Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori announced from Japan on Sunday that he will resign within two days, bringing to a chaotic end his dramatic 10 years in power.
In a brief written statement distributed by an aide in a Tokyo hotel where the president was taking refuge, Fujimori confirmed statements by officials in Lima, the Peruvian capital, that he will step down to speed the political transition of a nation mired in turmoil and scandal.
“President Alberto Fujimori confirmed . . . that he is resigning as president,” the statement said. “In the course of 48 hours, he is going to formalize the decision with the newly elected president of the Congress.”
Hours later, Fujimori’s Cabinet ministers resigned and placed themselves at the disposal of Congress, whose leaders met Sunday night to analyze the political situation. The ministers and Second Vice President Ricardo Marquez, who temporarily assumed the presidency, expressed shock and anger at the president’s move. Some critics suspect that Fujimori plans to remain in Japan to elude possible prosecution here.
“We are all indignant about his attitude,” Marquez said. “I exhort the president to return to Peru. He has a moral obligation to the nation.”
Marquez said he would serve as president only with the approval of the opposition-led Congress. Although First Vice President Francisco Tudela resigned last month, some say he is legally entitled to the presidency because his resignation was not formal. And the legislature might press for a consensus government led by its new president, Valentin Paniagua.
Fujimori, 62, abandoned office in circumstances charged with symbolism and mystery. A week ago, the president departed secretively for a trade summit in Asia with his once-authoritarian regime a shambles and rivals predicting that he would seek asylum in Japan, the land from which his parents emigrated to Peru.
Fujimori, a mix of Latin American strongman and pragmatic technocrat, now finds himself alone and marooned far from home. Critics allege that his disconcerting decision to resign overseas was caused by fears that he will be implicated in corruption scandals involving his former spy chief, Vladimiro Montesinos.
“The resignation . . . only confirms his responsibility in what has been the mafia-style control of Peru,” said legislator Fernando Olivera, who toppled Montesinos two months ago with a videotape showing the spy chief paying an apparent bribe. “Fujimori is wrong if he thinks this resignation will be enough to obtain his total impunity. Peruvians must act with serenity and firmness; there cannot be a power vacuum.”
After firing Montesinos on Sept. 16 and calling new elections for April, Fujimori showed every intention of remaining in office until July to oversee an orderly transition. He hinted that he would retain a role in politics, perhaps even running for Congress.
But Montesinos, now a fugitive after a decade as the president’s shadowy political partner, wreaked havoc by returning from exile in Panama last month. Fujimori’s hold on power was shattered by his failure to capture Montesinos and by allegations that the spy chief amassed at least $58 million through drug trafficking, gunrunning and judicial corruption.
Leader, Spy Chief Fell Together
Fujimori’s downfall confirmed for many observers that he and Montesinos were like Siamese twins who could not survive apart. Critics in recent weeks had said that Fujimori would not last until July and urged the U.S. government to withdraw its support for him.
“Montesinos was a creation of Fujimori,” said Dennis Jett, the former U.S. ambassador to Peru, in a recent interview. “The idea that we need to support Fujimori to protect democracy is silly. Now his epitaph will be: ‘He clung to power.’ ”
The behavior of Montesinos and Fujimori since their breakup has seemed erratic and self-destructive.
Instead of seeking haven in a third country, Montesinos defied not just Fujimori but the United States government and the international community with his risky return to Peru, where he is widely reviled.
Meanwhile, a frenetic Fujimori led commandos hunting Montesinos and showed off jewelry and other luxury goods confiscated from the spy chief’s homes. The president’s departure from Peru last week was positively furtive as he dodged reporters and reportedly packed crates of belongings on his jet.
As the State Department urged a peaceful transition Sunday, a high-level U.S. delegation led by Peter Romero, the assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, was en route to Lima for previously scheduled meetings with Peruvian leaders. That visit has suddenly become a means of aiding a fast-accelerating transition without Fujimori.
It was not surprising that Fujimori returned to Japan in the end. His ancestry enabled him to forge a special bond with the Japanese government. And he had retreated of late to the only advisors he trusted in the pre-Montesinos days: his children, siblings and brother-in-law, Victor Aritomi, Peru’s ambassador to Japan.
A Shoestring Campaign and a Lopsided Grin
That inner circle guided Fujimori when he was an obscure university dean who swept into the presidency in 1990 with a shoestring campaign, a lopsided grin and a populist promise of “Honesty, Technology, Work.” He soon won renown among the poorest Peruvians and the international community as an offbeat, agile and relentlessly tough leader, a master of surprise who beat back the forces that threatened the nation: terrorists, drug lords and economic chaos.
“I am frankly very sad about this decision,” said legislator Absalon Vasquez, who had been Fujimori’s chief political strategist. “He achieved stability, which is fundamental, and has brought infrastructure, water, light and schools for thousands of countrymen who did not have them. . . . He is the best president that all Peruvians can remember in the history of the republic.”
Many Peruvians would disagree as they survey a landscape littered with the wreckage of democratic institutions.
Fujimori is accused of systematically manipulating and weakening the courts, Congress, the electoral agency and other branches of government since he used troops to temporarily shut down the national legislature in 1992.
The once-solid economy has tottered; Montesinos at large embodies all the scandals and secrets of a regime based on force and espionage. There are reports that Fujimori resigned partly because his police recovered videos and other damaging evidence against the president that had been compiled by Montesinos.
But even critics wondered what might have been if Fujimori had not anchored himself with the security forces, if he had not defied the constitution and sought an unprecedented third term this year in troubled elections that brought international condemnation.
Ironically, Fujimori made the decision to run again in 1997 after his maximum triumph on the world stage: the televised commando raid that freed 72 hostages being held by guerrillas in the residence of the Japanese ambassador.
“I ask myself how he deteriorated, what he must be like inside,” said Luis Jaime Cisneros, a respected academic and pro-democracy activist. “If I had been him, I would have stopped, stepped down and run again in 2005 and that was it. But what triumphed instead was the ambition for power or some other reason that may be in the videos.”
Special correspondent Tarnawiecki reported from Lima and Times staff writer Rotella from Buenos Aires.