Tired of Toledo, Some Peruvians Long for Fujimori

Reese Erlich reports from Peru on the diminishing popularity of President Alejandro Toledo. Erlich found that some poor communities are even reminiscing about life under the nation's former dictator, Alberto Fujimori, who fled the country Japan to escape prosecution on corruption charges.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, playing cards online for money, a lot of money. First this.

In Peru, President Alejandro Toledo recently signed a law that provides the country's poor with payments of $30 a month. Critics say the president is simply desperate to improve his polling numbers, and he should be. They're the lowest of any head of state in all of Latin America. Peruvians are so disappointed with President Toledo that some seem nostalgic for the days of former dictator Alberto Fujimori. Independent radio producer Reese Erlich reports from Lima.

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REESE ERLICH reporting:

In Huaycan, a poor barrio clinging to the side of a mountain on Lima's outskirts, community leader Juan Chafloki(ph) walks up some steep stone steps.

Mr. JUAN CHAFLOKI (Community Leader): (Through Translator) Residents built these steps into the mountain. That goes back to our Incan roots. This is part of our culture.

ERLICH: Peasants from the countryside flood into Lima's slums because there's no place else to go. In this section of Huaycan, they don't have electricity, running water or sewage hookups. In one of the ironies of globalization, however...

(Soundbite of cell phone ringing)

Unidentified Man: Hello, hello.

ERLICH: ...there is good cell phone coverage, even if residents can't afford to actually buy a cell phone. Chafloki says that's symbolic of the overall economic situation in Peru. The economy has grown steadily over the past four years under President Toledo, but the poor say they see few benefits.

Mr. CHAFLOKI: (Through Translator) President Toledo promise a lot, but unfortunately, he never delivered. Peruvians want employment. With jobs, we can improve the life of everyone.

ERLICH: Only 10 percent of Peruvians support Toledo, according to public opinion polls. He angered people by refusing to initially acknowledge a daughter born out of wedlock. His attempt to privatize the electric companies in the city of Arequipa provoked a bloody general strike. Now Toledo's party is being investigated for forging ballot signatures. Luis Benavente is a communications professor and pollster at the University of Lima.

Professor LUIS BENAVENTE (University of Lima): (Through Translator) There's a lack of political leadership. Toledo failed to manage various crises. His personal style rubs people the wrong way. He had many personal and family problems.

ERLICH: Toledo's defenders say the president is getting a bum rap. The economy has grown by 4 percent a year and inflation is low. Toledo's popularity suffers, they argue, because of a general distrust of politicians. In the 1990s, Peru was ruled by corrupt and authoritarian leader Alberto Fujimori. Carlos Bruce, the minister of housing and a top leader of Toledo's political party, says the voters are cynical.

Mr. CARLOS BRUCE (Minister of Housing): There was some videotapes broadcasted where they show the congressmen, ministers, generals, politicians--everybody was receiving money from Mr. Montesinos, who was the principal adviser of President Fujimori. When that happens, the people just distrust all the political leaders of the system.

Unidentified Child #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Child #2: (Foreign language spoken)

ERLICH: Back up in the poor community of Huaycan, it's hard to find anyone who supports President Toledo. In fact, residents express a nostalgia for Fujimori. He may have violated the constitution, engaged in repression and siphoned off hundreds of millions of government dollars, but he's remembered here for building schools and providing free milk. Ryder Rojas(ph) works in a nearby factory.

Mr. RYDER ROJAS (Factory Worker): (Through Translator) Fujimori helped a lot of people. If he was still in power, we'd have more electricity and more water.

ERLICH: Polls indicate Fujimori could win 30 percent of the vote if he ran again for president in April 2006. But if he ever returns from exile in Japan, Fujimori faces criminal indictment. Pollster Benavente notes that if the presidential election were held right now, no Peruvian politician would have more than 20 percent support.

Prof. BENAVENTE: (Through Translator) There's a huge political fragmentation. It's possible that an unknown leader will emerge from among the registered parties. There could be 30 aspiring presidents and they all want to repeat the experience of 1990 when no one knew Fujimori and in three months, he became president.

ERLICH: Of course, political winds can change, but some politicians cling to this outsider strategy in hopes that a little-known candidate with charisma and fresh politics can sweep into power. But, of course, that's what got Fujimori elected in 1990 and helped propel Toledo to power in 2001. For NPR News, I'm Reese Erlich.

CHADWICK: And there's more coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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