Alberto Fujimori and Mario Vargas Llosa on the campaign trail. Credit: RPP

Don Mario and the Chinaman

It was hot. So hot the stray dogs wagged their tails in slow motion as they sniffed out the shaded corners. So hot the festive Santas — octogenarians hired by the city to dress up in furry robes — sweated jovially through their straggly beards in the southern hemisphere yuletide. So hot the flies stumbled among the crowds gathering in the Plaza San Martin; dogs, Santas, flies and people seeking shade among the civic buildings and strutting statuary.

Under the sun’s dry eye the square was a flood of colour. Election posters, freshly slapped over walls already festooned with them, flashed out from every surface, eyes and teeth smiling with unquestionable integrity, ringed with messages of hope, wealth, security and Catholic rectitude. Banners and bunting, placards and pennants, waved in the shimmering air, flapping loosely from street furniture or brandished with determined pride by the gathering masses on this furnace of a day. The long months of campaigning were almost over. The scandals, the threats, the angry debates on TV, had faded, and this final rush of rallies was all that remained before a press black-out descended and the people went to cast their ballots.

Yesterday I had stood on the edge of this square watching Mario Vargas Llosa, the revered novelist and Nobel laureate, address his supporters. Don Mario was the presidential candidate for technocratic orthodoxy and the favourite of the middle classes. The business community also rallied behind his banner, as did most of the press and the foreign commentariat.

His platform was one of change with stability, and the country certainly needed change. The incumbent, Alan Garcia, had delivered political chaos, two million percent inflation and a deepening of the decades-long insurgency, which had boiled up into a low-level civil war. A new broom was needed, and right-minded people looked no further than the novelist, drawn reluctantly into politics to save the nation, to provide it.

Don Mario had addressed his final rally in sonorous tones, filled with patrician condescension and the confidence of the frontrunner. His sentences were long and impeccably constructed. His words were polysyllabic and resonant. His promises, infused with aspiration yet carefully couched in pragmatism, were delivered with ringing sobriety.

“Markets must be allowed to function and private enterprise to flourish”, he had said, “but those of more than modest means must contribute to the common good, allowing the usufruct of wealth creation to flow to the people”, or words to that effect. This was the orthodoxy of the day: open markets, fiscal responsibility, the Washington consensus. I had stood at the back on tiptoe, craning to see him over the heads of his earnest supporters.

Just a week before that I had sat in Don Mario’s drawing-room in his well-appointed house by the sea, leafing through tasteful coffee-table literature and then averting my gaze as he entered in a surprisingly short and loose-fitting dressing gown. He was busy and business-like, and we discussed a different speech that he was paying me to translate. His skin was mottled and loose, a little less impressive than the stern-eyed patriarch I knew from TV. I tried some light chat about the campaign, mentioning the concept of the ‘techito’, the little roof. This had been used to describe his popularity rating, which hung stubbornly just below the 50% threshold that would give him outright victory. Admittedly, it was a columnist from an opposition newspaper who had coined the phrase, but it had caught on, and cartoonists had taken to drawing the novelist candidate with a tiny roof hovering above his head. Was he worried? He smiled kindly enough but was not to be drawn and our conversation turned to matters of more immediate relevance. Was ‘pudiente’ best transcribed as ‘well-off’, ‘wealthy’ or ‘well-heeled’? Would a Chicago audience understand the term ‘Criollo’?

As I had watched him addressing his rapt supporters in the square I had wondered again about the techito. A week, they say, is a long time in politics, and the week between our meeting at his house and the rally in the square had offered comprehensive proof of that. He might have addressed the crowd with confidence, but he must have been wavering inside.

Today’s gathering in the Plaza San Martin was very different. Today was the closing rally of Alberto Fujimori, an engineer, a TV host and an upstart outsider whose campaign manifesto had consisted of one printed sheet, and even this lacking a single concrete pledge. “The Chinaman”, as he was known in an incongruous reference to his Japanese parentage, had barely registered in the polls two weeks before, yet now was gathering giant crowds with his promise of Asian values: Honour, Technology and Hard work. Somehow, even while claiming the legacy of his distant origins, he was viewed as more Peruvian than the novelist with the fancy words. “Vargas Llosa? I wouldn’t vote for that foreigner”, one farm worker had told me.

I had known since I took my spot on the edge of the square that Don Mario was in trouble. Over the course of the morning streams of people made their way through the side streets without a pause. They came predominantly from the West, across the river Rimac, where the precarious barrios of the very poor tumbled down the hillsides to the fringes of the city centre. They wore hand-woven robes and ponchos, threadbare clothes and battered shoes, or no shoes at all. They filled the square, budged up, and filled it again. They bulged into the side streets, hung off statues and ornamental lampposts, and shared pedestals with founding fathers and famous sons.

They crowded against each other in a sombre mood of celebration until Fujimori finally emerged onto the podium. Then they gave vent to a giant roar that echoed from the civic buildings and boomed around the square.

They cheered his words with adoring abandon. He would bring jobs to the unemployed, he said, stability to the broken economy, peace to the war-torn country. He would stand for the poor, the honest, the hard-working, drawing a line under the corrupt politics of the past. He would lead a crusade for moral renewal and drive the vulgar delinquents from the presidential palace.

It struck me that throughout the build-up and the speech my view of the podium was never obscured. Not especially tall myself, I towered over the crowd. These rural migrants, citizens of the shanty towns that ringed and outnumbered the capital, gardeners, nannies, cleaners and security guards, waiters, street sellers and itinerant shoe shines, came from the back of the country’s protein line. The square was filled to bursting with the undernourished, underpaid and under-schooled, the perennially neglected by the country’s squabbling parties and career politicians. Somehow, almost without anyone noticing, Alberto Fujimori, a second-generation immigrant and third-tier TV personality, had galvanised a slice of the population that was rarely addressed and even more rarely heard. They were outside the psephologist’s models, beyond the reach of the pollsters, far away from TV’s talking heads. But they were having their say now.

It was hot. So hot the air was fluid and corrugated with mirages. So hot the retreating crowds were doubled with the exertions of the day. So hot that the venerable Santas swung their bells with mournful apathy, an incongruity in this climate, and at this time of political fever. As I retired to find my own ‘techito’ and a cold beer, I felt that I was walking barefoot across a griddle. The long campaign was over, but the biggest shock was to come. In the ensuing election, Don Mario would win most votes but fail to emerge from his techito, and would lose to the Chinaman in the run-off. And in one final, bitter twist, Fujimori, over the coming years, would shred the country’s democracy and betray the hopes of those who had crowded the Plaza San Martin.

It was 1990. I thought to myself (I probably didn’t but I’d like to grant myself a little retrospective acuity), “A small-time TV personality speaking over the heads of the political class directly to a silent majority who feel angry and disenfranchised, sweeping away the old politics in one explosive convulsion. When will that ever happen again?”

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Alasdair Ross

I am an author and speaker specialising in global affairs, geopolitics and risk with more than 40 years' experience in journalism and analysis.