Morally unfit

The Fall of Fujimori was acclaimed for providing an intimate portrait of the exiled Peruvian leader – but ducked the vexing question of US support for him

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The Fall of Fujimori
Ellen Perry
2005
83 minutes, Spanish and English

LATAMROB rating: **

NONE of us can see the future – although in the case of Peru, polls suggest that it is highly likely to include a new Fujimori in the presidency.

Keiko Fujimori, the popular daughter of the former Peruvian leader, Alberto Fujimori, is widely expected to seek Peru’s top office in 2011 on a platform that will include a pardon for her father.

But if we cannot see the future, this should not stop us from reading the past, and that is the principal flaw of Ellen Perry’s over-acclaimed documentary about Alberto filmed during his five-year exile in Japan.

One of the most controversial figures to have emerged from a continent not know for demure leadership, Alberto Fujimori fled to Japan in 2000 amid a corruption scandal to take advantage of his joint Peruvian-Japanese citizenship by virtue of his parents, Japanese natives who had emigrated in 1934.

In a dramatic, unpatriotic snub to the country that had so enthusiastically embraced “el Chino”, Fujimori tried to resign the presidency by fax: only to be turned down and subsequently impeached by Peru’s congress for being “morally unfit”. He now languishes in jail after a series of trials for murder, kidnapping, other human rights violations and corruption.

Intimate insight

Filmed during his Japanese exile, The Fall of Fujimori provides an intimate insight into the self-delusions of a character who earnestly believed in his own probity and was convinced of his continuing popularity. The degree to which the former Peruvian leader felt little or no remorse for his arbitrary and unlawful behaviour is striking as we hear him blame all and sundry for the problems that beset his troubled country.

At this stage, Fujimori was still being courted in Japan by rightwing supporters and living on his reputation as a samurai who had taken a sharp blade to guerrillas in his country and, through decisive action, had brought the 1997 Japanese embassy siege in Lima to a bloody end. Tokyo was fobbing off efforts by Peru, and Interpol, to have the old rascal extradited, and the country itself was moving on into a period of growth under Alejandro Toledo which, it has to be said, benefited considerably from economic fundamentals that had been established by Fujimori.

Perry gains apparently unrestricted access to the man, whom we see fastidiously doing up his tie in his hotel room as he travels across Japan to meet supporters. Footage from the period also provides a rich backdrop to this character-driven study, and we see Fujimori’s Machiavellian intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, dishing out the bribes that brought down his paymaster.

Although Fujimori still has supporters in Peru and was convinced enough of his popularity to recklessly abandon Japan and head back to South America dreaming of a comeback in the country’s 2006 elections, Keiko and his estranged wife, Susana Higuchi, whose loss of confidence in her husband led to a bitter, public divorce, are just about the only two characters from this story to emerge with any integrity – Keiko for her loyalty to her father (whom she tried to convince to remove Montesinos), and Susana for her very public denunciations of Fujimori’s lies.

Not forgetting, of course . . .  the US, whose former officials are wheeled out to give us further insights into the Peruvian leader’s dishonesty and delusions and thereby suggest, as it ever was, that he was acting alone and Washington’s hands were squeaky clean when it came to Peru’s dirty politics.

And therein lies the main problem with The Fall of Fujimori, giving us as is so often the case in US journalistic perspectives on Latin America a myopia that is wont to demonise while completely ignoring the reality of US interference in the politics of the region.

US support for Fujimori was all but unconditional during his decade in power and Washington stuck with their man to the bitter end, making only rhetorical condemnations of his authoritarian excesses and electoral manipulations.

From the early days they saw in him someone who could stabilize Peru’s hyperinflated economy, confront the country’s two potent guerrilla organizations and raise stagnating anti-coca efforts to levels that satisfied their addiction to eradication.

His tough actions against Sendero Luminoso proved them right, and US intelligence-sharing with Peru and military aid in the form of support for the “war on drugs”, the training of Peruvian security forces and the building of bases and airstrips, grew consistently in this period, amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars. The country has generally been seen as key to Washington’s plans for expanded counter-insurgency operations in the region, especially Colombia.

In short, Washington touted the Fujimori regime as a model for the rest of Latin America, spoke with a forked tongue about its many human rights abuses, turned a blind eye towards its extra-constitutional adventures, and lauded its neoliberal policies and dutiful stance towards the IMF. It also remained confusingly ambivalent towards Fujimori’s last and most fraudulent democratic abuse in the 2000 elections, combining diplomatic unease with a readiness to accept this outcome.

Montesinos, the de facto head of Peru’s National Intelligence Service (SIN) but a man whose power made him second-in-command only to Fujimori, had had close dealings with US intelligence and “counter-narcotics” officials and may have been a CIA agent, something Washington has always steadfastly denied. Fujimori himself was convinced that Montesinos had support in the US military, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies.

A fascinating insight

A fascinating insight into the last days of the Fujimori regime revealing the role played by Washington in this episode has been written by the career diplomat, John Hamilton, who was the US ambassador to Peru from 1999-2002.*

From Hamilton’s revelations, it becomes clear that it was only when the scale of Montesinos’ dark arts became evident with the release of videotapes showing him bribing politicians that Washington responded by making public its desire to distance itself from him and end co-operation with SIN, and it was Washington that subsequently led the pressure on Fujimori to sack him, mainly in its own interests.

In this period, US diplomats were in almost constant touch with Fujimori in a bid to resolve the political crisis unfolding around him, and clearly hedged their bets with regard to Montesinos’ future and the possibility that he might remain a key player in Peruvian affairs. It was the US that arranged for Montesinos to flee to Panama and assuaged Panamanian concerns about his temporary exile, and Fujimoristas came to believe that it was the US that was behind the eventual, unwelcome return of Montesinos from Panama that would hammer the final nail in the president’s coffin just as Washington was beginning to express its preference for Toledo as a successor.

Indeed, such was the proximity of the Fujimoristas to the US in this period, that Hamilton reveals that he was informed by the then Peruvian prime minister, Federico Salas, of Fujimori’s decision to resign from abroad, while on a trip to Brunei and Japan, before the members of the Peruvian president’s own cabinet.

Perry’s film gained much acclaim in the US after premiering at the Sundance festival and, among its accolades, was nominated for an Emmy, by the Writers Guild, and was an official selection at over 30 film festivals worldwide.

Yet it made no effort whatsoever to explore the real power behind the throne, and how this influenced Fujimori’s behaviour – a crucial disservice to a country that may face the prospect of a dark dynasty’s return.

*Hamilton, John R. 2006. “The Fall of Fujimori – A Diplomat’s Perspective”, The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Summer 2006). Available online at: http://fletcher.tufts.edu/forum/archives/pdfs/30-2pdfs/Hamilton.pdf

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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