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.

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 " 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.

"Fujimori is so strong and so appealing, that we could all go on vacation and would still win," explains Raffo, who says he would not be working for Fujimori if he were not "100 percent convinced" of his innocence. Raffo himself is under criminal investigation, and is not allowed to leave the country to visit his boss in Chile, which makes, he admits, coordination for a victory all the more complicated.

A survey by independent polling firm Apoyo last month shows that 70 percent of Peruvians believe Fujimori is guilty of corruption and human rights abuses and 60 percent don't think he should be allowed to run in April. And yet, if he were to run, he would more than likely reach the second round. Eighteen percent of respondents said they would vote for Fujimori, making him the second most favored candidate, behind front-runner Lourdes Flores from the rightist National Union (UN), who received 21 percent approval.

These sort of contradictory statistics can only be explained, says IDL's de la Jara, by understanding average Peruvians' disappointment with President Toledo. A one-time shoe-shine boy turned Stanford PhD, Toledo came to power in 2001 riding an anti-Fujimori wave with 53 percent approval ratings - but today is stumbling to the end of his term with support falling into the single digits.

This vote of anger, say observers, is worrying, no matter how it affects Fujimori's candidacy.

In fact, pundits like Carlos Basombrio Iglesias, a political columnist for the daily Peru 21 say that the main beneficiary of this voter desperation will not be the ex-president, but rather another candidate, Ollanta Humala, a former army officer who heads a nationalist movement and is gaining rapidly in the polls, especially among Indian and mixed-race Peruvians, a strong part of Fujimori's base. "There are now new worrying outsiders at the door," says Basombrio. "Fujimori is an old story ... or at least he should be."

Why did Fujimori choose a Chilean jail?

Former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori's appearance in Chile last month was the last thing Chile-Peru relations needed.

Tension has smoldered between the two nations since the 1879-84 War of the Pacific when Chile seized a swath of Peru's mineral-rich southern coast. The latest source of friction is a Peruvian law signed by President Alejandro Toledo last month claiming ownership of a part of the Pacific Ocean teeming with anchovy - a major Peruvian export. Peru plans to take its case to the UN's International Court. A decision from the court could take, according to Peru's foreign ministry, six years.

In response, just days before Mr. Fujimori arrived in Santiago, Chile indefinitely suspended talks with Peru on deepening bilateral trade. This was the second time the talks were suspended this year. In April, Peru called them off to protest a Chilean airline's in-flight video that showed dirty streets and crime in Lima.

Fujimori spokesman Carlos Raffo denies the ex-president was banking on all this bad blood in the hopes of getting a more sympathetic hearing in Chile. Fujimori went to Chile, he says, because its courts are the most honest. "In Ecuador the justice system is just like Peru's - terrible," says Mr. Raffo. "And look at Brazil, they speak Portuguese there, so that's impossible. Chile was the obvious choice."

The fact that Chile is known to demand extensive evidence for extradition requests while Peru's judiciary is known for being weak and unprepared might well have played a part in Fujimori's calculations too. Peru has had serious difficulties mounting cases against figures from Fujimori's scandal-plagued government. Chile, in turn, has declined to extradite four Peruvians whom prosecutors here call notorious criminals associated with Fujimori.

The Peruvian government officially has until Jan. 6, to request Fujimori's extradition, and then the Chilean Supreme Court will examine this request, basing its decision on whether there is a reason to suspect Fujimori was involved in the crimes. If the Chilean court decides there are no grounds for extradition, doubt might be thrown on the legitimacy of Peru's claims about Fujimori, easing the ex-president's way to running for office here again.

Both countries have sought in recent weeks to downplay the fragility of the situation. Asked about Fujimori's impact on the trade dispute with Chile, Peru's trade minister Alfredo Ferrero angrily told reporters last month: "I don't think it advisable ... that the nation's agenda be Fujimorized."

Ms. Harman is Latin America correspondent for the Monitor and USA Today.

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