ROSARIO, Argentina — Never one to choose easy destinations for his foreign trips, Pope Francis heads to Chile and Peru later this month for his sixth visit to Latin America, and to say he’ll have to face a few challenges is an understatement.
Recent days have presented him with yet another challenge: A presidential pardon in Peru for former president Alberto Fujimori, who was in prison for a series of financial crimes and human rights violations during his term in the 1990s.
The decision was made by President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, three days after the party of Fujimori’s son refused to give congress the supermajority needed to impeach Kuczynski for allegedly accepting $5 million from Odebrecht, a Brazilian, scandal-plagued construction company.
The Brazilian giant has been accused of paying bribes to political leaders in several countries, including the United States, Peru, Angola, Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, México, Mozambique, Panama, Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Brazil.
Sine Kuczynski announced the decision to pardon Fujimori on Dec. 24, only two voices in Peru’s Catholic hierarchy have voiced an opinion, and both were unfavorable. Previously, several bishops in the country, including the cardinal of the national capital Lima, have been on record favoring an early release for Fujimori, a man many in the country, including Kuczynski himself still consider the best president Peru has ever had.
Now 79, Fujimori had been serving a 25-year sentence for human rights violations that a military death squad carried out under his watch, and also for financial crimes. Ahead of the pardon, an estimated 73 percent of Peruvians were in favor of it. One week later, amid a strong media campaign and protests in the streets, the number had gone down to 56 percent.
Federico Prieto, a Peruvian lawyer and journalist who’s long been following the Fujimori case, believes that around the pope’s visit, the polls will settle back to what they’ve shown for the past few years: For every person against freeing Fujimori, two are in favor.
Fujimori was extradited from Chile to Peru in 2007, when he was sentenced under different charges. However, Prieto told Crux, the sentence was invalid.
He gave several reasons, including the fact that the man heading the supreme court at the time had previously been removed from his post by Fujimori, so he should have recused himself and didn’t. Another is that among the charges brought by Chile, there was nothing about crimes against humanity, but they were added to the ruling, making them void.
Prieto also gave several reasons to support those who say Fujimori was the best president the country had, including defeating the terrorist organization Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), ending inflation that had devalued the Sol — Peru’s currency — so much that it was exchanged with the New Sol at a rate of a million to one, and resolving a long-lasting border conflict with Ecuador.
On the other side of the street is Archbishop Héctor Miguel Cabrejos, of Trujillo, who defined the pardon as a “political compromise” that’s putting the country’s institutions at risk.
The archbishop said that social peace can’t be built in Peru from a proposal of reconciliation that, “far from uniting, generates a bigger clash.”
Cabrejos’s words came through a statement released in late December. In it, he said he was “very worried” by the events, urging authorities to protect the trust that citizens have deposited in them.
“Peruvians have the right for our authorities to behave themselves with the truth, without hidden agendas or relativisms, and who in the exercise of their office, work based on the pillars of ethics, morality and the primacy of common good,” he wrote.
Bishop Ángel Francisco Simón Piorno, of Chimbote, was a bit more cautious, criticizing the timing of the pardon, if not the pardon itself. He considered the decision made by Kuczynski has destabilized the country.
“This wasn’t the right time to forgive Fujimori: Peru is destabilized and clashing, and Pope Francis will arrive in this scenario. For this reason, I worry his welcome will not be the same, amidst a national crisis,” Simón said.
He acknowledged that he wasn’t “surprised” by the pardon, but about the timing, echoing the sentiments that it was given as a political favor in exchange for allowing Kuczynski to stay in power.
“This is the impression that the people have. Hopefully, reality is different,” he said.
Simón also referred to the apology Fujimori issued from his hospital bed after leaving prison, which was released through social media.
“I am aware that the results during my government, on one side, were well received,” he said in the video. “On the other hand, I recognize that I have also disappointed other fellow Peruvians. I ask them to forgive me with all my heart.”
“Asking for forgiveness for the things that weren’t done right is not enough, but I believe he should have made explicit references to the deaths in La Cantuta, in Barrios Altos, which are the two most emblematic cases of his government and for which he was sentenced,” Simón said.
In 1991, 15 people, including an eight-year-old, were killed a military death squad in the Barrios Altos neighborhood in Lima. They were suspected members of the Shining Path.
In 1992, ten other suspected members of the Shining Path — a professor and ten students at Lima’s La Cantuta University — were kidnapped and murdered in the capital.
However, those who are in favor of Fujimori’s pardon are quick to note that the order he’d given to crack down on the terrorist organization Sendero Luminoso, specifically urged the military to put them in prison, calling for an end to the killings that were the preferred action of the previous president, Alan Garcia, who killed many more and “walks freely,” said Prieto, the journalist.
Despite his open defense of Fujimori, Prieto also acknowledged that he wasn’t completely without fault: The man Fujimori put in charge of the intelligence forces, he said, was “an evil genius.” The president was “probably informed after the fact of the killings,” but never replaced that man, Vladimiro Montesinos.
Videos showing Montesinos bribing congressmen forced him to flee the country and prompted Fujimori’s resignation.
Bishop Ricardo García, of Yauyos, president of the Church’s commission of Dialogue with Society of the local bishops’ conference, said that he sees a “clash” between the factions in favor and against the pardon, and that it’s hard to determine who’s working for whom.
He hopes Francis will be able to “calm things down,” urging dialogue and unity in a country that’s heavily divided.
“My perception, I live in a coastal and hill region, is that the people, beyond being in favor or against Fujimori, want peace,” he told Crux over the phone. “Him being in prison or free generates conflict, rage, and people are ready to move on, so people here are in favor. Not because they’re with him, but because they want to turn the page.”
The bishop, a member of Opus Dei, agrees with Pietro when it comes to the ongoing social crisis. Thousands have recently gone out to the streets to fight the presidential pardon, but they will most likely calm down by the time of the papal visit.
“Knowing our people, conflict will go down, because life goes on,” he said.
It remains to be seen where Francis will stand on the issue. The news could be reduced to what he does during the trip: Being the merciful pope – Fujimori is after all, an ill 79-year-old man who’s spent the last decade in jail- or the anti-corruption pope.
Also plausible, however, is that he’ll acknowledge the situation is much more complicated that it might seem, and decide to stay away, instead urging dialogue, peace and justice.