Cholo challenger heats up the race in Peru election

Peruvians looking for an alternative are finding reasons to like Alejandro Toledo, the opposition candidate with the strongest chance of thwarting President Alberto Fujimori's bid for a second reelection in Sunday's vote.

They like the fact he's an economist who talks about creating jobs. To them, Toledo's call for "teaching people to fish, rather than just giving them a fish" - in reference to Mr. Fujimori's food-assistance programs for the poor - makes sense.

After 10 years of Mr. Fujimori's dominance of the country's political life, there's an attraction to Mr. Toledo's talk of rebuilding the country's precarious democratic institutions. People like Toledo's theme of building on Fujimori's accomplishments. But the many Peruvians who want a change still qualify Fujimori as their country's best president.

People also like Toledo's wife, a Belgian strawberry blonde. Eliane Karp campaigns for strengthening women's rights, and she speaks Quechua, the language of Peru's Andean Indians.

And then there is the matter of Toledo's skin.

"There's a chemistry between us and the people; it's a skin-sensitive relationship," says Toledo, rubbing two fingers up and down the dark skin of his forearm. "People are naturally drawn to what their eyes tell them, that with me Peru for the first time in 500 years would have a leader from the 95 percent majority."

In the past few weeks, Peru's presidential race has become a battle between "El Chino" - or "the Chinaman," the endearment Peruvians use for their president of Japanese descent - and "El Cholo." A cholo is someone with the strong physical features of the Indians whose forebears were the Incas, a prototype Peruvian, in the same way a tall and fair Midwesterner might be considered the typical American.

And in this race "El Cholo" is Toledo, with his sleek black hair, stocky build, prominent nose, and of course the dark skin.

Having lived in the United States for 16 years, graduating from Stanford University and working at international financial institutions in Washington, Toledo also embodies Peru's embrace of an open, international economy. Young, university-educated Peruvians and small-business owners who accept a globalized economy but are nostalgic for a stronger national identity are especially attracted to Toledo, analysts say.

Those sentiments bubble to the surface at a Toledo rally in Puente Piedra north of Lima. "The problem with Fujimori is a problem of race, he's not Peruvian, he doesn't see freedoms the way we do," says Henry Alvitres, a student at the National University of Callao. "Fujimori wants to stay in power like an emperor in his country," meaning Japan, adds Elisabeth Chacn Peralta, who owns a Turkish bath in San Miguel.

Yet some analysts criticize Toledo's use of the "identity" issue, saying it panders to the public and weakens the stronger messages of his campaign.

"Toledo is a capable person, but he is an opportunist who is completely apt to say one thing one day and something very different the next," says Fernando Rospigliosi, a Lima political analyst.

Toledo spoke forcefully about the need for the opposition to put up a single candidate against Fujimori, for example, "but then when he began rising in the polls, he sabotaged any coalition effort," Mr. Rospigliosi says.

In press interviews, Toledo focuses on job creation through "investing in knowledge," and says "I cannot emphasize enough" the task of "rebuilding this country's democratic institutions."

But in campaign rallies like the one in Puente Piedra, Toledo highlights a different theme. With supporters chanting "Cholo yes, Chino no!" he bounds to the stage, takes a red-and-white Peruvian flag, and falls to his knees, burying his face in the banner.

"We may be poor, but we have dignity, we were born grand," he fires at the crowd. "After 500 years, it's our turn!"

Many Toledo enthusiasts seem to drink in such rhetoric, but others are unsure. "I'm not sure how much people really like the exaggerated focus on the skin," says one woman, reluctant to give her name. "I'm afraid it could cost him the prize."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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