Catherine M. Conaghan, Professor of Political Studies, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario
Comments by Michael Shifter, Vice President for Policy, Inter-American Dialogue

On October 20, 2005, the Latin American Program hosted Catherine Conaghan, former Woodrow Wilson Center Fellow and professor of political studies at Queen's University, Canada, in a discussion of her new book, Fujimori's Peru: Deception in the Public Sphere. Noting that it was almost five years since President Alberto Fujimori had left Peru for Japan, Conaghan asserted there is incontrovertible evidence of the corruption that pervaded his regime. Numerous top officials, including intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos, a former Supreme Court justice and former minister of the economy, have been convicted on a variety of corruption charges; Montesinos has also been charged with homicide for his involvement in death squad killings. Conaghan likened the Peruvian scandals to Watergate, saying that the regime unabashedly used state power to promote the personal political agenda of one man and then used state power to cover up the criminal acts of the regime. Trials of leading Peruvian officials have seemed slow and imperfect, she said, but for the first time in Peruvian history, officials are serving jail time for such acts as the bribing of public figures and the diversion of public money into private slush funds. Fujimori himself faces 22 criminal charges, from embezzlement to crimes against humanity, and the Peruvian government has sought his extradition. [In early November 2005, Fujimori was arrested in Chile, apparently while attempting to return to Peru to run for president in the country's 2006 elections.]

Fujimori has denounced the criminal charges against him as a government campaign of political persecution, pointing especially to the findings of a government-commissioned investigation that, according to reports published thus far, failed to uncover secret bank accounts in Fujimori's name. Fujimori has argued that he was unaware of the crimes being committed by members of his administration and now refers to Montesinos as "the cancer of his presidency." Conaghan contrasted Fujimori's claims of innocence with the central narrative of his presidency: that he was an efficient manager and master of detail. Whether or not Fujimori escapes actual criminal prosecution, Conaghan said, he will not escape the judgment of history; Peru's immersion in what novelist Milan Kundera called "the struggle of memory against forgetting" is deep and continuing, abetted by those in civil society (particularly the media) who challenged Fujimori even while he was in power.

Michael Shifter referred to Conaghan's description of the Fujimori regime as the symbiosis of authoritarianism and criminality, adding that the extent and scope of abuses uncovered was far greater than imagined even by the regime's harshest critics. Shifter attributed Fujimorismo to the discrediting of political elites in Peru in the 1980s, when the country was beset by economic crisis and political violence. Popular rage and resentment toward traditional elites help explain how Fujimori was able to take office and remain in power for an entire decade. Because of what some scholars have called the "precariousness" of Peruvian politics, the lack of institutions, and the disappointing results of the Toledo administration, it is possible that another "dark horse" will emerge in the 2006 elections, Shifter predicted. He concluded that since 1992, when Fujimori staged an autogolpe and dissolved the institutions of representative democracy, the will of nations of the hemisphere to respond forcefully to breakdowns in the democratic process has declined.

Further detail about the extent of corruption during the Fujimori years came out during the discussion period. Peruvian special prosecutor José Ugaz, one of the first to pursue the case against Montesinos, said that the Peruvian government had frozen $250 million of Montesinos' assets and had recovered $170 million. An additional $300 million or more had been stolen from the military and police pension fund. Assets had been funneled to tax havens in Singapore, Malaysia, and Japan, and some estimates placed the amount of embezzled and stolen funds at over $1 billion. Others commented that Fujimori's current ploys to participate in the 2006 elections were aimed at gaining a bloc in Congress that would pave the way for his impunity.

Prepared by Cynthia Arnson, Deputy Director, Latin American Program
and Elizabeth Bryan, Program Assistant