Peru's reluctant leader stepping down as a hero
Paniagua leaves with huge approval rating
BY LUCIEN O. CHAUVIN
Special to The Herald
LIMA, Peru -- A year ago, Valentín Paniagua was reluctantly rearranging his schedule as a lawyer and college professor in order to take a seat in Peru's Congress.
Paniagua had accepted a request from his party, Popular Action, to stand for Congress, but he ran a lackluster campaign and was barely elected, receiving little more than 14,000 votes to take the 118th spot in the 120-member chamber.
That was a year ago. In only a few chaotic days last November, Paniagua went from quiet congressman to Congress speaker to president. Today, as he prepares to leave office, Paniagua enjoys an 80 percent approval rating in Peruvian polls. (The incoming president, Alejandro Toledo, has a 53 percent approval rating.)
Paniagua held the job only eight months. But when he steps down Saturday, he'll be remembered as the president who saved Peru from collapse. Not bad for a man who never even wanted the job.
``I never aspired to the presidency of the republic, because my goals were others,'' Paniagua, 64, said.
Paniagua got his start in politics early, elected to Congress at 26 to represent Cuzco, in the southern Andes. In 1965, he was named justice minister, the youngest man to hold the post. After a break from politics, he was elected to Congress again in 1980 and served as education minister in 1984. He ran again in 2000.
His political career took on serious new purpose last year when
a corruption scandal rocked former President Alberto Fujimori's administration.
In the final days of
Fujimori's government last November, the fortified congressional opposition chose Paniagua as a consensus candidate for speaker. The hope was that his low-key
approach would help hold several small parties together in a united opposition front against the president.
A few days later, Fujimori faxed his surprise resignation from Japan and, on Nov. 22, Paniagua officially donned the presidential sash. Soft-spoken and unassuming, but with political experience, Paniagua turned out to be just what Peru needed after the corrupt, turbulent final years of Fujimori's decade in power.
``We knew that the regime was riddled with corruption and we had no doubts that we had to remove the veil and begin a severe moralization process,'' he says.
Paniagua came to power with three basic tasks: carry out fair elections, bring to justice the most corrupt officials of Fujimori's government and put Peru's economic house in order. Most Peruvians believe he did this and much more, and many wished he had been a candidate in June's lackluster presidential election.
``I would have voted for him without thinking twice,'' says Ana Cordero of Lima. ``He is so calm and efficient.''
Alan García, whose 1985-90 administration was marred by mismanagement, hyperinflation and guerrilla violence, was defeated in the presidential runoff by economist Alejandro Toledo. Toledo takes office Saturday.
The votes -- the first round in April and a runoff in June -- were deemed a resounding success by local and international observers. The elections were far different from those held a year earlier, which Fujimori won in a process widely criticized as fraudulent.
In the battle against corruption, the newly independent justice
system has placed more than 50 people behind bars. One of the main culprits
of the scandal, Fujimori's
former security advisor Vladimiro Montesinos, was arrested in Venezuela in late June after nearly eight months as a fugitive. Montesinos, accused of stealing as much as $1 billion, has more than 50 cases pending against him in Peruvian courts.
Montesinos' arrest and the ensuing scandal with Venezuela over who should get the credit for apprehending him has boosted Paniagua's standing among Peruvians.
While Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez pontificated for
three hours about his government's role in Montesinos' arrest, Paniagua
let his interior minister explain the
Peruvian government's version and then quietly supported it.
``For me, the issue [with Venezuela] is over and ended with our communique and the withdrawal of our ambassador. The Venezuelan president says he will normalize relations after [Saturday]. He is free to do what he thinks is best,'' says Paniagua.
Besides Montesinos, the government would also like to see Fujimori respond to corruption charges lodged against him. The former president is accused of a long list of crimes, from pocketing millions to giving his blessing to death squads operating in the early 1990s.
Bringing him to trial in Peru, however, is proving difficult because Tokyo regards Fujimori as a Japanese citizen who cannot be extradited. Fujimori's parents registered him as a Japanese citizen when he was born 62 years ago.
``The Japanese government always recognized him as Peruvian, and we are appealing to his Peruvian nationality to respond before Peruvian courts,'' Paniagua said. ``The Japanese government can protect him as Japanese, but in no way can they try to exclude him from responsibilities as a Peruvian.''
The one area where the government has not had success is with the economy, still mired in a deep recession. The economy shrank throughout the first half of the year and the rosiest predictions for 2001 put economic growth at less than 1 percent. For the past three months, Peru has also been in a period of deflation, with consumer prices dropping because of shrinking demand.
While Paniagua says he wishes the administration could have done
more to stimulate economic growth, he is pleased with efforts to straighten
out the books and
implement mechanisms to catch corruption before it starts.
The finance minister has developed a ``financial transparency''
program that is a first in South America for its scope. The ministry's
new website not only includes
information on growth, but also lists of contracts, suppliers and prices.
As he prepares to return to private life, Paniagua says he is pleased.
``I am content with having complied with my duty, of not letting
down my colleagues in Congress who elected me president and of occupying
the presidency in a dignified way,'' he says.