Peru Is a Tough Call For US Policymakers

Officials walk fine line between censure and sympathy. CRISIS IN PERU

THE seizure of autocratic power by Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori presents the United States with a difficult problem: how to react when a troubled nation says it is destroying democracy in order to save it.

So far the US reaction has been, in essence, restrained condemnation. US officials' message to Mr. Fujimori seems to be that while they sympathize with Peru's plight of dire poverty and rising narco-terrorism, Fujimori must soon lay plans for a return to democracy lest the US and the Organization of American States impose tougher sanctions.

In a speech at the OAS on Monday, Secretary of State James Baker III walked this fine line between censure and understanding. "If Peru changes course, if constitutional democracy is restored, we can reembrace the Peruvian nation and people, and work together in partnership to help Peru overcome its difficult problems," Mr. Baker said.

As with Haiti when President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted by the Army last September, the OAS is giving Peru a few weeks for the implications of warnings sink in before further action is taken.

The US says Army Green Berets used to train Peruvian police in antinarcotics operations will leave Peru, but US Drug Enforcement Administration agents will stay. New US aid to Peru has been cut off but the State Department is dangling the prospect of further funds, including a possible forgiveness of debt to the US.

"If you're going to give Fujimori some breathing room to try and rectify the situation you don't want to come down on him too hard," says Arturo Valenzuela, director of the Georgetown University Center for Latin American Studies.

Still, US officials and analysts bemoan what they say has been a terrible error by Fujimori that will only play into the hands of the Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas. They worry about Peru's setting a bad example for other troubled Latin American democracies.

When Chile's Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte turned over power to an elected president, Patricio Aylwin Azocar, in 1990, the only Latin American dictator left was Cuba's Fidel Castro Ruz.

Recent anti-democratic moves, including the failed February coup in Venezuela, are troublesome because Latin America has seen alternating cycles of democracy and autocracy. In 1960, for instance, only Paraguay was ruled by a dictator. Then coups rippled through the region.

"In some sense democracy itself becomes a habit. Once that pattern is broken in one place, it's easier to be ruptured elsewhere," says Peter Hakim, staff director of the Inter-American Dialogue.

Fujimori says his actions are temporary, but history is littered with examples of autocrats who talked "months" and stayed for years, or decades.

"The tragedy of Peru is that he's going to find out that if he couldn't govern with Congress, he'll have a lot more difficult time governing without any political support at all. He needs the institution more than he realizes," says Dr. Valenzuela.

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