Everybody Loves Keiko, Part I

You like her. Or rather, it’s hard to dislike Keiko Sofía Fujimori Higuchi, so you make an effort. Try it. Think about her father. Alberto Fujimori, the ex-president of Peru, currently standing trial, accused of corruption, of ordering extrajudicial assassinations, widely thought to have constructed during his ten year rule a country built to his sinister specifications: a docile, easily manipulated media, a system of widespread espionage, a venal and corrupt political system whose lifeblood was bribery. There are no statistics on this, of course, but generally speaking, dictators do not tend to be remembered affectionately—and their families are hardly remembered at all. Most fade with each passing year, and you can forget them. But not in this case: Keiko stood alongside her father throughout his government, taking on a prominent and highly visible role. Then, after his fall, in a decision that borders on masochism, she chose to continue in politics. Just as you might detest her father—though certainly not everyone in Peru does—by extension, you would have to hate her. But it’s not easy. Keiko is likeable, and perhaps it is this likeability that defines her.

Take this moment, for example: Keiko slips off her simple, high-heeled sandals and shakes the soles of her small, round feet. It is a summer Wednesday in Lima, humid and sticky at midday, as we ride in Keiko’s Japanese pickup truck. It is March 2007, before her father’s extradition from Chile, before his highly dramatic trial, before the damning testimony of dozens of his former colleagues. She left her office a few minutes ago, is heading now toward the poor outskirts of Peru’s capital. The truck’s windows are closed and the air conditioning very low, which allows one to appreciate a fulsome mix of body odors in the crowded truck: a chauffeur, two advisors, a journalist, and her. Keiko (sweet, floral perfume) sits barefoot, in the back, seeming so overwhelmingly good it’s touching: there’s something in the ordinary gesture of shaking her bare feet, with their perfect toenails, taking the white sneakers that sit on the floor—each with a sock rolled up inside—and pulling on those socks and sneakers as if she has done it a thousand times (and maybe she has done it a thousand times en route from her office to the slums), smiling all the while, as she peers out the window. This seems to be her natural state: Keiko always smiles, even when confronted with the view outside, these poor fringes of Lima, the brown desert hills dotted with unfinished shacks. She smiles. Here it is.

Keiko had just turned nineteen when her parents separated, and she, the oldest of four children, was named First Lady. It was 1994, two years after Alberto Fujimori dissolved Peru’s Congress and arrested several of his political rivals. His detractors called this first fit of dictatorial whimsy the auto-golpe, or “self-coup.” Keiko was two years out of high school, where she was affectionately known as Chinita. Her father, of Japanese descent, was El Chino and she, the first-born daughter, La Chinita—”little Chinese girl.” Her precocious political career had begun: Keiko was the youngest first lady in South America. In the next six years, she attended private meetings with the King and Queen of Spain, smiled and was congratulated by Hillary Clinton, carried and kissed children at leper colonies, and, according to the Lima newspaper El Comercio, when Keiko visited shelters for AIDS patients, “she embraced the women gathered in a room… sharing, for a few moments, their pain.” Fujimori’s eldest daughter created charitable foundations, and learned the great lesson of her father’s political appeal, the secret that allowed him to remain popular even as he governed with an iron fist: Alberto Fujimori went directly to the people, danced with (and for) them, dressed like them, spoke like them, presented them with gifts. “A president like you,” was one of his most effective slogans. But all advertising is, at its essence, deceptive: by March 2007, the ex-president was fighting to avoid extradition to Peru for human rights violations and corruption charges. And so, it is his daughter, Keiko, who carries on. Now, in her position as Congresswoman, elected in 2006 with more votes than any other candidate in the history of Peru, it is Keiko who heads to the poor areas of Lima—the real world, where Keiko Fujimori is popular, likeable. This is not a minority opinion. Some might not like her, but many—most, in the real world where the battles of Peruvian politics are won and lost—think differently. “When I see her, my hair stands on end,” one photographer told the press. “I can’t stand her. With such a sweet face, she must be hiding something. Something in her doesn’t sit well with me.”

That may be so, but now, as Fujimori’s daughter she steps from her pickup truck, dressed like an executive in white sneakers, everybody loves her.

She is visiting the Vaso de Leche (“Glass of Milk”) Organization, a kind of community cafeteria, in Villa El Salvador, a large working-class district in southern Lima. A few weeks before, the president of this women’s group sent Keiko a letter asking for only one thing: a little gas stove as a gift for the organization’s anniversary. At first, she didn’t believe that the Congresswoman would even read her letter, but after a short while, she got an answer.  Keiko Fujimori would not only give them a little gas stove (with one burner), but, the letter announced, she was to make the gift in person.

