Fujimori hands power to himself

Latin America's new democratic leaders share a taste for dictatorial rule, writes Phil Davison
It could have ended up like a Monty Python sketch. But the President of Peru, Alberto Fujimori, found a reasonably decorous way of handing over the the presidential sash to himself yesterday to start his second five-year term. Barring imponderables, he will be in power in the 21st century.

The world has almost forgotten how Mr Fujimori got the chance to run again - by dissolving a hostile congress in an army-backed "do-it-yourself- coup" in 1992 and re-writing the constitution.

A decade after Latin America appeared to shake off the era of jackboots and bayonets and usher in democracy, the region has regressed to one of quasi-dictatorships, personality cults, dynasties and army-backed regimes.

Mr Fujimori, who also celebrated his 57th birthday yesterday, is undoubtedly popular. But is he a democrat? Echoing a Latin American leader who has been in power for 36 years, the Cuban President, Fidel Castro, Mr Fujimori insists his country needs him. His kind of "direct democracy" is tailor- made for Peru, he says. "I know my actions are creating enemies. Still I believe that what I'm doing is right for the majority of the country."

After he bent the rules to run again, with the backing of the bayonets, many Peruvians, believe that he provoked the border conflict with Ecuador earlier this year to boost his popularity. When his wife, Susana Higuchi, tried to run against him for president, she was expelled from the palace and barred from the race.

Among those attending yesterday's inauguration ceremony in Lima was a beaming Argentine President, Carlos Menem. Was he thinking of the similarities between himself and his Peruvian counterpart? Mr Menem also was re-elected earlier this year, with about 50 per cent of the vote.

Half the Argentine electorate did not seem to mind that Mr Menem, through horse-trading with the opposition, had managed to get the constitution re-written, to allow him to run for a second successive term. In power since 1989, he, too, will take his country almost through the rest of the century (cutting the presidential term from six to four years was a quid pro quo for the chance to run again).

Convinced that he, too, is his people's saviour, Mr Menem has given notice that he may run again in the year 2003, as he cannot run for a third straight term in 1999. Previously he had said he might still be in power in 2013 when he will be 83. Few thought that he was joking.

Like Mr Fujimori, Mr Menem dumped his wife, Zulema, when he saw her as a liability. Like the Peruvian President, Mr Menem has given his daughter Zulemita - Mr Fujimori's is called Zeiko - the title and role of First Lady. And like Mr Fujimori, Mr Menem has surrounded himself with a clique of his own ethnic group. The Argentine President is the son of Syrian immigrants, Mr Fujimori of Japanese.

A look at the map of Latin America shows the rocky road that hard-won democracy faces.

In Brazil, Latin America's largest nation, congressmen of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso's Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), who have a clear congressional majority, have launched moves to change the constitution to allow him to run again in 1999. Mr Cardoso, who took office on 1 January, has so far said he is not interested. Politicians, however, have been known to change their minds.

In Chile, where democracy is only half a decade old, the continuing power of the former dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, has been highlighted by the rising tension between the army, of which he remains commander- in-chief, and the civilian government of President Eduardo Frei.

General Pinochet is widely believed to have approved a protest by army officers last weekend over the jailing of a former senior Pinochet aide, Brigadier-General Pedro Espinoza, for ordering the 1976 Washington car bombing of a dissident Chilean diplomat, Orlando Letelier.

In Paraguay, rumours of an imminent military coup have buffeted the first freely-elected President, Juan Carlos Wasmosy, since democracy was restored two years ago.

In Panama, due to take control of the vital Panama Canal from the US at the turn of the century, the man in charge, President Ernesto Perez Balladares, belongs to the party that supported the military dictators Omar Torrijos and Manuel Antonio Noriega.

Ignoring Mexico, a Jurassic park where the dynosaurs of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) are in their seventh decade of uninterrupted rule, Central America has shifted significantly towards the right. The shadow of military rule or family dynasties has re-emerged over the continent.

In Nicaragua, which was ruled by the Somoza family dictators for decades, then by the revolutionary Sandinista brothers, Daniel and Humberto Ortega, through the Eighties, President Violeta Chamorro, who cannot run again next year, still hopes to keep power in the family.

Her son-in-law, Antonio Lacayo, widely seen as the power behind the throne, resigned as her chief of staff yesterday. The reason? He wants to dedicate his time to overturning a constitutional amendment that bars him, as a relative of a current president, from running himself next year.