5 March 2008

Everybody Loves Keiko, Part II

Why does the firstborn daughter of a former dictator smile so much?

II.

A month has passed since the donation of the little stove in Villa El Salvador. Keiko Fujimori isn’t wearing sneakers or a suit today, but a jacket in her political party’s trademark bright orange, standing on a raised platform (also orange) before a crowd of some five thousand, in the heart of Lima. She is joined on stage by members of her party, her brother Kenyi Gerardo, her husband, (who, like Keiko, is always smiling) and some friends.

Surveying the crowd, one of the Congresswoman’s advisors notes proudly, “Pulling off a rally of this size outside of campaign season is a quite an achievement.”

Today marks the tenth anniversary of Chavin de Huantar, a military rescue operation that freed seventy-one hostages held by terrorists at the Japanese Ambassador’s home during Fujimori’s presidency. It’s past seven in the evening now. Fujimoristas like to boast of the success of this rescue. Now the crowd of five thousand begins chant and singing the refrain to a song that popularized ex-president Fujimori’s nickname: “Chino, Chino, Chino“. Chavin de Huantar, Fujimori’s supporters claim, was one of their leaders most impressive strategic victories. Others maintain Fujimori’s operation was a violation of human rights, since the military commandos executed the terrorists after they had already surrendered.

Keiko stands atop the platform, dancing, swaying side to side along to the chant of Chino, Chino, Chino. The crowd is dotted with orange t-shirts, emblazoned with phrases like We Love You Chino and Chino = Peace. There is another shirt in the crowd as well: one with Keiko’s signature, alongside the word Angel. Only about twenty people wear these, and they are in charge of Keiko’s security, known as Keiko’s Angels. The group was formed during Keiko’s last congressional campaign and now reconvenes whenever necessary.

Keiko shouts into the microphone, “Good Evening, Amigos Fujimoristas!” She continues, “My first words are Thank You. This is etched in my heart.”

Behind Keiko, Congressman Carlos Raffo, emcee of the rally, makes a call from his cell phone, while dialing he turns to the platform party and motions with his hands as if signaling that someone important is on the other end of the phone and they should pay attention. Raffo positions the phone close to the speakers and holds it there while Keiko speaks. She realizes what is happening, perhaps unconsciously raising her voice. Next to her stands a woman who only a minute before was dancing in a large, wide skirt plastered with photos of the former president, but is now listening to the rally on the other end of the phone.

“Keiko is the next president.” says one spectator.

A song composed for Alberto Fujimori comes from the speakers, and in the crowd some sing along, while others weep.

 


Cecilia Mosqueira, wife of a former minister under Fujimori, recalls once asking Keiko how she had managed to lose so much weight. Keiko’s response, according to Mosquera, was: “I’m on the Vladimir Montesino diet.”

 

It was 2001, eight months after Alberto Fujimori’s third and final term had come to an end amid one of the gravest political crises in Peru’s contemporary history. At the height of the turmoil, it was common to hear protestors chanting, “The people are hungry and Keiko is fat.” But by her birthday, the first daughter had already lost the weight. She was turning twenty-six. To celebrate, she gathered some of the ex-minister’s wives and her most loyal friends at a Japanese restaurant in Lima. “She looked worn down,” says Mosqueira. There was reason for concern. After the leak of video tapes showing Montesinos, her father’s intelligence advisor, paying off government officials and opponents with federal money, nothing would ever be the same.

In 2001, when the first “Vladivideo” surfaced, then-President Fujimori convened an emergency meeting of his cabinet at his office in the presidential palace. According to Keiko, at this point her father had not yet made a definitive decision about his next move. José Chlimper, Minister of Agriculture at the time, recalls the ministers sitting in a conference room, in a half circle with Fujimori at the center. While some ministers called for definitive and drastic action against Vladimir Montesinos, the First Lady entered the room, sat down next to the President and interrupted the conversation.