Everyone who works in Keiko’s congressional office knows that all letters, no matter what they ask for, must be answered. It’s the Congresswoman’s order. Whether the response is a yes or a no is almost beside the point: what matters is an answer, what matters is that the people feel she is listening. Keiko’s office receives an average of 400 letters each month, some containing requests that don’t seem intended for a Congresswoman, but for some a miraculous, imaginary entity like Santa Claus: Dear Congresswoman Fujimori, I want a vacation. I want money to hire an orchestra for my nephew’s party. I want a dress for a Sweet 15. I want a little gas stove.

“Since I’ve been in Congress,” Keiko told me a few moments before arriving in Villa El Salvador, “I have helped a lot of people, donating things like stoves and, at Christmas, hundreds of toys for children.”

And though Keiko does it all with a smile, one never knows if this image she projects is natural, or part of a carefully fabricated scheme to make people like her. Fujimori’s eldest daughter never stops smiling. Now more than thirty years old, Keiko still smiles like she did when she was fifteen, when her father was only a presidential candidate, when she might emerge from her house with a pitcher of juice and a plate of sandwiches for the journalists who were keeping watch outside. With time, Keiko’s smile turned into the trademark of her personal image. She exchanges looks with someone in the middle of the street, and smiles. She sees you from a distance, lifts her hand, greets you, waving her fingers, and smiles. During her campaign for congress, a popular television talk show host asked her about the relationship between Vladmiro Montesinos, the legendarily-corrupt mastermind of the Fujimori regime, and her father—and the former president’s first-born daughter smiled.

Now she gives away a little gas stove, and smiles.

In Lima alone, there are at least ten squatters’ settlements named after her, founded when Keiko was First Lady. It was thought her name might serve as protection from eviction. If you named your neighborhood after the president’s first-born daughter, who would dare remove you from the land? Even now, no one in “Keiko Sofía”, a settlement in the district of Callao, seems to complain about the name. “She’s an admirable woman, very down-to-earth,” says one resident.

Wherever a reporter asks, “What do you think about Keiko Fujimori?” the answer comes back like a refrain. From her old high school, one voice says, “She was a good girl, studious. She was kind to me.” It’s not the principal or one of her teachers who says this, but Paulina Priona, a woman who has sold candy outside the school since 1983. “I’ve helped a lot of people,” Keiko Fujimori had explained to me en route to the Vaso de Leche Organization, as she put on her balled-up socks and white sneakers.

Maybe it was the truth.

Keiko explains: “I pass the word on to people with money, and I ask them to collaborate with me,” she says. “For me, this work as a Congresswoman is very interesting, as long as I don’t lose touch with the people.”

She visits the poor, struggling neighborhoods of Lima, and doesn’t call the press. Journalistic coverage might consist of a single newspaper article the next day, but Keiko is looking at the long-term. Not that she will necessarily admit it. If you ask her, “What are your goals after your five year term in Congress?” she won’t answer, “A run for President.” No, she’ll never say it. Even now, in 2008, when her father’s judicial situation is looking bleak (making him a candidate for the sort of pardon only a president can grant…); now when she has formed a new political party to campaign for the 2011 elections, Keiko still denies she is interested in the presidency. She claims she will be returning to New York to finish her studies, and will not admit she is planning a run for the presidency of Peru. She used to deny any further political ambitions by saying, “I want to finish my Master’s and be a mother.”

She has given birth to a daughter, (Kiara Sofia, born last November) and will soon be completing her studies—so what’s standing in her way?

When Keiko was the nineteen-year-old First Lady, she would say, “One day, if I am president, my first obligation will be to look after the children, but first I have to gain experience.” Now that she is gaining that experience, her career unfolds as her father’s did, with visits, gifts, and positive rumors—a strategy, in marketing, called word of mouth. The neighbors talk among themselves; the children in the soup kitchens hear legends about the smiling Keiko; and this goodness, calculated or not, multiplies among voters: it is “The little stove strategy,” as the editor of an important Peruvian newspaper called it. Give away a stove, and you will conquer. It’s a strategy that, in practice, could win a solid electoral loyalty. Although Fujimori’s daughter – as she insisted on the way to the Vaso de Leche Organization – doesn’t want to be president of Peru. Not anymore. Keiko Fujimori asks one of her advisors:

“The woman whom we’re going to visit knows we don’t have much time, right?”

“Yes, Keiko, I already spoke with her,” the advisor says.

“And what is it that they’re celebrating?” the Congresswoman asks again.

“The anniversary of their community kitchen.”
“And the name, what is it?”

“It is the District Organization of the Vaso de Leche Committees in Villa El Salvador.”

“And who am I going to speak to?”

“With the president of the organization.”

Keiko wants to be prepared. Errors are not allowed. According to some who have known her since childhood, she has always demonstrated a desire to have everything under control. When she was chosen for her high school’s volleyball team, Keiko aspired to perfection in the sport. Kenyi Gerardo, the youngest of the Fujimori children, said this might seem a small challenge, but his sister, five years older, simply did not allow herself to fail. Her father was not yet President of Peru, and Sachi Marcela Fujimori, the second-youngest of the siblings, helped her train inside the house.

