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Sat. March 02, 2024
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IA-Forum Interview: Lilian Baeza-Mendoza
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International Affairs Forum: As you know, in April former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori was found guilty of human rights violations while in office, including ordering the murder of 25 people by a death squad called La Colina. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison by a Peruvian court. Do you believe that justice has been served? Lilian Baeza-Mendoza: It depends on whom you talk to. I believe that the conviction is justified, but that is my personal opinion. However, it is always important to see all sides of the argument. If you defend human rights, then of course justice has been served. But you have to understand that even though Fujimori has committed many atrocities, he still has followers. You must always put the person in the social and economic context. If you remember, when Alberto Fujimori came to power in the 1990s, he actually defeated Mario Vargas Llosa, who was a shoe-in for the presidency, and it was a surprise for everyone when Fujimori won. But he did win, and in spite of the techniques he used, he improved the economic situation in Peru. Many people in Peru do not forget that fact, and it is hard for a lot of people to accept his conviction. IA-Forum: Amnesty International described the Fujimori conviction as “a milestone in the fight for justice”. Do you agree with this categorization? Lilian Baeza-Mendoza: People have always been very careful, especially in Latin America, not to accuse anyone in power—whether that person has been democratically elected as in the case of Fujimori, or has taken power as a dictator like Augusto Pinochet. But this conviction has been a milestone because we can actually see the whole process, from accusation to prosecution to a result: that Fujimori is going to be condemned, that he is going to go to prison. In that case it is a milestone. Having said that, I still think there’s a long way to go; this is not the end. The most positive aspect of this whole affair, though, is that this concept—that people want justice to be served, that they want to punish those who have committed atrocities—is gaining momentum. In particular, it has become a significant component in the current mentality among Latin Americans. You probably know and have been reading that Latin America has been changing to a more politically-left continent; it is populist and it is all coming back to the idea of “our nation”. You can see this in action with Evo Morales and Hugo Chávez. These leaders are taking care of their own countries and saying let’s give a voice to indigenous people, let’s give a voice to farmers, let’s go back to our roots. And you see that change all over Latin America; another example of it is in Argentina and Chile where there are two female presidents. And because of this tendency for change, it is possible for these milestones to occur. That might not be the case in the future, but right now everything is gaining momentum. IA-Forum: The United States has an unfavorable reputation of propping up Latin American dictators in an effort to stem the spread of socialism, most notoriously in Chile with Augusto Pinochet. Yet the U.S. was instrumental in obtaining a conviction for Fujimori, submitting 21 documents in support of the prosecution. What could this mean for U.S.-Latin American relations, which have been undeniably strained in past years? Is the U.S. on the path to redemption in the eyes of Latin Americans? Lilian Baeza-Mendoza: Again, the answer to that question depends on your perspective. The U.S. has always intervened in Latin American issues; since the Monroe Doctrine - la doctrina Monroe - the U.S. has seen “America for Americans"—all the neighboring Latin American countries were its backyard. Accordingly, many Americans feel that if there is an issue in Central or South America or Mexico that might interfere with the peace in the U.S., they have the right and the responsibility to intervene. And that has been the excuse from the U.S. to act in Latin America—whether you approve of that policy or not, that has been the excuse. Sometimes the United States has done good things, and sometimes it has made mistakes. Based on the idea that Latin America is really changing and that there is a new U.S. president with new ideas, I would say that the United States’ role in the Fujimori conviction is positive. I think Latin America and the U.S. are now trying to walk the same path, and with that in mind, redemption is possible. Now, many people viewing the issues from an economic perspective are going to say that the United States has always been there for Latin America; whether we liked their methodology or not, they have helped us. It is important to note the differences in opinion, because while human rights advocates see the American assistance in the Fujimori case as a major stepping stone for U.S.