Bernard Aronson, the Bush administration's point man for democracy in Latin America, was wondering why the Peruvian government had asked him to postpone his visit to Lima last week. As Aronson sipped a nightcap in Lima with U.S. Ambassador Anthony Quainton, he found out: Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori went on national television to announce an autogolpe--a "self-coup." With military backing, Fujimori dissolved Congress, suspended civil liberties and established government by decree. American intelligence had warned of rumblings in the officer corps, Fujimori's deep-seated contempt for opposition legislators and corrupt judges--and, of course, the relentless advance of the Maoist guerrilla group Shining Path. But the United States was still surprised by the autogolpe. As tanks rolled in Lima and soldiers arrested lawmakers, journalists and opposition politicians, Aronson set aside his talking points on anti-drug aid to work on the immediate suspension of all but humanitarian U.S. aid to Lima.
In a region that has taken numerous steps toward democracy in recent years, the autogolpe in Peru set off political shock waves. It follows last year's military coup in Haiti and a nearly successful power grab by Venezuela's soldiers in February. No other Latin country can quite match Peru's combustible mix of drugs, terrorism and poverty. But Venezuela is still unsettled. Bolivia, next door to Peru, is beset by coup rumors and strikes. The forces of authoritarianism will surely take heart from Fujimori's example.
Fujimori, a once obscure university instructor with no party affiliation, was elected in 1990. Since then he has played the moderate abroad-and the antipolitics maverick at home. Fujimori called Peru's corrupt judges "jackals" and the dominant Roman Catholic Church "medieval and recalcitrant." He argued that Washington's anti-cocaine strategy placed too little emphasis on economic development. Still, he has accepted U.S. aid, resumed payments to the World Bank, calmed inflation and restored Peru's access to international credit. Now the latter achievement is in jeopardy. Only Fujimori's ancestral Japan continues aid.
Fujimori is gambling that foreign countries will eventually understand he had no alternative. If not, he hopes he can fall back on the Peruvian public, where his power play enjoyed wide initial support. That approval underscored the distance between the views of the United States and other governments eager to support democracy, and the desires of many Peruvians. After a decade of terrorist war that has cost 23,000 lives and compounded the country's ever-deepening poverty, Peruvians seem desperate for a solution-- even if it's an authoritarian one. As Foreign Minister Augusto Blacker Miller put it: "It doesn't serve much to raise the flag of democracy when half the population is dying of hunger." According to a poll last week by the respected Apoyo firm, 71 percent of Peruvians supported the dissolution of Congress and 89 percent supported restructuring the corrupt judiciary.
Seeking to capitalize on those sentiments, Fujimori insisted his takeover was the end not of democracy, but of "bribe-ocracy." "In the former East Germany, the people tore down a wall that symbolized an oppressive and corrupt order," he told a business group. "Here the people have also seen a wall fall, the wall of indifference, of ineptitude, of the corruption of officials and traditional politicians." Bowing to international pressure, Fujimori freed detained journalists, lifted censorship and promised a new constitution and new congressional elections. He also issued a harsh new law against money laundering and ordered the air force to seize airstrips used by illegal cocaine exporters.
But his coup seems to pave the way for an unbridled military assault on Shining Path, which he vowed to eliminate by 1995. The problem is that the armed forces have already been quite brutal-and Shining Path continues to spread. The real factors preventing greater success have been inadequate resources, corruption, low morale and strategic mistakes (following story). The current level of popular support for Fujimori could prove fleeting if his free-market economic plan continues to unravel and the body count rises without a corresponding drop in Shining Path's strength. Says a Lima-based diplomat: "The army is supporting Fujimori now, but if things start going badly, what do they do?"
Fujimori's action may even play into Shining Path's hands. The rebels have long sought to provoke the government to reveal its true "fascist" character and thus legitimize armed struggle. As if to celebrate the autogolpe, the group obliterated a police station in Lima with a gigantic "bus bomb," then gunned down a former legislator. Meanwhile, ousted congressmen met to declare Fujimori's government void and set up a shadow cabinet; others pondered a proviso in the 1979 Constitution that permits people to "rise up in defense of the Constitution."
One group whose members may choose that route is the populist American Popular Revolutionary Party led by Fujimori's immediate predecessor, Alan Garcia. Garcia has recently rebounded from political disgrace; to many in Lima, the coup was aimed as much at APRA as at Shining Path. A hundred troops surrounded Garcia's house, but he hid for two days in a construction site. Having defied international opinion and forsaken most international aid, Fujimori has staked his country's survival on a sudden application of authoritarianism. If it works, a long-suffering people will declare him a hero. But if the autogolpe exacerbates Peru's violence and misery, Fujimori himself may need a place to hide.
Photo: Sudden authoritarianism: Peruvian troops guarding the Palace of Justice in Lima (PATRICK CHAUVEL-SYGMA)