PRESIDENT ALBERTO FUJIMORI has earned the gratitude of law-abiding people everywhere -- not just in his own country -- for daring to use force to end a hostage-taking siege, the likes of which should not be tolerated by any government worthy of the name. His patience, his guile, his refusal to give in to the demands of terrorists culminated in a lightning strike that secured the freedom and saved the lives of 71 of 72 hostages held captive for four months at the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima.

Make no mistake, this was a rescue operation that could have ended in disaster instead of the brilliant textbook success it was. It could have soured Peru's relations with a hunkered-down Japanese government that is his country's greatest source of aid and investment. It could have undermined his own authority in a regime shaken by human rights scandals and its defiance of democratic practices. He took the risk and won.

Though his dictatorial tendencies make Mr. Fujimori something less than the perfect hero, except perhaps in some rightist circles, the ideological implications of the four-month struggle in Lima should not be overplayed. The Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, which seized the Japanese residence last Dec. 19, talks a vague leftism infused with revolutionary vows to take power and reorganize society. But what it really represents is a kind of nihilism for which its more extreme rival, the Shining Path movement, holds the patent.

Like countless other Latin Americans on the militant left, Tupac Amaru leader Nestor Cerpa Cartolini, who died along with 13 comrades in the Lima rescue raid, looked up to Cuba's Fidel Castro. Indeed, Mr. Fujimori's principal gesture toward conciliation was a visit to Havana to arrange safe haven for the guerrillas. The deal broke down when neither Mr. Fujimori nor Mr. Cerpa would budge on the issue of releasing some 380 Tupac adherents from prison.

The Peruvian president has undoubtedly strengthened his image both at home and abroad. He won a second term in 1995 after beating down the Shining Path uprising and by spurring economic growth through free market forces. Now he can win a third term -- and a more honored place in Peruvian history -- by ending the human rights abuses and arbitrary exercise of power that mar his record.

Mr. Fujimori's first task, however, is to secure his country from retaliatory acts threatened by what is left of the Tupac Amaru movement. "In Peru," he can declare with greater credibility, "there is no room for terrorism."

Pub Date: 4/24/97

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