Understanding Fujimorismo in Peru

In 2011 I wrote a piece titled “Understanding Uribismo,” which sheds light on the popularity of Colombia’s hard-line former President Alvaro Uribe.

The gist of that article was that many Colombians voted for Uribe because they wanted him to cross the line of ethics and legality. Like in the war on Pablo Escobar, Colombians wanted a president who would be willing to do whatever it took to beat the guerrillas. And Uribe did exactly that. Uribe has since suffered an epic fall in public esteem, bit seems he would have been wise to bow out of politics when he was on top.

There is a similarly curious phenomenon in Peru’s 2016 elections. The longtime presidential frontrunner is Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of former President Alberto Fujimori, who is currently jailed for authorizing death squads and embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars.

She faces a tough runoff against investor-favorite Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, but her Popular Force party took a whopping 55% of Peru’s Congress.

Gringo disbelief is summed up in this question from a student at a Utah university last year:

In not making his remarks brief as promised, the student did not have a question so much as a call for attention. And without going into detail on where the student’s remarks were misinformed, he asked what all the gringos want to know:

  1. Your dad’s in jail. Why are you a candidate?
  2. Why is the daughter of the dictator so popular?

Alberto Fujimori is the president who defeated the guerrilla insurgency, as Uribe later became in Colombia. The Shining Path was crippled early in his term and relegated to drug-running in the jungle.

Security alone explains Uribe’s popularity circa 2011, but Fujimori’s goes deeper. In addition to being the security candidate, Fujimori was also an economic savior for Peru.

Peru in 1989 was in a worse state than Venezuela today. How could that be possible? Imagine Venezuela’s economic situation but without the world’s largest oil reserves. Imagine Venezuela today with higher inflation but with no oil AND one of Latin America’s bloodiest Marxist guerrilla armies. That was Peru in 1989.

Peru arrived to that sorry state after more than 20 years of statist policies, starting with the 12-year military dictatorship initiated by Juan Velasco Alvarado. Velasco nationalized almost all of Peru’s industry and executed one of Latin America’s most comprehensive land reforms. He was a precursor to Chavez.

The military ultimately bowed out and held elections in 1980. However the political scene was so splintered that reforms did not come quickly, and the 1985 election of Alan Garcia brought more statist populism that led Peru to near ruin.

Alberto Fujimori rose as the contender to frontrunner Mario Vargas Llosa, who shocked the political scene by advocating liberal, free-market policies in a region where such talk was akin to treason on the part of gringo imperialism.

But the state-planned model had run its course in Peru. When Fujimori edged Vargas Llosa, he implemented what turned out to be MVLl’s economic program.

Fujimori’s return to the table of international finance to settle its debts and the privatizations of the massive public sector put Peru on the path to where it is today, the economic star of the region. All economic indicators show belief-defying improvements. Two friends from Colombia who recently visited told me that Lima is more expensive than Bogota!

You can debate whether Fujimori’s economic reforms are what led Peru to where it is today, or whether or not he personally drove those reforms. But there is one thing you can’t argue with Peruvian voters who were here before and after, and that is when the change started in Peru.

Dictator or not, Peru’s change started in 1990. The trend started with Alberto Fujimori, and he is beloved to this day because of it.

Imagine you have a crystal ball, a real one which shows the future, and you use it to present the following choice to Venezuelans today.

Presidential Candidate A will dissolve congress and appropriate the judiciary. After consolidating power, he will ultimately authorize death squads and steal hundreds of millions of dollars, and even lead a forced sterilizations campaign among the poorest communities. But he will also make Venezuela a safe place almost overnight, and he will implement market reforms which will lead to Venezuela becoming Latin America’s top economic performer in 25 years. Poverty will be cut by almost two thirds, and Caracas will be the most-visited city in Latin America (currently Lima, with almost 50% more visits than Mexico City and almost double those of Sao Paolo).

Will you vote for that corrupt dictator-in-waiting?

My guess is that most Venezuelans would give such a leader $1 billion and let him kill 1,000 civilians to change their country’s fortune. And that is why Alberto himself would have made the 2016 runoff if he were allowed on the ballot.

Whatever you think about the man as a murderer or corrupt president of epic proportions, remember the choice you could present Venezuelans today. I bet many would clamor for a Venezuelan Fujimori.

Not all Peruvians agree. In fact I think Keiko will lose precisely because there are so many Peruvians who will vote for anybody but Fujimori.

UPDATE: I was right.

But now you understand Fujimorismo.

There is also something to say about Alberto Fujimori’s patronage scheme. I have not yet found hard numbers, but he used money which today would fund regional governments to buy food, clothes and appliances for Peru’s rural poor.

You would actually find many economists who agree with that strategy in a country where about one third of public expenditure is siphoned off by corruption. In such a system, giving the money directly to the poor will achieve a greater economic utility than allowing the elites to squander it on luxury.

That’s called vote-buying in modern countries. And Fujimori bought a lot of votes from people who still love him for what he did for Peru.



  1. You’re so right, outside of Peru most of the commentary regarding Keiko is “daughter of former dictator”, “embezzled millions”, “authorized death squads”, and little else. Here in Peru the view is more nuanced.

    Another example I believe you haven’t mentioned is the people in the north of Peru still respect Fujimori for the disaster response he implemented during the particularly bad El Nino in 1997/1998. Also, he formally ended the war with Ecuador, which then was the longest running border conflict in the Western hemisphere.

    It’s hard for me to imagine there aren’t any better candidates than Keiko in all of Peru but on the other hand business/political establishment in the years since Fujimori have set themselves up for a Fujimori comeback, with their greed, incompetence, total disregard for large groups of society, almost complete lack of essential government services, etc. etc.


  2. What a piece of shiiiittt article

    So murder is ok

    It is always interesting that right wingers can murder anyone they want and it is totally ok

    Then one can re write history and say it is ok because we twist all the facts and lie

    I am quite sure that if “colin” was the one being shot he wouldn’t be so happy about it.


  3. Idiotic article, Fujimori killed poor, his critics and sterilazation of native nad black peruvians. The guy was monster also in syphoning aid money from western world into USA accounts.


  4. @ No – I’d argue the left-wing murderers are treated a lot better than right-wing murderers. Castro and Che would have killed more than Pinochet and Fujimori combined. Mao and Stalin each did away with more than Hitler.

    @ Jerry – This was not an opinion piece, but an analysis of why Fujimori is still popular today. So what you are actually saying is that Peruvians are “idiotic people,” or at least the 60 to 70 percent of the country who approve of some kind of pardon. There is a vocal minority opposed to it, primarily in Lima, but many Peruvians believe he did more good than bad and a strong majority believes he has done his time.

    Your comment includes a factual inaccuracy re: Afro-Peruvians. There may have been a case here and there, but the sterilizations were targeted at poor Quechua women in the Andean highlands. Again, this policy remains somewhat popular in the urban coast. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve heard Peruvians defend the policy and even say he should have sterilized more.

    So again, you don’t mean to say the article is “idiotic” so much as the people of Peru are. If you spend any time here, start up some conversations with commoner types — taxi drivers, menu workers, tiendistas, police, etc. (not the educated types you’d know from university or wherever). You’ll find that most of the outrage is outside of Peru.

    If you want to learn more about what Peru was like before Fujimori took office, and hence educate yourself as to why Peruvians see Fujimori in a favorable light, I highly recommend “Fish in the Water” by Mario Vargas Llosa. It describes the late 80s in excruciating detail. Much like Venezuela today.


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