-Latin American relations, economists will not give it as much credence. IA-Forum: This is the first time that a democratically-elected Latin American leader has been tried and convicted in his own country of human right violations while in office. What broader effect could this trial have for the rest of Latin America? For the world? Lilian Baeza-Mendoza: We can now say it is possible. It is possible to prosecute those in power; they are not all-powerful, they are not gods. I think that helps. It is a warning for whoever wants to continue in this pattern—and I can think of several people who may be tempted. There are the two examples that I mentioned before: Evo Morales, who wants to change the constitution of Bolivia, and Hugo Chávez, who wants to create the “new Colombia” that Simón Bolívar wanted to do years ago and make Latin America completely independent from North America. Based on this, yes, it can have repercussions. These leaders will have to think twice because they know now that they can be punished if they do something—punished not only domestically, but internationally. IA-Forum: Many analysts credit Chile’s government with beginning the judicial process against Fujimori by extraditing him to Peru in 2007. How much do you believe this extradition was affected by Chile’s own past, particularly in regard to former dictator Augusto Pinochet? Lilian Baeza-Mendoza: I think it has been greatly affected by Chile’s experience with Pinochet. Remember who is in power right now in Chile: a woman, Michelle Bachelet, whose family was hurt by Pinochet’s regime. There is certainly a small aspect of revenge. Bachelet openly despised Pinochet, most obviously when she did not give him the honors that he supposedly deserved upon death. And while I think that resentment is largely symbolic, it helped the Chilean government to take action and say maybe we could not punish Pinochet the way we wanted to, so let’s go ahead and use that for Fujimori. Yes, I think they are very much related. IA-Forum: Fujimori’s conviction and his extradition to Peru from Chile in 2007 bring up the concept of universal jurisdiction—that is, that all states have a moral obligation to prosecute an individual accused of heinous crimes such as human rights abuses. Do you think the Fujimori case is a breakthrough for a broader acceptance of universal jurisdiction? Lilian Baeza-Mendoza: I think so. And this is all possible because the conviction has the support of what is going on in Latin America and even in the United States. I do not think that it would be as important if this had happened in another time. But everything is gaining momentum, as I said before. If this had happened years ago, it would have just been a piece of casual news, not necessarily something that would change anything. Now, however, it presents a powerful message to those who would consider abusing power. IA-Forum: Fujimori’s daughter Keiko is currently the leading candidate for the 2011 presidential bid. She has asserted that one of her first acts as Peru’s president would be to pardon her father. Would a presidential win for Keiko Fujimori in 2011 be a significant setback for the human rights movement in Latin America? Furthermore, do you think Ms. Fujimori would have the political mandate to pardon her father without causing internal unrest in Peru? Lilian Baeza-Mendoza: That's a good question, and though we can always speculate, we do not know what is going to happen. Ms. Fujimori does have followers, and she might win in 2011; I’m not saying she will win because we do not know who she will be opposing. But she can use whatever her father did well in the past to her advantage—especially because of the international economic situation. Remember, the U.S. is suffering and therefore Latin America suffers. I do not think that success for Ms. Fujimori in the election would be a setback for human rights because I do not think it would be fair to make her pay for what her father has done. You can look at any family—sometimes the parents think one thing and the children think something completely different. That does not mean that people will not assume that she will be an imitation of her father; I personally, however, do not think that would be right. In terms of the other piece, do I think she would have the power to pardon her father? She would have the power, and I think she would gladly wield that power. And pardoning Alberto Fujimori would garner a very mixed reaction in Peru. I do not think everyone would be appalled. Many would protest the action, but others would stay quiet, especially if she is proving to be a competent leader. And if the discontent is contained within Peru, nothing drastic will happen; after a period of protestation, people will move on. Problems may arise, however, if the pardon receives international attention. Much would depend on how human rights organizations would react, and how Obama—or his successor—would react. If Obama pays attention to Ms. Fujimori and Peru, then everybody would pay attention. But if Obama is busy taking care of other things, then it might just be forgiven and forgotten. The subsequent upheaval all depends upon these factors. But Ms. Fujimori would definitely pardon her father, regardless of the potential consequences. IA-Forum: Don’t you think a presidential pardon for Fujimori would set a dangerous precedent in Latin America? Lilian Baeza-Mendoza: It depends, again, on the entire context. We cannot forget that Fujimori committed all these atrocities. But