The Improbable Life of Alberto Fujimori - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori is surrounded by several soldiers on February 16, 1995 while posing for a group of photojournalists, near the conflict border zone, where Ecuadoran and Peruvian forces have fought during the last three weeks
SourceHo New/Reuters


Because history isn’t only about heroes – sometimes it’s the bad guys whose stories have the most to teach.

Carlos Watson

Carlos Watson

CEO and co-founder of OZY

Not all of history’s most inspiring figures were good guys. Some were definitely anti heroes — and one of the weirdest bad-guy tales of the last century involves the foibles and flight of Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori (yes, that’s his real name).

Let’s be clear: Fujimori is no hero in this story — in fact, he’d be described in starkly different terms by most historians. For starters, here’s what you’d see on his ledger: war crimes, human rights abuses, murder allegations, exile, death squads.

How on earth does a Japanese-looking guy win an election in Peru? And with the slogan: ‘A president like you’?

Ironically he began as a rising star of his day: child of Japanese immigrants, son of a tailor-slash-fix-it-man-slash-farmer who later became an engineer. Fujimori spent his youth climbing the opportunity ladder like any shrewd immigrant’s kid — while getting schooled in Peru, France and the United States. He took his engineering degrees and master’s in math back home and settled into what could have been a respectable life at a university. But he was hungry. And had a taste for politics.  

Consider: How on earth does a Japanese-looking guy win an election in Peru? And with the slogan: “A president like you”? Bizarrely enough, by looking Japanese. Known (sometimes affectionately) as el Chino, Fujimori’s face may well have carried him all the way to the top. The marginalized campesinos, the indigenous agricultural farmers, fell hardest for him. Sick of the Spaniards dominating their country and believing that he, the son of a cotton farmer, empathized with their plight, they drove his campaign all the way to Lima. 

What happened next cuts to the heart of a pile of disturbing issues: terrorism, corruption, states of emergency and horrors (forced sterilization? death tribunals?) that are plain evil if they’re true (he was found guilty of massacring 50 innocents during his counterinsurgency years). But as Martin Luther King Jr. once said (quoting the philosopher Johann Goethe): “There’s enough stuff in me to make both a gentleman and a rogue.”

The story you’d get in school is that Fujimori’s rogue half won out. Threatened by Maoist guerrillas, he imposed a publicly supported coup in 1992 to take back the country, which he then tried to rule with an iron fist for the rest of the decade. He came down hard on the violence in his country, famously declaring at his trial in 2009, ”I had to govern from hell, not from the government palace.” Soon his opponents nailed him for a long roster of wrongdoings and, with his resignation letter rejected not-so-cordially by fax from Peru’s congress, he bolted — to Japan, a place he’d never called home but where the government nonetheless declared him a citizen.

And then? Hardly the type to study flower arranging during his self-imposed exile, he formed a new political party and announced his run for Peru’s presidency in 2006 — despite facing charges for, among other crimes, arms-dealing, embezzlement and the murder of nine university students. 

I had to govern from hell, not from the government palace.

So the other story I’d teach about Fujimori is a little different. I am in no way discounting the many odious things he’s accused of, but the man who created Fujimorism — a political ideology based on anti-terrorist and free-market policies — gives me a never-say-never moment of mind-blowing proportions. 

Six years after getting booted out of Peru, he got nearly 13 percent of the vote (five times Nader’s average electoral haul) — and today maintains a 30-percent approval rating (which is higher than George W. Bush at the end of his term). He’s even creating a dynasty: His daughter Keiko, the most prominent Fujimorista, was elected to congress and nearly won Peru’s presidential race in 2011.

So knowing what we know about history – that it’s complicated and we must study its many layers to extract some meaning — here’s one more layer to add to the dark and turbulent tale of Alberto Fujimori. If this guy can rise and fall — and have the support and cojones to rise again, what can’t happen in our world?

Carlos Watson

Carlos Watson

CEO and co-founder of OZY

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