William H. Prescott was a student at Harvard College, Cambridge, Massachusetts from 1811 to 1814. During his time there he got caught in a bread-laced snowball fight. A piece of bread crust blinded him in the left eye. A talented student of Greek and Latin, Prescott wanted to become a lawyer. In 1815 his right eye gave up too because of infection and the long nights reading by candlelight that the law required.
After rest, the sight did come back to Prescott’s good eye, but it was always weak, so he decided to give up on being a lawyer and become a scholar. (This didn’t seem like a great idea for his sight either.) Using a noctograph, a machine designed for writing in the dark, he could work alone — but his eyesight came and went and sometimes he needed a reader. Prescott’s subject was the Spanish Empire. His ‘History of the Conquest of Peru’ was widely recognized as the authoritative work on the subject in the 19th century. He had an eidetic or photographic memory — a great asset for writing epic histories. Prescott’s Paradigm relates to his criticism of the Catholic Spanish Empire in the context of the nineteenth century when the Protestant American Empire was on the rise, and would eventually clash with Spain in Cuba and the Philippines.
Prescott never visited Peru, and he claimed his own writing lacked a lively immediacy. However, from a distance in time, place, and culture he gives an impressive panorama of the intrigues between Pizarro and the Inca in Peru.
From a distance in time and space, and culture — though not as great as Prescott’s as far as time goes — can we begin to make sense of Alberto Fujimori’s controversial presidency of Peru at the end of the twentieth century? Like Prescott, I’ve never been to Peru. Unlike him, I’m not an expert on the country. However, I’ve been interested in Alberto Fujimori’s presidency for a long time.
Fujimori’s pardon was revoked in early October 2018. Before this now-defunct reprieve, Fujimori, who was born in 1938, had been serving time in jail for various abuses of human rights. He began his twenty-five-year long sentence in 2009. Due to supposed health issues and political bargaining, in 2017, Peruvian President Kuczynski pardoned him. Kuczynski himself resigned under a cloud of corruption in March 2018.
Fujimori’s presidency (1990 to 2000), in the early years at least, was dominated by clashes with the guerilla groups Shining Path and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement. This undeclared civil war lead to thousands of deaths. Many of these deaths were caused by government-backed paramilitary groups who also kidnapped and tortured civilians.
One of the fascinating features of Fujimori’s presidency was the battle he had with his now ex-wife, Susana Higuchi. Married in 1974, both were children of Japanese immigrants to Peru. Susana worked as a civil engineer, and Alberto was qualified as an agricultural engineer but taught maths before entering politics. According to her, he was a good husband until the moment he became President of Peru in 1990. Power went to his head. The most notable sign was his autogolpe, or self-coup, in 1992, in which he dissolved the congress and temporarily took dictatorial powers.
In 1992 Susana denounced Alberto’s family for being corrupt. The couple had four children so she obviously felt very strongly about this. What outraged her was that Alberto’s siblings were selling second-hand clothes donated by Japan and intended for the poor in Peru. They were taking the best stuff for themselves (you can guess second-hand clothes from Japan don’t consist of ratty t-shirts and stained pants) and made a profit selling the rest. Susana brought up her concerns with Alberto but he ignored her. In 2001 she told congress that after making her denouncement she was taken to the dark basement of the Amy Intelligence Service by hooded figures wearing infrared goggles, then tortured with electric shocks. They were trying to keep her quiet? Torture is usually to make people talk, right?
As a kind of protest, Susana announced she was going to run for President. Alberto and his chief of security, Vladimiro Montesinos, managed to come up with and pass a law to stop her from doing this. Commonly known as the ‘Susana law’, it prevented the spouse and blood relations of the acting president from becoming a presidential or congressional candidate. They also declared her mentally unstable and she was replaced as First Lady by her nineteen-year-old daughter Keiko. Alberto said he wouldn’t accept blackmail no matter where it came from. The Fujimoris divorced in 1994, Susana left the Presidential Palace but her kids stayed there.
In 2000 Alberto Fujimori’s government was falling apart due to revelations of corruption and human rights abuses. To avoid impeachment and prosecution Alberto fled to Japan. Unbeknownst to anybody, he held Japanese citizenship and so could hide out there indefinitely. Keiko was left behind in the Presidential Palace, where she lived with her dogs, and had to fend for herself.
During his refuge in Japan, Alberto Fujimori appeared on a Japanese TV show with permed hair, but this was not the reason the two Japanese hosts, one older, and one younger, found him an oddity. Rather it was his strangely accented Japanese and the fact that he grew up in, and became president of, some country called Peru. Alberto revealed that he originally went to a Japanese school in Peru but it was shut down during WWII and then he went to a regular Peruvian college. He was a good student, he said, a quiet kid, but he hit back if anyone messed with him — this his interviewers loved. He claimed that he decided to run for president as Peru was in trouble and he couldn’t see a future for the country if he didn’t step up. As he had very little money for his campaign, he got his kids to draw his election posters.
Fujimori described his election strategy like something out of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War: he couldn’t go straight ahead because there was a big institutional wall in the way, he had to go around his enemy. He did this by riding around on a tractor, having a band at his rallies, and through other populist tricks. Fujimori because he was the son of a Japanese immigrant could in some way connect with the indigenous Peruvians. They felt marginalised in their own country because it was dominated economically by those of Spanish descent living in the coastal cities. He defeated the establishment figure of Mario Vargas Llosa, the brilliant novelist, who was preaching neoliberal style economics. Fujimori didn’t have much of an economic policy himself, in the end, he did what Vargas Llosa had planned to do. Fujimori’s neoliberal reforms came to be known as Fujishock, these policies did lead to economic growth in Peru.
Susana went on to become a member of congress from 2000 to 2006 and eventually had a relationship with all four of her children. Although Alberto treated her badly, she made overtures to visit him in jail after he was sentenced in 2009 for human rights abuses committed during Peru’s war of low intensity in the 90s. Alberto had returned from Japan, via Chile, in 2006. Susana said she wanted to see him for humanistic reasons as he was ill. Many believe that this illness was faked in order to help gain a pardon. But he didn’t want her to visit and they haven’t talked to each other for years.
As her kids Keiko and Kenji were now in politics Susana refused, in a 2012 interview, to answer whether she had really been tortured or not — given that discussion of this topic might hurt their political careers. In this interview, she presented herself as a woman at peace, who through major health scares had forgotten material concerns and now held deep Christian beliefs. She’d turned the page in life no longer looked back. In jest, she said they were wrong when they claimed she was crazy and that she was actually extremely crazy; but in seriousness that the whole thing about her instability was a frame-up by Montesinos. She had never taken barbiturates or antidepressants and that smoking was her only vice. Montesinos himself had said sorry on his knees years after the invention of the Susana law and she had forgiven him. Montesinos is now in prison for various violations of human rights and arms trafficking. As for Alberto, Susana said in the interview that she needed time to think about whether he should be pardoned by the government.
As President, Alberto had a lot to deal with — guerrilla groups and a flagging economy. Then there was the situation with his wife, what did he say about this? Certainly, it was odd to have dinner at home with somebody who was trying to run against you for the presidency. Alberto, reflecting on that time, said it was…una cosa de locos — a crazy situation.