beforehand, he basically cleaned Peru from the chaos caused by sendero luminoso—Shining Path in English. Additionally, it depends on how Ms. Fujimori approaches the pardon. Actions can be good or bad, but depending on how they are presented, the reactions will be different. And with all that being said, if you just put it in the context of human rights, then I think it would be a dangerous precedent. But you never know how people are going to react. IA-Forum: Latin America has an unfortunate history of corruption in government. Do you think the Fujimori conviction will encourage a more “government-for-the-people” approach in Latin America? Lilian Baeza-Mendoza: I think this action contributes to something that is already happening. In Latin America we have key leaders who actually think that more government is better than less government. So this is already happening, and I think Fujimori’s fall contributes to that; it is not the cause, but it has undoubtedly contributed. And I see the tendency for “government-for-the-people” already. Remember what Evo Morales is doing with the Bolivian constitution. And Evo Morales and Hugo Chávez have even talked about assembling a Latin American military force. All of this, obviously, can only be accomplished through greater government presence in daily life and through more government control. IA-Forum: So if this Latin American military that you mentioned comes to fruition, do you think that the U.S. would perceive it as a threat? Lilian Baeza-Mendoza: I hope so. The basic goal of some of these leaders is to divorce themselves from the U.S., which is a very dangerous thing to do. Instead of working with the U.S., they want to act independently. So I would say that it is very much meant to be a threat. And I hope that Obama and his successor pay close attention to Latin America and its leaders’ actions. IA-Forum: Do you foresee stable future governments in Latin America? How can this goal be achieved? Lilian Baeza-Mendoza: In reality it would all depend on the economic situation. And I really think that means economics worldwide—specifically with the U.S. because it is considered the “big brother”. If the economy flourishes, then governments will be more controlled and organized. If the economy falters, however, I would be afraid that dictators would come to power again. And a resurgence of dictatorships would create more problems than ever before because those leaders would silence any opposition. My perception is that many of Latin America’s current leaders are considered very negative and very controversial in the international community. And by leaders, I mean Evo Morales and Hugo Chávez—those are the ones that lead, though the presidents of Chile and Argentina are also powerful. But what you have to understand is that they believe what they are doing is very patriotic and very nationalistic. If you view their actions and their rhetoric in that way, you begin to think that they might be working for a good cause. Maybe some of their methods are flawed, but they are working toward something that they consider worthwhile. The problem that I see in Latin America is that if you have a change based on resentment of the U.S. and punishment for past wrongs, I doubt the result will be positive. Maybe some people will get punished, but in the long run nothing will really change. I think the shift needs to be in embracing hard work and building—literally building—the infrastructure and economy. And that would only happen if everyone has the same agenda. So, at least in an ideal way, it all depends on how people think. IA-Forum: With the recent conviction in Peru, another of Latin America’s “dirty wars” has been exposed and some closure has been obtained. Are the series of “dirty wars” in Latin America over? What needs to happen for such human rights abuses to cease? Lilian Baeza-Mendoza: I don’t think they are going to be over. The past always recurs in the future—that’s the danger of Latin America. Culturally, these “dirty wars” have been happening throughout history. It is nearly impossible for these countries to say we are going to break this habit and we are going to change. It is similar to quitting smoking—people know it is a bad habit, but they cannot physically stop. So I do not think this is over. What needs to happen for it to be over? There needs to be a change in the culture. If the Latin American leaders focus on building together, without taking advantage of each other, without corruption and without being so thirsty for power, I think that is possible. And although it is likely, up to this point I do not see it. I think that Amnesty International and other NGOs like that are key because they are patrolling what is going on and paying attention to any abuses. And I think that should continue because it helps regulate violations. While I do not think that the Fujimori conviction and increased attention on human rights violations will stop Latin America’s “dirty wars”, I think it is a least the first step. IA-Forum: Thank you. Lilian Baeza-Mendoza is a professor of Spanish Language and Latino Cultural Studies at American University. She also serves as a translator for a number of nonprofit organizations in the Washington, D.C., area.

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