Peru’s Victor: Happy, but Anxious


In the final days of the campaign, Alejandro Toledo could feel it.

His noisy red bus chugged toward victory through a spectral landscape of sand and fog, entering the fishing villages north of Lima in a tumult of horsemen in white, youths running alongside in folkloric demon masks, dogs baying on the rooftops.

Toledo, the future president of Peru, stared out of the curtained window of his campaign bus at the faces that looked so much like his own: the faces of his childhood of toil and deprivation in the indigenous highlands.


What he saw and felt was a real-life fairy tale in the making, a destiny full of glory. And foreboding.

“There’s a great risk of which I am very much aware: The people have so much expectation. I see women, kids, crying with expectation,” Toledo said during the campaign trip last month, pensive amid the cheers outside and the whine of the engine. “I can’t let them down. It will be the first time in 500 years that someone of my ethnic extraction is democratically elected. It’s been 500 years. There is enormous expectation. It’s as if I had been sentenced.”

In fact, Peruvians joyously handed down their sentence Sunday when they elected Toledo president. Thanks partly to his leadership of a peaceful street insurrection against former President Alberto Fujimori, Peru has taken a giant step forward.

Now the people have their fairy tale president, a man of many, sometimes contradictory faces.

Toledo, 55, proudly calls himself a cholo, a word widely used by Peruvians to describe people of mixed race. He comes from a region where peasants struggle to speak Spanish correctly, but his Spanish is tinged by the English he acquired at Stanford. He has a defiant, rabble-rousing image--the spry figure in a headband leading marchers--but he is a technocratic product of the World Bank and corporate boardrooms. He has hobnobbed with heads of state, but he has no experience in elected office.

During a two-year crusade to restore democracy and attain power, Toledo has displayed impressive talents and worrisome weaknesses. The president-elect inspires the highest of hopes, as expressed by the chants of “Pachacutec,” an Inca emperor of yore, that greeted his triumph Sunday night.

But after 15 years of alternately hapless and oppressive rule, Peruvians have learned to tone down their expectations.

“He could be the Benito Juarez that Peru never had,” said a sometime ally, comparing Toledo to Mexico’s revered 19th century president of indigenous descent. “Or he could be a disaster, anarchy, and not last a year.”

It is tempting to compare Toledo to Bill Clinton, in spite of the distance and differences between Toledo’s native Ancash province in the Andes and Clinton’s humble Arkansas roots.

Both men overcame disadvantaged childhoods with intelligence, drive and charm. Like Clinton, Toledo will have a formidable first lady: Eliane Karp, a left-leaning Jewish anthropologist of French and Belgian ancestry who speaks the indigenous Quechua language better than her husband. Karp’s flaming red hair and fiery speeches made her a popular and controversial fixture at campaign rallies.

The couple divorced in the 1980s. Their marital troubles were dredged up by rivals, along with allegations that Toledo had fathered an illegitimate child and falsely claimed to have been kidnapped by Fujimori spies in order to cover up a day of cocaine use with prostitutes. The couple have reconciled and, like the Clintons, dote on their college-age daughter, Chantal, who was active in the campaign.

Toledo also has a gift for connecting with street kids, matrons in shantytown soup kitchens and other downtrodden Peruvians. He is engaging, animated and informal. During the interview in the back of his campaign bus, he relaxed at a table, wearing jeans and a leather jacket and occasionally patting his interviewer on the arm for emphasis.

Advisor’s Defection a Low Point of Campaign

Nonetheless, Toledo has been saddled with an image as a fast talker who doesn’t always check his facts.

“I’ve seen Alejandro say things without foundation,” said journalist Alvaro Vargas Llosa, who was Toledo’s top press advisor but broke with him after the first round of the presidential election in April. “He tends to bluff a lot. He has an adulterous relationship with the truth.”

