Retrospective reflections on the April 5, 1992, Autogolpe in Peru

The following commentary was published in Spanish in Politai, an initiative of political science students in the Catholic University in Peru.

The autogolpe of April 5, 1992, was an important event, and not only for Peru. As a political scientist, I opposed the autogolpe and worried about how the concentration of executive power would undermine Peru’s democratic regime. I was always conscious, however, that assessing the autogolpe was not a straightforward matter. The question of whether the autogolpe was necessary and justified was (and is) open to multiple, reasonable interpretations. I was frankly much less impressed than many other observers by the fact that Fujimori won overwhelming support from the public, at least as revealed by public opinion polls and anecdotal evidence. There are many petty dictators who have enjoyed moments of glory in the eyes of the public, and some vicious criminal regimes have started with widespread approval. What impressed me was that the support for Fujimori was not only understandable but, arguably, reasonable. That is to say, the Peruvian public had many good reasons in the early 1990s to feel desperately besieged by the twin evils of Shining Path violence and catastrophic economic troubles.

Of course, like many others, I believed that the Shining Path was already in deep trouble even before Abimael Guzman was captured. That event was a colossal stroke of luck that seemed to retrospectively justify Fujimori’s actions. Nevertheless, I could easily see how so many Peruvian citizens desperately wanted to see the kind of energetic leadership in the executive branch of government that Fujimori seemed to offer. Fujimori seemed to have the interests of the nation at heart, and he also seemed was to take difficult decisions necessary to place Peru on another course—something that previous governments were unable to do. Whether in terms of the struggle against the Shining Path, or the management of the economy, Fujimori showed leadership even if one did not agree with his policies. Moreover, he was attentive to the needs of those who brought him to power, and while he made peace with the business community, the Church, and political elites, he did not forget that the key to his power was his strong connection to a broad swath of the electorate.

At the same time, it is critical that we not whitewash the Fujimori regime. Nobody who supported him can play innocent. It is not as if the Peruvian public did not know about the abuses and atrocities committed by the regime. The victims were not just collateral damage. The bodies that were left behind in the massacres in Barrios Altos and La Cantuta were not simply unfortunate casualties of an otherwise ruthlessly efficient strategy of counter-insurgency. They were very much the intended effects, and they were welcomed. I cannot remember how many arguments I had with friends and colleagues at this time. I would often as ask if Abimael Guzman’s human rights deserved to be respected. The resounding answer was “no,” and that says just about all you need to know to understand why Peru had a decade of unjust and illegal trials and other judicial abuses of power under Fujimori.

And so the paradox of the autogolpe was that it was an event that occurred within a functioning, albeit battered and badly discredited democracy, and it occurred with widespread backing from a beleaguered public; and yet it created a monstrous system in which fundamental rights and freedoms were abrogated and the abuse of power ran rampant, a regime that undermined the most basic principles upon which democracy rests.

The question that emerged was, in some ways, as old as political theory itself. Who guards the guardians? In a democratic context, this means “Who will protect democracy when the guardians (the people) are willing to allow a dictator to rule on their behalf?” My answer, which is the answer of virtually every serious thinker from Machiavelli to the present, is that you cannot surrender your democratic rights and freedoms without losing them. When the people are willing to turn a blind eye to injustice – nay, to aid and abet a tyrant in acts of oppression – then democracy is lost. I predicted that the Fujimori regime once established could not persist as a democracy, that ultimately it would fail, and there would be a transition to a new regime. That transition would not happen democratically. In this sense, the autogolpe simply serves as yet another in a very long line of stories (we could go back to the Gracchi brothers in Rome, to Hitler in the 1930s) that show us the simple truth of Lord Acton’s dictum: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

It is, perhaps, a testament to the lack of appreciation for the basic truths of politics that these ideas were so hotly contested in the 1990s. Every generation believes it has reinvented politics anew; every political community thinks it can defy the rules that govern everyone else. As a corrective, the autogolpe in Peru provided a sort of living laboratory in which to observe, yet again, the inherent danger in the concentration of executive power, especially when accompanied by broad public approval. It breathed new life into the discussion of constitutional underpinnings of modern democracy, and some of the best work on the autogolpe helped us to understand that there is more to democracy than elections. The autogolpe became a point of reference for the discussion of electoral authoritarianism, the idea that there can be elections (not free and fair, but not entirely meaningless either) in authoritarian regimes. In fact, some of the most robust authoritarian regimes we have known (like the PRI in Mexico) routinely hold or held elections. The difference between a democratic and an authoritarian system must be more than elections. And it is not just that elections have to be free and fair, which is no trivial matter, but that in order to attain this there are constitutional underpinnings of a democracy that must be respected.

For me, personally, the autogolpe induced in a sustained interest in the topic of the constitutional separation of powers. My research focused on the way in which the events of April 5, 1992, created a democracy without the separation of powers. This is, at least under conditions of modern mass society, an oxymoron. Here is why. In a democracy, the people form a self-governing community of free and equal citizens under the law. That, at least, is the ideal. In practice, the will of the people takes the form of the law, and the mechanism for translating will into law is the legislature. It is the job of the legislature to produce the general rules that, in the view of the lawmakers, correspond to some sense of the public good. It falls to the judiciary to interpret what these general rules should mean and how they apply in particular cases. In order for the legislature to be a genuinely representative body, that is to say, a body that speaks for the political community in a way that reflects both its diversity and its unity, it must be able to deliberate about what is right for all citizens in a general sense. The independence of the judiciary is the institutional guarantee of impartiality in the application of the law, and this requires freedom from political influence and meddling. Working together, a representative legislature and an independent judiciary provide the legal framework necessary to ensure that all actions by all government officials are in compliance with the rule of law – above all the actions of the state’s coercive agents.

The autogolpe disrupted this system, and replaced a dysfunctional, reactive, weakly representative legislature with an even weaker legislature that operated at the behest of the executive branch; and it transformed a corrupt and inefficient judiciary into a political instrument of executive rule based on provisional judges and politically controlled judicial committees. Such a system could function within a sort of institutional masquerade of democracy provided the key features that gave it internal coherence remained in tact, and as long as it did not have to deal with massive public opposition. But opposition only mattered to the extent that the regime was internally divided, which it was not until the end. It was not effective opposition that ultimately brought the regime to its knees, but the internal divisions that emerged once the intricate web of blackmail and bribery managed by Montesinos was exposed. It was this informal web of power that held the regime together after the constitutional framework was effectively dismantled. I say effectively dismantled because it is clear that Fujimori’s goal was never to create a robust constitutional order. He dismantled the constitution of 1979, but not to replace it with something better. Fujimori, in this respect, is not like Chavez or Morales, and certainly not like Gaviria. He did not seek to build a lasting constitutional order but rather to perpetuate himself in power.

We can learn a lot from the experience of the autogolpe of 1992. I believe that the main thing we should learn (or rather re-learn) is that democracy means not just the momentary and fluctuating expressions of the will of the people but a lasting commitment to living together in an egalitarian and law-based self-governing community. The laws should reflect enduring values and interests, a sense of what is generally just for all. Only when people learn to live together under laws that are just, both because they correspond to the will of the people and because have been formulated through democratic procedures that are inclusive and fair, can we properly speak of a self-governing community. And herein lies the biggest lesson of all. That a congress could be closed, and a judiciary purged and stacked, not only with impunity but also with the enthusiastic applause of the nation, suggests the degree to which the vital institutions of democracy lacked any public support. That is certainly a cautionary tale to heed as Peru and other democracies look to the future.

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