Valentin Paniagua

Eight-month President of Peru
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Valentín Paniagua Corazao, politician: born Cuzco, Peru 23 September 1936; Minister of Justice 1963; Minister of Education 1985; President of Congress 2000; President of Peru 2000-01; married Nilda Jara Gallegos (two sons, two daughters); died Lima 16 October 2006.

Valentín Paniagua was only President of Peru for eight months, in 2000-01, but he played a vital role during that brief period in stabilising a situation that could easily have got out of hand. President Alberto Fujimori had suddenly fled the country, and later resigned by fax, after evidence emerged that his government was riddled with corruption on an unprecedented scale. Paniagua, who was President of Congress at the time, stepped into the yawning political vacuum left by Fujimori, restored calm, organised fresh elections and took his leave again, with a minimum of fuss.

Paniagua was born in Cuzco, southern Peru, in 1936, the son of a Bolivian father who had settled in the old capital of the Inca empire. He studied Law in Cuzco and then Lima, and became involved in opposition politics in the mid-1950s, when Peru was under the thumb of a right-wing military dictator, General Manuel Odría.

The emerging professional classes were becoming increasingly impatient with the lack of political representation, and Paniagua, as a moderate student leader, advocated free elections and - even more daringly - land reform, in a country still dominated by great estates. After he began practising law in Cuzco, he became a member of the small Christian Democrat party PDC.

When elections were called in 1963, after another military intervention, the PDC made an alliance with the social democratic Acción Popular (AP) party, founded a few years earlier by a charismatic architect from Arequipa, Fernando Belaúnde Terry. Belaúnde amazed everybody by taking his campaign to even the remotest corners of his vast country, and was duly elected President. Paniagua became PDC deputy for Cuzco on his coat-tails, and Belaúnde appointed him Minister of Justice, at the age of 27.

By 1968, Belaúnde's ambitious structural reform programme had run out of both steam and money. On the night of 3 October, tanks smashed down the gates of the presidential palace in Lima, Belaúnde was arrested and put on a plane to Argentina, and Congress was closed. The military ran the country for the next 12 years, but Paniagua remained faithful to his exiled leader. In 1974, he broke with the PDC after it came to an accommodation with Peru's military ruler, General Juan Velasco Alvarado, and he later joined Belaúnde's AP party.

Belaúnde was elected for a second term in 1980, after the military returned to their barracks, and Paniagua found himself in Congress again, this time representing Lima. Two years later he became Speaker of the lower house, and in 1985 he was briefly Minister of Education. Belaúnde lost office in the 1985 elections, and Paniagua went back to his legal practice, and to lecturing on constitutional law at several Lima universities.

He was returned to what was now a single-chamber Congress in the 2000 elections, as one of a handful of AP members. The authoritarian Fujimori had won a third successive term, but the results were fiercely contested and, amidst growing chaos, he left for exile in Japan a few months after his inauguration. It fell to Paniagua, as President of Congress, to take over as interim President of the Republic, with the job of organising fresh elections as soon as possible.

By common consent, Paniagua made a very good job of his eight months as head of a government of national unity and reconciliation. He brought distinguished independent figures, such as the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, into his cabinet, and began to restore confidence in Peru's battered democratic institutions, which had been systematically subverted by Fujimori and his devious national security chief, Vladimiro Montesinos.

After handing over to his elected successor, Paniagua became leader of AP, in place of Belaúnde, who died in 2002. He stood for President in the 2006 elections, as candidate of a centrist front, but received fewer than 6 per cent of the votes, and finished fifth.

Colin Harding