Alberto Keinya Fujimori (born 1938) was inaugurated president of Peru on his 52nd birthday, becoming the first person of East Asian descent to lead an American republic.
Fujimori was born in Lima on July 28, 1938—Peru's Independence Day. His parents, Naochi and Matsue Fujimori, had emigrated four years earlier from Shiyajama, Japan, to Peru, where they initially worked as agricultural field hands. This was an especially difficult period for Peru's 17,000-member Japanese community, which often faced racial hostility. During World War II Peru sent nearly 1,800 persons of Japanese extraction (many of them native-born Peruvian citizens) to the United States for internment.
The future president and his two brothers and two sisters were raised in La Victoria, a working-class district of Lima, and attended public schools. The valedictorian of his high school class, Fujimori in 1956 achieved the top score on the examination for admission to Peru's prestigious La Molina National Agrarian University. He graduated at the very top of the agricultural engineering program in 1961. The following year he returned to La Molina as a professor of mathematics. Fujimori received post-graduate training at the University of Strasbourg in France and in the United States, earning a Master's degree in mathematics from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1969. He was awarded honorary doctorates by the universities of Glebloux in Belgium and San Martin de Porres in Peru. Widely traveled in Peru and abroad, Fujimori spoke Spanish, Japanese, English, French, and German.
In 1984, shortly after becoming dean of the Faculty of Sciences at La Molina, that university's assembly elected him rector (president) of the school for a five-year term. The rectors of Peru's 30 other national universities chose Fujimori president of their council for the period 1987-1989.
Two years before the 1990 general election, Fujimori and several other politically independent professionals and businessmen founded the Cambio 90 (Change 90) movement as a vehicle for their participation in the contest. Meanwhile, Fujimori increased his public visibility as the host of "Getting Together," a radio program devoted to public affairs. In this capacity he demonstrated his awareness of important issues and a notable ability to foster understanding among guests with opposing views.
The victor in Peru's 1990 presidential election would face a nearly impossible challenge. A $20-billion foreign debt had not been serviced regularly in several years. Peru's domestic economy was near collapse. A ten-year war with the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas, fanatical Maoists, had taken 20,000 lives. International drug traffickers had established a powerful presence within the country. Nevertheless, nine candidates vied for the presidency.
For several months prior to the vote, internationally renowned novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, representing the conservative Democratic Front (Fredemo) coalition, was heavily favored to win. He seemed likely to trounce his mainly leftist challengers and achieve the 50 percent plurality required for direct election in the April 8 first round of balloting. But he frightened many citizens with his plan to attack the huge budget deficit and 3,500 percent inflation with a quick "shock therapy," which included the elimination of subsidies for staple foods, fuel, and utilities, and the firing of thousands of government workers. In the final months of the campaign Fujimori, a self-styled centrist whose "plan" consisted of little more than the slogan "honesty, hard work, and technology," surged from an obscure four percent standing in the polls to within three points of Vargas Llosa's 27 percent first-place finish, forcing a runoff.
In the second contest Fujimori charged that Vargas Llosa's "shock" would place too large a burden on poor Peruvians. He promised more gradual remedies for the nation's economic ills. Fujimori also criticized his opponent's emphasis on military solutions to the guerrilla and drug problems. The Cambio 90 candidate proposed to undercut support for the insurgents through economic development and to wean peasants away from the cultivation of coca (the source of cocaine) with a program of crop substitution.
On the June 8 election day, Fujimori won most of the votes that had gone to candidates eliminated in the first round, garnering 56.5 percent of the total to 34 percent for Vargas Llosa. Analysts noted that the light-skinned members of Peru's elite and middle-class voted heavily for Vargas Llosa, while Fujimori was favored by working-class citizens of Indian ancestry. Although himself a Roman Catholic, Fujimori received crucial support from the nation's small evangelical Christian community, whose members canvassed for him, missionary-like, door to door.
President Fujimori was inaugurated on July 28, 1990. He asserted in his inaugural address that he had inherited a "disaster" from his predecessor, Alan Garcia Pérez. The new administration quickly introduced its own economic "shock." The prices of many basic foods doubled and tripled overnight, while the cost of gasoline (which had been subsidized at seven cents per gallon) increased nearly 30-fold. Rioting occurred throughout the country, and Peru's major labor federations staged general strikes. Fujimori's popularity plummeted along with the purchasing power of civilians. But the spiraling rate of inflation slowed, allowing the administration to implement its other programs for economic recovery. Fujimori's autogolpe (self-coup) abolished Peru's constitution, Congress, and Supreme Court. It was after this point that he seized complete power. Undaunted amidst remarks of being a dictator, Fujimori insists that his leadership is within the realms of democracy.
Nicknamed "El Chinito" (The Little Asian) by the public, the diminutive and soft-spoken Fujimori held a black belt in karate and traced his ancestry to Samurai warriors. He was married in 1974 to civil engineer Susana Higuchi. They had four children. During his first term in office, Susana Higuchi became Fujimori's most vocal adversary. She announced in 1994 that she would seek office in an attempt to defeat him. Fujimori passed Peruvian law which prohibited her from running for office on the grounds that she was related to him. Their marriage ended with her being banned from the palace. Fujimori won the election in 1995 by a landslide.
In December of 1996 Peru and Fujimori became the center of attention once again as hundreds of foreign dignitaries were held hostage in the Japanese ambassador's mansion by an armed group of Tupac Amaru guerrillas. The hostage stance lasted for months, with the entire world waiting for a move to be made. On April 22, 1997, the seize ended when Peruvian commandos stormed the mansion. The resulting gunfire and ambush freed all remaining hostages and killed the 14 guerillas.
Further Reading on Alberto Keinya Fujimori
More information about Alberto Fujimori's Peru can be found in C. Harvey Gardiner, The Japanese and Peru, 1873-1973 (1975); Felipe Ortiz de Zevallos, The Peruvian Puzzle (1989); Edmundo Morales, Cocaine: White Gold Rush in Peru (1989); and Gabriela Tarazona-Sevillano, Sendero Luminoso and the Threat of Narcoterrorism (1990). "President Alberto Fujimori—Talks Still Young," The Indonesian Times (1997).