Fujimori Takes Oath Amid Violence and Protests in Peru
With a pall of smoke and tear gas hanging over Lima’s colonial downtown and a cloud of uncertainty hanging over Peru’s democracy, President Alberto Fujimori took the oath of office for an unprecedented third term Friday as protesters clashed with a cordon of riot police.
Outdoor ceremonies preceding the inauguration in the capital were marred by nearby fighting between demonstrators and about 40,000 riot police. Six people were reported killed and at least 79 injured in inauguration-related violence.
The echoes of sirens and tear-gas bombs mixed with the trumpets of the presidential guard and hoofbeats of cavalry officers in red-and-blue regalia who escorted Fujimori’s Mercedes from his palace to Congress for the swearing-in.
The chief of the national police, Gen. Fernando Dianderas, reported Friday night that six bank guards died in a fire set by vandals in a building housing the Bank of the Nation. It was one of at least 10 fires that also hit the Justice Ministry, tax authority and elections agency, burning unchecked because firefighters were impeded by rioters. The guards were trapped in the bank and asphyxiated, according to police officials and Victor Potesta, chief of the federal fire department.
Among those hurt were protesters, firefighters and a U.S. journalist whose eye was hit by a tear-gas projectile, according to hospital officials and the government human rights agency. There were also 157 reported arrests. The unrest forced the cancellation of a ceremony unveiling the president’s Cabinet.
It was a grim start for Fujimori’s third five-year term on a day that also marked his 62nd birthday and the 179th anniversary of Peru’s independence. The strife underscored the isolation of a president determined to stay in power.
When a stern Fujimori put on the presidential sash at 10:55 a.m. in Congress, his supporters applauded and opposition legislators shouted “Dictator!” Then, 40 of the 120 legislators, one wearing a gas mask in solidarity with protesters outside, walked out of the chamber while Fujimori recited the presidential oath in a loud, defiant voice.
Only two Latin American presidents, the leaders of neighboring Ecuador and Bolivia, attended the inauguration. Most foreign leaders stayed home because of widespread allegations of foul play marring the first round of the presidential election in April and a troubled runoff vote in May that was boycotted by the challenger, Alejandro Toledo, and international observers.
Ambassador John Hamilton represented the United States, which condemned the election but values Fujimori’s tough record on fighting drugs and guerrillas.
In his inaugural address, Fujimori defended the legitimacy of his reelection. But the president offered a conciliatory pledge to “reorient” the military and the national intelligence service, which dominate in an increasingly repressive regime.
Saying his goal is “full democratization,” Fujimori concluded: “I reiterate my commitment to continue working, working and working for a modern Peru, a free Peru for all Peruvians!”
Toledo, meanwhile, alleged that the violence was caused by agitators working for the intelligence service who infiltrated the demonstration, which he dubbed the March of the Four Suyos in reference to the four regions of the Inca empire of old. He said in a news conference Thursday night, after the unrest had subsided, that he had warned 10 days ago of a plan by the spy agency to provoke violence.
“These incidents are the exclusive responsibility of the Fujimori government,” Toledo said. “Lima has become a military battlefield.”
Dianderas, however, accused the organizers of the march of being responsible for the “acts of vandalism.”
Pro-government leaders reiterated their charge that Toledo is an irresponsible rabble-rouser.
“The only proposal they offer the nation is violence,” said lawmaker Maria Jesus Espinoza. “The March of the Four Suyos became the March of the Four Vandals.”
The deaths of the bank guards sparked debate over whether Toledo or the government is to blame for the violence. Although Toledo’s volatility is described even by supporters as a weakness, the omnipresent intelligence service has been frequently accused of using infiltrators to stir up street violence.
Sociologist Julio Cotler said the failure of the police to stop the arsonists, some of whom were caught in the act by television cameras, was suspicious.
Government human rights ombudsman Jorge Santistevan called for an investigation of the fires and violence. Santistevan, who is regarded as one of the most objective and credible figures in Peru, noted that the previous two days of demonstrations had taken place in a peaceful, sometimes festive atmosphere.
“I can’t point at guilty parties,” he said. “I don’t think it can be said the marchers were responsible. Today’s acts could have been the work of infiltrators or of common thugs.”
Violence and intrigue aside, Toledo once again mobilized masses of followers in his quixotic campaign to force new elections and democratic reforms. The Stanford-educated economist of indigenous descent hoped to draw 250,000 marchers to the capital from across the nation, but turnout was estimated at less than half that number. The number of demonstrators who took to the streets Friday was far smaller than the estimated 80,000 who attended a peaceful rally headed by Toledo on Thursday night.
The civil disobedience that has flared periodically since the disputed first round of the election in April shows that Fujimori faces a difficult future. His achievements--the defeat of terrorism, economic stabilization--have become distant memories. The president must deliver on his promises to create jobs and reduce poverty and respond to Peruvians who, despite having backed his hard-nosed methods, are clamoring for him to loosen his control over the press, courts, electoral agencies and other institutions.
Friday’s riots, and the absence of foreign leaders, showed that the government faces “international condemnation [and] domestic instability,” said Mirko Lauer, a political analyst and Fujimori rival.
Critics allege that dirty tricks reshaped the balance of power in Congress. In May, Fujimori’s opponents--including Susana Higuchi, the president’s ex-wife--won a legislative majority. Fujimori finally gained a majority, however, thanks to defectors such as a legislator who won a sudden court reversal of an embezzlement case against him. Opposition legislators threw coins at the defectors when they were sworn in, accusing them of taking bribes and favors.
Fujimori continues to resist demands that he change course and fire Vladimiro Montesinos, his shadowy intelligence advisor. Montesinos is seen as the architect of government skulduggery and, according to some opponents, a driving force behind a secret military plan, known as “the green book,” to keep Fujimori in power for 15 years.
Nonetheless, Fujimori made a surprise move this week by naming Fernando Salas, a provincial mayor who ran for president in April’s first-round election, as prime minister. It was not the first time that the politically agile Fujimori has designated an independent figure to the largely symbolic post. The decision suggests a desire for at least an image of moderation.