'El Chino' whirls in to play god to the Incas

Phil Davison in Mamra, Peru, joins Alberto Fujimori on the campaign trail and, below, meets an opponent with nothing to hide
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The Independent Online
To The pure Incan residents of this Andean village, the style of "The Chinaman's" arrival must have appeared divine.

They had seen helicopters before, but only swooping by in military camouflage, firing machine guns at Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas in this former rebel stronghold. President Alberto Fujimori, widely known as "el Chino" (the Chinaman) because of his Japanese origin, dropped from a pale blue sky in a red and white Soviet-made MI-17 helicopter of the Peruvian army. Careful not to offend local sensibilities, the pilot landed beyond the right corner flag of the village football pitch of yellowish ichu (sun-parched grass).

What the Peruvian media call the "Fujimori Road Show" had come to Mamra, formerly an Inca settlement, one of the first taken by the Spanish conquistadores because of its strategic mountainside perch and, until recently, a fortress for Shining Path guerrillas for the same reason. Before Mr Fujimori's army got the upper hand four years ago, this was the "Liberated Zone".

Even before the helicopter's rotor blades had stilled, Mr Fujimori, who is 58 today, had covered his anorak and blue jeans with a brightly striped poncho and donned a local-style sombrero of alpaca wool. Villagers on horseback greeted him and offered him a mount. "It has to be the white one," said an aide. In keeping with the "divine" image, no doubt.

Somewhat less sensitive than his pilot, "el Chino" trotted in from the right wing across the burnt but hallowed "turf" towards the village's crumbling but still magnificent 16th-century church. Villagers crammed into what appeared to be their only vehicle, a fruit farmer's pick-up truck, or panted after him on foot in defiance of the 11,000ft altitude.

The charismatic agronomist and ex-university professor, who has seen off writer Mario Vargas Llosa and former United Nations Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar in elections, an uncooperative Congress in a 1992 "do-it-yourself coup", and his wife, Susana, in a divorce after she threatened to run for president herself, spends most of his time on such trips. He is on the road four days a week, usually taking in two or three isolated villages reachable only on foot or horseback. Or, if you're a president, by helicopter.

Always donning the local outfit, he has been dubbed "the man with a thousand hats" and "the permanent campaigner". His second election victory last year, despite having dissolved Congress three years earlier in his "Fujigolpe" (Fuji-coup), showed most Peruvians had put his crushing of the guerrillas above his questionable commitment to democracy.

My invitation followed a midnight phone call to my Lima hotel, telling me to be at an air force base at eight in the morning. By nine, I was flying to the ancient Inca capital of Cuzco on board the presidential Boeing 737, sitting in the "first class" section alongside his aide-de- camp, Comandante Rafael de la Puente.

A tall, rugged soldier in uniform with his pistol strapped just above his right knee - a good bodyguard knows he will be crouching if he has to shoot - the Comandante's thankless task was to hump the President's satellite phone, oxygen canister, camera and bundles of gifts, from ponchos and sombreros to engraved figures and lumps of cheese.

When I tried to go aft to the toilets, I was quickly ushered forward to use the presidential loo, complete with Old Spice and towels carrying the presidential seal.

After switching in Cuzco to the army helicopter - the pilot said the MI-17 was better than the army's American-made Bells at the 15,000ft altitude needed to weave through the Andes - Mr Fujimori regularly breathed from an oxygen canister, passing it on to what he called "my geisha girls", five women journalists who cover all his trips and rarely criticise him.

One, who calls him "Presi" and once threatened to cry if he didn't answer her question, appears particularly favoured.

In the first village we visited, the President received an excited welcome but with polite shouts of "bring us electricity", "we need school desks" and "we need an ambulance".

"We can't reach sick people or pregnant women because we have no ambulance and bad roads," Bertha Chambi, an obstetrician, told him outside the adobe structure that serves as a clinic. "Can you get through by motorbike?" asked the President. "We don't have a motorbike," she replied.

Mr Fujimori continually pulled out a Nikon camera and took pictures of buildings. Telling the throng to quieten down - "Let me work," he said - he insisted I balance myself on the door of his Jeep to look through his lens. "You see. These are not tourist snapshots. I photograph their needs and take the pictures to experts in Lima so these people will get what they need. I'm the President who finishes things. They'll get an ambulance within four months. I've just bought 300 from Japan. Very cheap price."

In Mamra, with a population of 1,100, only a hundred or so people turned out to greet him. Since the village is so isolated, many must have stayed at home. The mayor, Niconar Benitez, elected last year as an "independent", does not hide the fact that he is pro-Shining Path, as is probably half the village.

At lunch on the patio of a simple stone home, where a half bottle of Chilean Casillero del Diablo red wine miraculously appeared for the head of state, Father Santiago Buonaita, from Bergamo, Italy, a Catholic priest who tours the area, badgered him about police insensitivity.

With the guerrillas driven out, or, according to the priest, simply underground, the new 12-man police force sent in from other regions had knocked down the 16th-century priests' residence by the church to construct a police station - a bright green monstrosity - the priest complained.

Before we headed for the helicopter Mr Fujimori stood on the running board of the single pick-up truck and told villagers: "Sendero must not return. Do not be afraid to denounce anyone who is a Senderista."

Once inside the truck's cab, he turned to an aide. "Which was the mayor?" "The Senderista?" came the reply. "He was the one in the blue shirt who was standing right in front of you without applauding."

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