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Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Big-Budget American Remake 

We were reading our hometown paper this morning when a subhead caught our eye: In Peru, bribes were bigger for media barons than for judges. The story to which it was attached is entitled "How to Steal a Democracy," and it will seem, in its outlines and many of its particulars, distressingly familiar; the authors are too canny to draw the obvious parallels, but if you're looking for a good time, go through the article, strip out the names of Peruvian politicians and substitute those of their Washington counterparts. We cannot help but think that this sensational tale of banana-republic hijinks -- properly recast -- would play like gangbusters right here in the good ole U.S. of A.:

In the 1990s, Peru was run, in the name of President Alberto Fujimori, by his secret-police chief, Vladimiro Montesinos Torres, who methodically bribed judges, politicians and the news media.

Montesinos kept meticulous records of his transactions. He required those he bribed to sign contracts detailing their obligations to him. He demanded written receipts for the bribes, and he had his illicit negotiations videotaped. Meanwhile, Montesinos and Fujimori maintained the facade of democracy -- the citizens voted, judges decided, the media reported -- but they drained its substance.

The size of the bribes indicates how much Montesinos was willing to pay to buy off those who could have checked his power. The typical bribe paid to a television-channel owner was about 100 times larger than that paid to a judge, which was about the same as that paid to a politician. That's because television was the most forceful of all the checks and balances on the Peruvian government's power . . . .
Fujimori appointed Montesinos his adviser and ad hoc head of the Servicio de Intelligencia Nacional, the national intelligence service. Montesinos had had a checkered career. Starting out as an army officer, he was expelled from the army on charges of selling secret documents to the United States; then, in the 1980s, he had been a lawyer for Colombian drug dealers.

Fujimori claimed two major early successes: ending the terrorist insurrection, and sparking economic growth. Mario Vargas Llosa, the novelist who had been the losing presidential candidate in 1990, noted, "Fujimori was very popular. Though dirty things were going on -- torture, killings and corruption -- his image was of a strongman who would defend people against the terrorists."

In 2000, it all unraveled after one of Montesinos' videotapes was broadcast on television. Montesinos was seen paying opposition politician Alberto Kouri $15,000 per month to switch sides and support the president. Other videotapes were subsequently broadcast, becoming Peru's own distinctive form of reality television.

The tapes, which came to be called the vladivideos, revealed the breadth of Vladimiro Montesinos' reach. They showed him offering Alipio Montes de Oca, a Supreme Court justice, the presidency of the National Elections Board plus an extra $10,000 monthly salary, medical care and personal security; bribing Ernesto Gamarra, a member of a congressional committee investigating Montesinos' sources of money, to direct the investigation away from Montesinos; and assuring the owner of Lucchetti, a Chilean pasta company, of a favorable judgment in a legal dispute over construction of a factory . . . .

The politicians' bribes were mostly between $5,000 and $20,000 per month. Bribes went not only to opposition congressmen but also to Fujimori's Cabinet . . . .

El Tio, a tabloid newspaper, got an incentive contract, being paid over about two years a reported total of $1.5 million based on content: $3,000 to $4,000 for a front-page headline, $5,000 for a full-page article and $500 for a shorter article.

In an attempt to discredit the journalists who dared investigate the government, the tabloids carried hundreds of stories defaming them with bizarre labels: "a mental midget," "a she devil," "undercover terrorist," "paid coup provocateur."

Among television channels, one was state-owned, Channel 7, and Montesinos had control over its content. The five privately owned television broadcasters, Channels 2, 4, 5, 9 and 13, were bought off, as was a cable service, CCN. One alone offered independent investigative journalism: the other cable channel, Channel N, owned by El Comercio. (It was on this channel that the Kouri videotape that brought everything down was first aired) . . . .

Montesinos exerted control not only by bribery but sometimes by blackmail. He would obtain video proof of sexual indiscretions and use these tapes for persuasion . . . .

The difference between the news media and the other checks and balances in a democracy is that television, by informing the citizenry, can bring forth the ultimate sanction of citizen reaction. In the absence of citizens' oversight, there would be little to prevent the government from buying off politicians and judges.

"The addiction to information is like the addiction to drugs," Montesinos declared. He considered information the basis of his power. "Here you feel the need for information. ... We live on information. I need information."

He tapped the telephones of enemies and of allies. On a wall of his intelligence service office, 25 television screens showed scenes beamed live from hidden cameras in the presidential palace, the Congress, the courts, downtown Lima and the airport.

Information was needed to identify opportunities and to ensure deals were kept. He carefully monitored the media's news reports to verify that the owners did comply with what they had agreed.

What political harm came from what has been called the Montesinos virus? "The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive and judiciary, in the same hands," said U.S. Founding Father James Madison, "may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny."

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