predictable, rather than merely entropic. Current technology, took hold; capital arrived; civil freedoms gained considerable traction; a bustling middle class consolidated itself; an inundating migration to the big cities ended; squalid shanty towns became first titled settlements, then suburbs marked by well-stocked and crowded malls. Peru's economy became the fastest-growing in South America. Some 32 percent of the population is rated "poor," which includes the abjectly miserable, but that is down by over 10 percent within the last decade.

A pattern of social good health actually began in the early 1960s, with the founding of the Popular Action party and the election of its avatar, Fernando Belaunde Terry. But in 1968, just before the expiration of his term, he was spirited out of the presidential palace by a military coup. The new, land-reforming, "revolutionary" government was headed by Juan Velasco Alvarado, an admirer of Castro. In 1980, Belaunde was re-elected and had the wit to appoint two particularly capable ministers. One of these was Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (PPK), the minister of the economy.

Then, in 1990, came a soul-battle. The novelist Mario Vargas Llosa (now a Nobelist) ran for the presidency. A former leftist, in 1981 he organized a march, joined by some 100,000 Peruvians, against a state-takeover of national banking, and a conference on market capitalism that featured Milton Friedman as its keynote speaker. In the event, he lost to a non-entity, the Nisei Alberto Fujimori, an agronomist of whom no one had ever heard.

Fujimori immediately did what he promised not to do, enact the economic "shock treatment" that Vargas Llosa had (imprudently) declared necessary. Within two years he carried out an "autogolpe," mostly against the foot-dragging, led by Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (APRA) in congress. The state was, however, able to wage its war against Sendero and (along with the police work of one Ketin Vidal, who captured its leader Abimael Guzman) it won--as did the economy. But depredations ensued. Before his election, Fujimori had said that what the country needed was a ten-year dictatorship, and in this, at least, he meant what he said. After rigging a new constitution and a second successive term he eventually fled the country, leaving behind his nineteen-year-old daughter, who had been serving as First Lady since 1994, to face the music. Alberto is now serving a twenty-five-year stretch, probably not far from Guzman.

Fujimori's successor Alejandro Toledo had five good years. The economy (with PPK as the minister of finance) soared; he jailed as many Fujimoristas as he could find. …

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