According to Edgardo Mosqueira, then the Minister of Labor, Keiko told her father, in a strong, energetic voice, that he should fire all the generals in the Army. “The president just looked at her,” Mosqueira recalls, six years later, “but it was obvious that he was paying close attention to his daughter’s words.” José Chlimper, in the office of the agribusiness firm of which he is now president, tells me Fujimori’s daughter “always took a clear, firm, ethical position that he should permanently differentiate and distance himself [from those involved]. Her father listened to her, and from the minute she got involved one can say he took her very seriously.”

Chlimper recalls that it was Keiko, not her father, who warned him, the day after he was named Minister in July, 2000, about the role Montesinos was playing in the government. “Has the Doctor called you?” she asked him. When he said no, Keiko advised him that if he did receive a call from Montesinos, to keep in mind that “the Doctor” was only a simple aide to the president. “What she said to me that day planted a seed that sprouted later on, and that was how I knew to be careful. That’s where my loyalty to Keiko began,” says Chlimper, as he looks through a photo album for a picture of himself with the former First Lady. According to a current advisor to the Congresswoman who worked with her when she was First Lady, that conversation with Chlimper was part of a “secret plan” Keiko undertook to turn her father’s closest associates against Montesinos. Though only twenty-five at the time, she was already an presence in her father’s circles of power. According to this aide, Keiko decided it would be most effective to lobby the minister’s wives, because, “[They] were the people with the most influence.” The First Lady organized a series of luncheons for the ministers’ wives and invited them to discuss the country’s social problems. At these luncheons, a certain intimacy sprung up among the women. Chlimper’s wife, Thaís, gave the First Lady a copy of The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, by self-help guru Deepak Chopra. Mrs. Chlimper says Keiko called her a few days later to say she would keep the book with her as a guide for the rest of her life.

In the American foreign policy journal The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, John Hamilton, U.S. Ambassador to Peru from 1999 to 2002, wrote that in the months before the crisis came to a head, the president’s oldest daughter had ventured far beyond the traditional role of First Lady. Keiko publicly expressed her political opinions and sought support from her father’s cabinet to push for Montesinos’ removal from power. In private ambassadorial meetings Hamilton held with President Fujimori, Keiko was always present. According to Hamilton, the president told him that his daughter was one of the only people he could still trust.

Luis Jochamowitz, a journalist and author of Citizen Fujimori and Vladimiro: The Life and Times of a Crook, says that one of the former president’s favorite items, since the day he came to power, was a paper shredder. In a sense, his eldest daughter, the First Lady of Peru, fulfilled a similar role for Fujimori: whatever secrets he told her left no trace.

“Even in those months [before the crisis], my father and I had a very close relationship,” Keiko recalled, shortly after having been elected to Congress in May, 2006. “We always ate breakfast together, despite our different ways of thinking, and my open criticisms of Montesinos and others in the government. We always maintained a unified front. Ever since we were kids, he always listened to our opinions—it was very important to him—no matter how naïve we might have been as children.”

Alberto Fujimori’s third term was less than four months old when he resigned the presidency, via fax from Japan. “When my father called from Japan, everything fell apart on me,” Keiko says now, sitting in the living room of the house where she and her husband live. “For two days I asked him to reconsider. I said if he was going to make such a decision he should do it from here and not leave me alone with everything.”

She wept and begged her father to come back to Peru, Keiko Sofía says. In the days that followed, she couldn’t cry anymore, as if everything had dried up inside. Several days after she received the call, Fujimori’s oldest daughter, in a room in the basement of the Presidential Palace, packed up all the gifts her father had received during his ten years in office: statues, paintings, commemorative plaques. Each gift, she says, recalled a memory: the exact moment when her father had received it, filling her with nostalgia. Later, she called together all of the people who had worked for her and her family and bid them goodbye—this time she wasn’t smiling. One of her aides recalls that when Keiko let the employees go, she asked them “not to lose faith in the Engineer [a nickname for her father], that he would continue to look out for all of them, no matter where he was.” She also warned them that difficult times were on the way.

