Democracy in the Americas appears to be receiving an important shot in the arm from the people of Peru. Their fury over a political scandal has led President Alberto Fujimori to promise that he will call new elections and leave office afterward.
Considering that Fujimori is serving only as the result of stealing votes and bribing members of Congress, his exit cannot come soon enough.
Properly, the United States helped lead other American nations in condemning the scandal as it evolved in recent days and has welcomed Fujimori’s announcement that he will call new elections. Unfortunately, Fujimori’s troubles are the first reversal of a troubling trend toward authoritarian rule in several Latin countries that the Clinton administration has let develop without displaying any dynamic leadership.
Fujimori, who had grown increasingly authoritarian, apparently intends to have the elections take place in March. Public opinion polls show that most Peruvians would like the voting to take place within six months, if not sooner. There is speculation that Fujimori and the current Congress might stay in office until late July. The extended timetable gives reason for worry about more political trickery.
Both the president and the congressional majority have blatantly subverted democracy. The current scandal arose after a TV station showed videotape of Fujimori’s top aide paying a bribe to a member of Congress who switched parties to help the president’s party obtain a congressional majority. It is not out of the question that such an unscrupulous president or the military might try to block a transfer of power to a newly elected government.
Dictatorships, with the exception of Cuba, have virtually disappeared from Latin America, but the situation remains perilous in a number of countries. In Venezuela, left-wing President Hugo Chavez, an admirer of Fidel Castro, often appears to be traveling on the same slow boat to authoritarianism that Fujimori, a rightist, used in Peru. In Ecuador, the current president was installed by Congress after a military coup overthrew the elected president.
Many of the gains for democracy in the Americas came during the 1980s, inspired at least in part by former President Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric. Despite some recent bright spots for Latin America, most notably the election of opposition candidate Vicente Fox as president of Mexico, the Clinton administration has devoted too little attention to nurturing democracy in the rest of the hemisphere, except in moments of crisis.
Recently, President Clinton has focused much of his Latin American attention on Colombia, where he and our Congress have joined hands to spend more than a billion dollars on an ill-conceived military aid operation aimed, more or less, at drug trafficking. Latin America and its people need and deserve more positive, sustained attention from the next administration.