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Bush Vows to Back Democracy in Peru

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Vowing not to permit the destruction of democracy in Peru, President Bush said Friday that the United States and other nations of the Western Hemisphere should pressure President Alberto Fujimori, perhaps through economic sanctions, to restore constitutional government.

“We cannot sit by without registering our strong disapproval about the aborting of democracy in Peru,” Bush told a White House press conference.

“Outside pressure will be mobilized in the OAS,” Bush said, referring to the Organization of American States, which will meet Monday to discuss Fujimori’s military-backed seizure of power. He said economic sanctions will be considered.

But Bush’s firm rhetoric masked the weakness of the position of the United States and other democracies in the hemisphere in dealing with Fujimori’s decision to shut down Congress and cripple the court system.

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Latin America experts say sanctions would shred the country’s already fragile economy and play into the hands of one of the world’s most ruthless guerrilla organizations. Some Administration officials also say privately that Washington must be careful not to cripple the Peruvian military, which seems to be the only institution capable of interrupting the drug trade.

Peru produces about 60% of the world’s supply of coca leaf, the raw material for cocaine. Peru is a major focus of the Bush Administration’s $2.2-billion Andean Strategy, which is intended to stop drug traffic at its source.

Although the Administration immediately suspended all economic and military aid to Peru following Fujimori’s power-grab, officials concede that it will be difficult to disengage from the counternarcotics effort.

“There are some things you can do in 24 hours,” the official said. “But you have an aid pipeline that is very complicated, and there are ongoing programs that are very complicated. It is a little bit like turning a battleship. You can’t give an order and have it happen instantly.”

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The Pentagon says that “fewer than 100" U.S. Army troops--most of them elite Green Berets--are in Peru training the Peruvian army and national police in anti-narcotics tactics. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and Customs Service also have sent agents to train Peruvians and provide other support, including intelligence. DEA agents have assisted Peruvian forces in raids on cocaine processing laboratories.

Another Administration official said there is not yet a consensus on what should be done. Some anti-narcotics officials argue that if the Administration backs away from Peru, it will lose the entire effort to disrupt the Andean cocaine trade.

“There are differences of opinion because we are still in the phase of drawing up options,” the official said.

Washington has very little leverage because Fujimori’s power move appears to be popular with the public and because the bloody Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrilla organization is ready to capitalize on the governmental crisis.

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According to one poll, three-quarters of the population backs Fujimori’s action because it is disgusted with a political system that seems incapable of relieving the grinding poverty in Peru. The public also may hope that Fujimori and the military will be able to take more forceful action to curtail the insurgency.

But Administration officials and outside experts agree that Fujimori’s seizure of power will strengthen the guerrillas and weaken the government’s ability to deal with them. Although U.S. aid was directed at the narcotics traffic, the Peruvian military was able to divert some of that assistance to combatting the guerrillas. The insurgent strongholds are in the coca-producing area, and the guerrillas and drug traffickers often cooperate, enabling the army at times to attack both groups in the same operation.

“It was easy to close the Congress, but it is much more difficult to tackle Sendero Luminoso,” said Kenneth R. Maxwell, director of the Latin American project of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Maxwell said economic sanctions might drive the public into the arms of the insurgents by damaging the economy and increasing the poverty that the guerrillas feed on.

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At his press conference, Bush noted that the United States and the OAS have relied on economic sanctions “in our efforts to try to restore democracy to Haiti.”

But the comparison is not encouraging. A trade embargo against Haiti has failed, so far, to force the military to reinstate ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. It has, however, shattered the economy of the impoverished island. The failure to restore democracy in Haiti is embarrassing to the Administration, but a similar failure in Peru would result in real damage to U.S. interests.

Times staff writers Doyle McManus and Douglas Jehl contributed to this report.


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