In hundreds of interviews since, Keiko Fujimori has been asked about the corruption charges that brought down her father’s government. In each of these interviews, she has answered the same way: “My father is innocent.” And she smiles—nothing more. But the history of the Fujimoris is complex, and it’s not just the patriarch who has had to answer for unsettled accounts. Keiko was studying business administration at Boston University when she assumed the role of First Lady. In years to come, her three siblings would also leave Peru to study in the United States. Even excluding plane tickets, room and board, etc., the cost of educating the four Fujimori children was more than four hundred thousand dollars. How could the president have paid for all of this when his official salary, according to Fujimori himself, was less than seven hundred dollars a month?

“She was educated in the U.S. with money stolen from Peruvians. And now they’ve given her a seat in government,” wrote Ángel Páez, an investigative journalist for the daily Lima newspaper La República, shortly after Keiko was elected to Congress. When Keiko is asked about the subject she smiles, as though it doesn’t bother her at all. She seems to understand that, having chosen a path in politics, she’ll often have to respond in this way: by not responding.

“When my father resigned his office,” Keiko says, at her home, “he told me it was the perfect moment for me to do what I wanted with my life.”

She wanted to start a business—“so nobody would bother me.” She married Mark Villanella, an American, and completed a master’s degree in the U.S. Everything was going according to plan until her father, then under arrest in Santiago, Chile, and facing extradition, asked Keiko to return to Peru to take the helm of his political party. According to Keiko, she had misgivings, and spent hours talking it over with her husband. In the end, she accepted. For Fujimori’s eldest child, it was “a duty and a responsibility” to do what her father asked. It has been that way for many years, since the very beginning of the Fujimori political enterprise. Keiko was only fourteen in 1990, when she served as her father’s youngest and closest secretary during his presidential campaign. Together with her siblings and cousins, she helped distribute fliers and calendars in the streets of Lima, bearing the logo of the Cambio 90 party and the face of the then-unknown candidate, Alberto Fujimori. Keiko also helped design posters, accompanied her father on campaign trips to remote parts of the country, as well as local road trips on a vehicle dubbed “The Fujimobile.” She took charge of typing out the notes her father would use in his televised debate against his opponent, the writer Mario Vargas Llosa. After her father’s election, when her mother, Susana Higuchi, left the Presidential Palace and denounced her husband as a corrupt tyrant, Keiko addressed her mother directly in a nationally televised interview: “Mother, I’ve told you before—think of us, your children, before you do something. Remember that we love you very much. You know what I’m referring to.”

Which side was the eldest Fujimori on?

Now, from her seat in the congress, Keiko can turn to her left and find Carlos Raffo, her father’s publicist and the songwriter behind the catchy tune “The Rhythm of El Chino” (”Chino, Chino, Chino…”) She can turn to her right and chat with Renzo Reggiardo, the son of one of her father’s best friends, the founder of the Cambio 90 political party. Behind her she’ll find Víctor Rolando Sousa, one of her father’s lawyers, and next to him is Alejandro Aguinaga, former Minister of Health in Fujimori’s cabinet. Her uncle, Santiago Fujimori, the former president’s brother, is also nearby. They are all gathered around Keiko, the leader of a faction of thirteen parliamentarians. For Fernando Rospigliosi, a journalist and former minister in the government of Alejandro Toledo, it’s a family affair masquerading as a political bloc. “You’ve got the daughter, the brother, the lawyer, the employee, and they’ve all got one goal: to defend Alberto Fujimori and the Fujimori Mafia.”

Perhaps. But it is still unclear whether Fujimori’s oldest daughter has truly ascended to the head of his political machine, or whether she’s just serving as a temporary, if more charismatic, replacement for her father.

[Read the original article in Spanish.]

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