The angry public desertion by Vargas Llosa, the son of renowned novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, was a low point of Toledo’s campaign. Vargas Llosa, 35, joined the camp last year and was initially impressed by the candidate’s bravery and zeal. He says he became disenchanted, however, after Fujimori fell and Toledo grew increasingly power-hungry.

“There is a great risk that we could end up with another Fujimori,” Vargas Llosa said.

Toledo denies his former aide’s allegations that he handled campaign funds questionably and that he maneuvered to gain control of a television station. Vargas Llosa simply left the campaign in a tantrum after a personal clash, Toledo said.

As Toledo points out, the elder Vargas Llosa remains a supporter and criticized his son’s move. The younger Vargas Llosa’s recent grass-roots campaign urging Peruvians to cast blank ballots got a meager 13% of the vote Sunday. Toledo won 52% of the valid vote and former President Alan Garcia won 47%, according to results released Monday with 88% of the ballots counted.

Toledo blames political attacks on conspirators; to some extent, he is probably right. Investigations have shown that Fujimori’s spy chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, ran a gangster-like apparatus that targeted Toledo because he was a threat to its survival during last year’s presidential elections.

Toledo says he rejected a Montesinos intermediary’s offer of a $50-million bribe to drop his presidential bid. He says he has received 127 death threats.

“I know they don’t forgive me for doing what we have done,” Toledo said. “They don’t forgive me for mobilizing Peru and opening a window to show how corrupt the government was in the depths of its guts.”

Montesinos will be a top priority of the Toledo government. To restore stability, Toledo has pledged to expand ongoing anti-corruption investigations into alleged thievery of billions of dollars by the former regime. That means prosecuting Montesinos, believed to be hiding in Venezuela, and Fujimori, who has taken refuge in Japan.

Even if Toledo’s economic team makes rapid strides with proposed tax cuts and other measures to spur growth and jobs, economic progress takes time. Peru is seething with pent-up rage and frustration. Toledo will feel pressure, as often happens during Latin American political transitions, to go after emblematic villains.

“He’ll have to have a guillotine functioning full time in the Plaza de Armas,” the square outside the presidential palace in Lima, the capital, joked political analyst Mirko Lauer.

Toledo is candid about the urgency of capturing Montesinos. He said he has asked President Bush, whom he hopes to see during a pre-inaugural trip to world capitals, for U.S. help.

“It would be a great encouragement for Peru to know that Montesinos is brought to justice,” he said. “This would give a whole sense of justice, because there is a frustration that they have fooled us, they have robbed us and they have run out the back door. I will personally ask President Bush about this before I take office. It’s difficult for me to think that the United States does not know where Vladimiro Montesinos is.”

Many Peruvian leaders say the CIA is reluctant to aid the manhunt because it could be embarrassed by its longtime relationship with Montesinos.

Democracy Coupled With a Strong Hand

Another central challenge: Toledo must build genuinely democratic institutions. The experience of Peru in the 1990s, and of countries such as Mexico and Argentina during the same period, provides a lesson in the failures of attempted free-market modernization by leaders who rely on personality and corrupt power structures.

At the same time, Peru needs a strong hand. Toledo says his lack of experience is his “comparative advantage” because he does not have old-fashioned political vices.

He intends to celebrate his identity with a second presidential inaugural ceremony after the traditional inauguration set for July 28 in Lima. The second inauguration will take place the next day in the ruins of Machu Picchu, the hilltop Inca citadel that is one of the continent’s most visited tourist attractions. Toledo wants to offer a symbolic tribute to his ancestors.

And, true to his economist’s training, he wants to use the opportunity for some unabashed marketing.

“I will invite the world’s biggest tourism promoters,” Toledo said, grinning. “I want to celebrate our roots, our millennial culture. And the second reason is very practical: I want to be the president whose first decision promotes tourism. From Macchu Picchu, on CNN, prime time: ‘Gentlemen, this is Peru.’ Can you imagine how much money we’ll save on promotion?”