El Nino helps wash away half a century of warfare

THE world knows that El Nino has been a very bad boy, changing weather patterns around the globe, causing storms, floods and tornados, killing hundreds and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. But "the Boy Child", named after the Christ child because the weather phenomenon first appeared during a past Christmas, may soon be credited with promoting a Christ-like act of peace.

South American neighbours Peru and Ecuador have been at on-and-off war for more than half a century, their latest shoot-out only three years ago over a lingering border dispute. Last month, however, El Nino, first detected by fishermen in the Pacific off Peru years ago, not only washed away parts of the border line but brought the two countries' presidents together in a meeting that now looks like ending the war for good.

As one Peruvian commentator vulgarly put it: "It took El Nino to bring together the Chinkie and the Dancer." Peru's President Alberto Fujimori is nicknamed El Chino because of his Japanese origin. The interim Ecuadorean president, Fabian Alarcon, is known as El Bailerin (the Dancer) because of his negotiating skills. (Mr Alarcon was named acting president after Abdala El Loco (the Crazy Man) Bucaram was impeached for "mental incapacity" a year ago).

After seeing both countries devastated by El Nino storms and floods, the two leaders announced in January they had set a 31 May deadline to sign a peace accord. Then, last month, they met on their border to discuss how to cope with the storm damage that has killed close to 200 people in Peru over the past few months, destroyed 20,000 homes and created more than half a million refugees. Figures for the smaller Ecuador are not known.

"El Nino has helped us towards peace," an Ecuadorean newspaper editor, Benjamin Ortiz, said. "It would be an act of absurd cruelty to have a war between two countries that are flooded and facing epidemics." The turn-around has been abrupt. Shortly before Christmas last year, tension was high along the border, and President Fujimori unveiled a fleet of new MiG fighters, purchased from Belarus.

While most Peruvians and Ecuadoreans seem delighted at the peace overtures, some are cynical. Both leaders, they say, are using El Nino for political reasons the way they previously used patriotism and war talk. Mr Fujimori is widely thought to have his eye on a third term from 2000.

His domestic critics note that Mr Fujimori has been visiting storm-ravaged areas almost daily, always careful to have plenty of television cameras and photographers close by. One photo last week showed him wading into a raging river to clutch an infant from her father. It did not show the hundreds of villagers who would have lent a hand but were told to stay back by scores of photographers.

As for Mr Alarcon, he hopes El Nino-related solidarity, and peace with Peru, could quintuple mutual trade to around $1bn (pounds 600m) within a few years, reduce rampant inflation, slash his country's biting defence costs and bring foreign investment.

Perhaps equally important, the Ecuadorean interim leader, due to hand over after elections in the summer, is eager to restore his country's image after last year's fiasco over the impeachment of his predecessor. Mr Bucaram fled to Panama after being judged mentally unstable by parliament. That was after he recorded an album called Madman in Love, performed "Jailhouse Rock" on stage with mini-skirted girls and started hanging out with Lorena Bobbit, the Ecuadorean who cut off her American husband's penis.

Mr Alarcon says Mr Bucaram also ran off with $88m of public money and all the paintings in the presidential palace. In Panama City, where he is often to be seen at the blackjack table in the Cesar Park hotel casino, Mr Bucaram recently told a reporter he hoped to return to run again for president. "If I'm crazy, I can't be put on trial," he said.