Freedom in the World
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President Alberto Fujimori’s assault on the few remaining independent sources of state power in Peru, such as the National Magistrates Council and the National Electoral Board, reaped dividends in 1999, as the two-term incumbent appeared poised to seek and win a third term in the April 2000 elections. In May, the Committee to Protect Journalists named Fujimori one of the world’s ten enemies of the free press.
Since independence in 1821, Peru has seen alternating periods of civilian and military rule. Civilian rule was restored in 1980 after 12 years of dictatorship. That same year the Maoist Shining Path terrorist group launched a guerrilla war that killed 30,000 people over the next 13 years.
Fujimori, a university rector and engineer, defeated the novelist Mario Vargas Llosa in the 1990 election. In 1992 Fujimori, backed by the military, suspended the constitution and dissolved congress. The move was popular because of people’s disdain for Peru’s corrupt, elitist political establishment and fear of the Shining Path.
Fujimori held a state-controlled election for an 80-member constituent assembly to replace the congress. The assembly drafted a constitution that established a unicameral congress more closely under presidential control. The constitution was approved in a state-controlled referendum following the capture of the Shining Path leader, Abimael Guzmán.
Fujimori’s principal opponent in the 1995 election was former United Nations secretary general Javier Perez de Cuellar, who vowed to end Fujimori’s “dictatorship.” Fujimori crushed his opponent with a massive public spending and propaganda campaign that utilized state resources. The National Intelligence Service, under defacto head Vladimiro Montesinos, a Fujimori ally and one-time legal counsel to drug kingpins, was employed to spy on and discredit Perez de Cuellar and other opposition candidates. On April 9, 1995 Fujimori won an easy victory, besting Perez de Cuellar by about three to one, while Fujimori’s loose coalition of allies won a majority in the new 120-seat congress.
In August 1996 congress passed a law allowing Fujimori to run for a third term, despite a constitutional provision limiting the president to two terms. The law evaded this restriction by defining Fujimori’s current term as his first under the 1993 constitution.
On April 22, 1997, the seizure of the Japanese ambassador’s residence came to a violent end when a commando raid liberated all but one of the 72 hostages and killed all 14 of the insurgents. That May, the president of the seven-person Tribunal of Constitutional Guarantees-the body that assesses the constitutional legality of national legislation-resigned with the words “the rule of law has broken down in Peru.” His action came after congress dismissed three other tribunal members who had ruled, at the end of 1996, that legislation designed to enable Fujimori to stand for reelection in the year 2000 was not applicable. In March 1998 the National Magistrates Council resigned en masse four months after Fujimori’s congress altered the National Elections Commission so as to give the president increased influence.
In response to criticism about “faceless” military judges presiding at trials of accused terrorists, in July 1999 Peru announced it was withdrawing from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, a move that boosted Fujimori’s flagging standing in public opinion polls. A new element in the government’s autocratic arsenal appeared to be the abuse of power by Sunat, the government’s internal revenue service, with credible reports of several cases of harassment by Sunat agents of Fujimori opponents, including, in one case, the searching of their offices. In late 1999, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution criticizing Fujimori for interfering with the judiciary, harassing the press, and manipulating Peruvian institutions in order to stay in power.
In the past the Fujimori government has been termed a presidential-military regime with the trappings of a formal democracy. In 1998, however, Fujimori was able to turn the tables on a restless army high command and reestablish his primacy over the generals, forcing the commander of the armed forces, General Nicolas de Bari Hermoza, into retirement. In early 1999, a number of military leaders were discharged, an effort that analysts said consolidated the power of Fujimori allies and helped ensure armed forces support for a presidential reelection bid.
Although Fujimori had considerable popular support, the 1995 election was not fair by international standards because of the massive use of state resources and military and state intelligence during the campaign. Electoral laws require any party that failed to obtain five percent of the popular vote in 1995 to obtain 400,000 signatures to re-register; few parties have managed to do so. Given the marginalization of political parties, the lack of an independent judiciary, and the relative weakness of trade unions and other elements of civil society, few independent power centers exist outside of the president and his allies in the military high command.
Under the December 1993 constitution, the president can rule virtually by decree. Fujimori can dissolve congress in the event of a “grave conflict” between the executive and legislature, as he did in 1992. The constitution overturned Peru’s tradition of no reelection.
In 1994, there were judicial reforms, and a new supreme court was named. However, the Peruvian judiciary remains inefficient, often corrupt, and among the least independent in Latin America. In August 1996 congress installed a Tribunal of Constitutional Guarantees, as called for under the 1993 constitution, with powers of judicial review. However, parliament also passed a law requiring the votes of six of the seven members of the Tribunal to declare a law or government action unconstitutional. The first real test of the Tribunal’s mandate-the ruling on Fujimori’s eligibility for reelection to a third consecutive term-also proved to be the institution’s undoing. In August 1998, a vote by congress appeared to clear the way for Fujimori to run again in the year 2000.
Public safety, particularly in Lima, is threatened by vicious warfare by opposing gangs-some of which use body armor and high-powered weapons-and violent crime. Police estimate that there are more than 1,000 criminal gangs in the capital alone. Torture remains routine in police detention centers, and conditions remain deplorable in prisons for common criminals.
The press is largely privately owned. Radio and television are both privately and publicly owned. State-owned media are blatantly pro-government, and the opposition complains that while Fujimori receives uncritical coverage by official media, members of the opposition cannot even put paid ads on television. Since 1992, many in the media, especially television and print journalists, have been pressured into self-censorship or exile by a broad government campaign of intimidation-abductions, death threats, libel suits, withholding of advertising, police harassment, arbitrary detention, physical mistreatment, and imprisonment on charges of “apology for terrorism.”
In September 1997, a government-controlled court stripped Baruch Ivcher, an Israeli émigré and the owner of the Channel 2 television station, of control of his media business and his Peruvian citizenship after the station aired reports linking the military to torture and corruption, as well as an expose of a telephone espionage ring run by intelligence agents to spy on opposition politicians and journalists. In 1999, government intelligence agents continued to orchestrate a defamation campaign in the tabloid press against independent publishers and journalists. In June, the armed forces high command invited regional military commanders to a meeting to evaluate the media under their territorial jurisdiction and to discuss strategies for neutralizing the opposition press in the country’s interior.
Racism against Peru’s large Indian population is prevalent among the middle and upper classes, although the Fujimori government has made some effort to combat it. The provisions of the 1993 constitution and subsequent implementing legislation regarding the treatment of native lands are less explicit about the inalienability and unmarketability of these lands than earlier constitutional and statutory protections were. The Shining Path guerrillas continue to practice intimidation and forced recruitment of indigenous peoples, which frequently result in their territorial displacement.
In 1996 the International Labor Organization criticized the labor code for failing to protect workers from anti-union discrimination and for restricting collective bargaining rights. Forced labor, including child labor, is prevalent in the gold-mining region of the Amazon.