Imprisoned in Chile, Peru's Fujimori sets sights on a comeback at home
The former president, who fled under a cloud of charges, may try to get on the ballot in April.
He set off in a private jet from Tokyo just over a month ago, touched down to refuel in Tijuana, landed in Chile's capital Santiago, and went straight to the Marriot hotel for a nap. Where, without ceremony, he was arrested.Skip to next paragraph
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After five years in exile, former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori has returned to South America - though not, perhaps, to the welcome he might have envisioned.
Today, Fujimori remains under 24-hour surveillance and stuck in a 10-by-10 foot Chilean detention cell pending an extradition request from neighboring Peru.
Still, the former leader is hoping for a political comeback in his home country, despite being wanted on 21 charges ranging from graft - he is accused of embezzling $15 million - to sanctioning a paramilitary death squad. He could receive 30 years in prison.
Many analysts say he cannot get on the ballot, much less win April's presidential election. But anything can happen here, they add quickly - and if he were allowed to run, he could benefit from the widespread discontent with incumbent Alejandro Toledo's performance.
"Peruvians are nostalgic for someone like Fujimori," says Ernesto de la Jara, director of the Instituto de Defensa Legal (IDL) a think tank in Lima. "The attitude is: 'Fujimori was corrupt, and he also killed and robbed - but at least he also built us some roads.'"
Currently in Lima, though, the chatter is neither focused on nor enthusiastic about the 67-year-old ex-president, known widely here as "El Chino" or the Chinaman, despite his Japanese ancestry.
"He's an old story," says vocal anti-Fujimori sculptor Victor Delfin, "...or at least he should be."
Fujimori's supporters insist, however, that everything is going according to a well-calculated plan to clear his name and launch his political comeback - though exactly how this will unfold remains murky.
"We don't want to put all our cards on the table just yet," says Marta Chavez, a staunch Fujimori supporter who was head of congress during his government before being suspended pending the outcome of a criminal investigation against her. "Now it's too early."
"In the coming weeks and months we will rise up," outlines Carlos Raffo, Fujimori's spokesman. "You will soon see masses - the angry masses - demanding that their leader be allowed to run." If Fujimori is not allowed to register for the race, adds Mr. Raffo, cryptically, "there will be no election."
"Everything in Peru happens last minute," adds Chavez. "Be prepared for surprises."
Fujimori's assent to power is actually a testament to that truth. The son of poor Japanese immigrants, he was the chancellor of an agricultural university, the host of a B-rate TV show and a virtual unknown until a month before he won the presidency in 1990. He then proceeded to lead the country for ten years, ruthlessly crippling terrorist groups, extinguishing hyper-inflation, and building schools, health clinics, and roads in poor communities as his popularity soared.
But by the time Fujimori defected to Japan in 2000, sending in his resignation by fax in the middle of a state visit to the country and in the middle of a major corruption scandal, he was as reviled as he had once been loved. Not only is he wanted in Peru, Interpol is also after him having issued a warrant for his arrest in March 2003.
In a farewell message to his Japanese hosts, posted on his website the day he left last month, Fujimori explained he was returning to Peru "...to fulfill a commitment of honor." He promised to "one by one, lift the accusations and demonstrate my innocence," and signed off with: "I am going to an encounter with my destiny."
The destiny he seems to have in mind, however, is not within easy reach. Not only is Fujimori likely to still be in Chilean detention by the Jan. 9 filing deadline for presidential candidates, he also faces a congressional ban on holding public office until 2011. "He will not get on the ballot. Period," says Mr. de la Jara, "That is final."
His supporters aren't worried, charging that the congressional ban is unconstitutional. They are putting their hope in Peru's National Elections Jury (JNE), which has the last word on whether to accept Fujimori's candidacy and, while broadly signaling he will be disqualified, has not yet stated so outright.