“Kei was the one who taught me how to play since I was little, and she slaughtered us,” Sachi Fujimori says, laughing, a few months after her sister was elected to congress. “But when I complained, she would tell me that was how I would learn.”

Once her father was elected president, Keiko practiced volleyball in one of the patios at the Government Palace, forming six-person teams with her best friend from school, Wendy Takahashi, and the bodyguards entrusted with the president’s children. Celmira Sánchez, who worked on this security detail from 1991 on, says that, at the beginning, her colleagues felt uncomfortable playing with the daughter of their “boss.” But with time, it was they who initiated the games. Everyone in Palace security adored the oldest daughter. “I would give my life for Keiko, not once, but a thousand times,” Celmira Sánchez now says. She left the job when Alberto Fujimori resigned his presidency by sending a fax from Japan, and the First Lady and oldest daughter had to abandon her post.

Karla Odesso, a former classmate of the Congresswoman, lives in Miami. Now, over email, she remembers that every Monday during their senior year in high school, the students were supposed to bring a newspaper article to discuss with the rest of the class. Usually no one completed the assignment, but Keiko Fujimori bailed out her classmates, always bringing more than one news item. “If it was something that referred to the Government Palace, the whole class would laugh and tell the teacher it wasn’t fair, since she lived there,” Odesso said. Another classmate Oscar Alvardo tells of being the target of cruel and jokes public humiliation during school. “But,” he says, “Keiko never stopped talking to me like so many others did.” Franco Torterolo, who also studied with Fujimori’s daughter, says she was the most likely to help her other students with difficult classes like math. “She liked to help, she was known as brainy, intelligent. I remember Keiko like a little Asian robot,” says Torterolo. Wendy Takashi, her best friend remembers those late night study sessions, when she would fall asleep on floor of Keiko’s carpeted bedroom among textbooks and papers, only to wake in the early morning to find that Keiko was already up and studying. On many occasions, it was the President himself who would find Keiko up late studying and would advise her to go to sleep. One night, a few months after her wedding in 2004 to Mark Villanella, an American businessman of Italian descent, Keiko asked him what she needed to do to be the perfect woman. He replied, “Stop smoking.” Fujimori’s daughter promptly bought patches and nicotine gum, and a short while later had stopped smoking for good.

“I don’t remember a time that my father didn’t instill in us that we needed to be better than the rest,” says Keiko Fujimori. “There was no reason for me not to be.”

In Villa El Salvador, Keiko’s driver is about to circle the same block for the seventh time. He’s lost, and outside everything looks the same. The un-asphalted streets have no names, and the houses have no numbers. The chauffer has stopped to ask for instructions. When he rolls down his window, a few flies flutter into the car. Keiko’s assistants rifle nervously through their notes, looking for some scrap of information that might help them find the office of the Vaso de Leche. Keiko looks out the window, and nothing seems to bother her—not her anxious assistant, not the increasing heat, or the flies buzzing around her. A Marc Anthony song comes on the radio, and Keiko hums along, now and then checking the time on her cell phone and glancing at her assistants, humming all the while. Keiko doesn’t like to be late; she is always one of the first to arrive at the Congressional office each morning, and if she ever makes you wait even five minutes, she apologizes profusely. So now, she is starting to get uncomfortable, though she doesn’t necessarily show it. She suggests they call the woman accepting the stove. Her assistants comply, and a while later a moto-taxi has arrived to guide the Congresswoman to her destination. Keiko is sweating now, but her usual smile has returned.

She doesn’t wear makeup, or rather she only wears the bare minimum. She doesn’t wear stylish clothes, and she’s worn her hair the same way for years. Still, whenever she’s seen in public, she arouses the sort of frenzy a movie or rock star might. People point and stare, scream, and even attempt to touch her. When she speaks at political rallies for her party, many supporters weep.

In Villa El Salvador, Keiko takes another bite and drinks Coke while the president and four other members of the Vaso de Leche explain the problems they have had to overcome. Keiko listens intently as her assistants take notes. A table had been set for them, but they are standing. Keiko had told her staff that afternoon that they couldn’t stay very long after donating the stove, so Keiko’s assistants push the conversation along with phrases like “we’ll look at that later,” and “we could talk about that at the Congresswoman’s office.” All the women want their pictures taken with Keiko, and one of them shouts, “Let’s see the stove!”, but of course, neither the stove or the photographs will be the only proof of this visit: by now, word has spread that Alberto Fujimori’s daughter is in the neighborhood. The women present at the event have committed to reporting the news of Keiko’s visit to the members of the local Vaso de Lecho program—more than ten thousand women in Villa El Salvador. They’ll boast about the Congresswoman’s visit, about the donation she gave them in person, wearing her simple white sneakers. And this is the kind of publicity that really matters.


[Tune in for Part 2 on Wednesday. Meanwhile, read the article in Spanish.]

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