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Phoebe Griffith is Deputy Director of the Institute of Public Policy Research. She writes in a personal capacity.

From Suez to the fall of the Berlin Wall, first political memories leave an indelible mark on political beliefs. The outcome of Daniel Hannan‘s early experience of Leftist military dictatorship in Peru delivered a lifetime commitment to anti-statist, libertarianism. My early experience, also in Peru but a decade later, was very different.

I remember the day when Alberto Fujimori was elected President of Peru in 1990. The outsider in the election, he came from nowhere to defeat one of Peru’s most globally acclaimed novelists, the Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa. His strategy was simple – playing up his image of a naive rank outsider by wearing Andean clothes and driving a tractor through dusty slums. It endeared him both to the powerful, who thought he’d be easily manipulated, and to the people, who thought his Asian roots were likely to make him competent and honest.

All were soon disenchanted. In the space of ten years, Fujimori gained a stranglehold over public life in Peru and, in the process, rewrote the populist handbook.

Within his first six months in office, he delivered a brutal economic programme. Bringing on board the neoliberal economists who had originally advised Vargas Llosa, he proceeded to abolish price and currency controls, sold off state-owned industries and utilities to foreign investors, and slashed public spending. National debt and inflation were brought under control but with vicious brutality and at a huge human cost. By 2005, half of Peru’s population lived in poverty (almost double the proportion it had been in 1985).

Alongside, the Fujimori regime set about a project of consolidation of power. Learning the lessons of Latin America’s decades of coups which triggered unhelpful international scrutiny and fanned the flames of opposition, he restrained himself to only one formal (fairly brief) suspension of Parliament (in 1992). His strategy proved smarter and arguably more corrosive in the long term.

Fujimori, or El Chino as Peruvians referred to him, instead opted to retain but weaken all institutions which could hold him to account – from the judiciary to the press. Indeed, the regime launched an extensive fake news operation which pre-dated Facebook, and indeed the internet. I remember picking up a copy of ‘El Chino’ one day, a Government daily sold alongside bus stops at a heavily subsidised rate. No need to clamp down on the free press – just feed people a cheap diet of propaganda shrouded by tabloid fodder.

The dramatic capture of the leader of the Shining Path, a brutal Maoist guerrilla which had taken control of swathes of the Peruvian countryside, added a further element to Fujimori’s strategy: a secret service with unchecked power. Its chief spy, Vladmiro Montesinos, became the power behind the throne, working behind the scenes to exert a vice-like control across all elements of power. Elites were kept onboard through kleptocratic means, with millions of dollars made from foreign aid and the selling off of national assets making their way to bank accounts abroad.  Surveillance films, or ‘Vladivideos’, were made during meetings and used to blackmail targets into submission.

Meanwhile, the powerless were bought off through Fujimori’s brand of capitalist-populism. Fujimori shunned the strategies of political behemoths such as the Mexican PRI and the Argentinian Peronists, the archetypes of 20th Century populism. Rather than consolidate his power through organised labour and party-political allegiance, the Fujimorista brand relied on keeping the burgeoning ranks of informal workers, who made up approximately 70% of the labour force, happy.

Nowhere was this more evident than in Lima’s transport system. Bus routes were left to emerge wherever demand took them. Gaps in the bus system were plugged by a huge taxi fleet, also deregulated and left to grow unchecked (when short of cash, friends of mine sometimes stuck impromptu TAXI stickers on their windshields on their way to the pub to make some cash for the drinks). Informal markets the size of shopping malls sold everything from forged Harvard MBA diplomas to Clavin Klien (sic) pants. They were not just tolerated; they were offered credit and celebrated as hubs of enterprise and innovation. Tax avoidance at this scale was sustainable whilst the country’s infrastructure was being sold off.

As a young researcher, I spent some months interviewing poor women employed in the informal sector. They loved Fujimori and described scenes of him, literally, delivering the handouts by hand (normally out of the back of a lorry). The women admitted to appreciating the food, saucepans and toys for the kids. They were also fully aware that the gifts, and indeed the cheap loans which they needed to keep their food and clothing businesses afloat, would dry up should their support go elsewhere. The notion of paying taxes and then expecting a level of accountability was an entirely foreign concept to that cohort of hard-headed capitalists.

The legacy of the Fujimorista regime has shaped Peru to this day (his movement remains a major political force ) and has been far more pervasive and corrosive than General Velasco’s.

Despite high levels of economic growth since Fujimori’s demise in 2000, fuelled primarily by record high commodity prices, the country has lurched from one political crisis to the next, largely as a consequence of the lack of institutions to hold the powerful to account and by a political culture which has greed and opportunism at its core. Four of its past Presidents, Fujimori included, currently reside in prison for charges of corruption (a fifth, Alan Garcia, shot himself earlier this year, moments before being apprehended by police).

The lasting effects of a toxic combination of deregulated capitalism, contempt for democratic institutions and dirty underhand tactics – is the insight that foreign observers, including my small band of fellow Anglo-Peruvians like Daniel Hannan, should draw from Peru’s recent political history. Perhaps they will find resonance even closer to home?

28 comments for: Phoebe Griffith: Like Hannan, I have lived in Peru. But my take on its recent story is very different.

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