“Welcome to America,” said the sign in the elevator of my hotel.
It was my first of several visits to Lima, Peru, a city established by the Spanish in 1535 on land once occupied by the Incas.
On the drive from the airport to the hotel, I had not thought for even a fleeting moment that I was arriving in America. The sign should not have surprised me, though. After all, the America that Christopher Columbus “discovered” was not the United States, and much of the initial European invasion that led to a cultural revolution in the “New World” took place, not in what is now the USA or even Canada, but in Latin American nations.
The European visitors to the hotel, the bulk of its clientele, were far more attuned to the idea that South America is America, too.
I’ve been thinking about that continent, the mirror image of our own, over the last week while reading stories about the conviction and sentencing of the Peruvian strongman Alberto Fujimori. Fujimori was still president of Peru on my first visit. Last week a Peruvian court solemnly sentenced him to 25 years in prison for two massacres and two kidnappings during his reign as his country’s leader.
Human rights advocates had long campaigned for Fujimori’s prosecution, and his conviction was heralded as an advance for Peruvian democracy and justice.
He was elected in 1990 at a time when Peru’s economy was reeling and Maoist insurgents from the Shining Path guerrilla movement threatened the government’s future.
Fujimori managed to shut down the Shining Path. But strongman tactics will forever tarnish the legacy of his 10-year reign. Death squads, kidnappings, illegal spying, vote-rigging, bribery and extortion were all means to his end.
No question, Fujimori deserved to be convicted. But, to a lesser extent, the blame also falls on the Peruvians who voted for him and supported him, especially the educated, moneyed classes. Many of them knew Fujimori was far from the kind of leader their nation needed in the long run. But they didn’t mind having him around for a while. He got results, they said, stabilizing a shaky society by any means necessary.
The details always vary, but the Fujimori story is, unfortunately, far from unique. In fragile and chaotic times, citizens of many nations have been willing to accept abuses of power by their leaders.
Looking in the mirror of Peru, we might even see a vague resemblance to another American nation in recent years.
I am speaking, of course, of the United States.
What happened in the wake of 9/11? Many of us unfurled our “American” flags and supported the Bush-Cheney administration as it trampled on the ideals we supposedly stand for. New and ever more horrifying details on the practice of torture and sadistic interrogation have dominated news reports this week. And those reports are just part of the ongoing shoddy litany of this era — from the political manipulation of the Justice Department to warrantless wire tapping to sweeping domestic surveillance. Thanks to the leadership we chose to follow in a fragile time, the reputation of the United States, a nation that views itself as a shining light to the rest of the world, has been sadly tarnished.
As the sign said, “Welcome to America.”
What You Can Do:
Support Sen. Patrick Leahy’s call for a truth commission to investigate abuses: http://www.BushTruthCommission.com
Call for an independent prosecutor on torture: https://secure.aclu.org/site/SPageServer?pagename=Nat_Petition_SpecialProsecutor_Memo&s_src=UNW090001ACT&s_subsrc=Bradbury_nonsigners_0417&JServSessionIdr009=7qhvqbn4m2.app23a