December 12, 2013
For the Herald
THE HAGUE — Arthur Koestler remarked that it does not take long for the walls of a prison cell to come alive with a prisoner's vivid hallucinations. If that is the case, then we can only assume that the high security confines of a naval base in Peru have been reconfigured with some of the greatest scenes of delirium in penitentiary history. For there, on the damp concrete, with maybe a slit of window giving access to a sliver of Pacific mist, Vladimiro Montesinos is free to live and relive his time as all-knowing emperor, the godhead of intelligence, the Sun King of darkness.
To many outside Peru, Montesinos may resonate only, if at all, as a name of some importance from over a decade ago — the intelligence chief to the country's disgraced president, Alberto Fujimori, who also happens to have been incarcerated. By now there is a shelf of books on their deeds, no doubt gathering dust in respectable university libraries. Since his arrest in Venezuela in 2001 on the heels of an international manhunt, Montesinos has occasionally left his cell, visited the courtroom — for there are numerous trials to face in Lima — and proceeded to resume communion with his blank dank cuboid.
Still, there has been a lot to ponder in those long hours tapering off into decades. Where to begin? The 600 million dollars extracted by the arts of corruption, much of it still untraceable (some wilder estimates have put the pillage of Fujimori and Montesinos at seven billion dollars). Maybe the 20,000 guns that he intended to traffic to the Colombian guerrillas so as to sow chaos next door, and cement his place as the military strategic brain stem of the Western hemisphere; they were in fact the seeds of his downfall once the CIA learnt of the plan. Or, most pertinently, the 30,000 video recordings, the vladivideos, taped so as to record for future coercive gameplay all the pay-offs and bribes he employed against politicians, media bosses, business figures and judges.
It was the public showing of one of these videos, valiantly smuggled out of Montesinos' possession under a pall of dread and terror, which eventually triggered his exit. And although the rest of the world may have forgotten him, it is this legacy of compulsive secret recording of the rich and powerful that Peru seems unable to shrug off. For curiously, just as Europe and America digest the massive scale of digital intrusion into private lives mounted by the National Security Agency and its willing helper, the British GCHQ, Peru remains in thrall to a variation on the theme: it does not record its people, but tapes the heart of the state.
So, just as President Obama a week ago reticently outlined a minor rejigging of the control mechanisms over the NSA's vigilance of everything, Peru was experiencing one more ripple of its sinister past. An audio recording has caused a scandal by seeming to show the former Supreme Court chief justice and Justice minister (now the prime minister) reaching a deal with the judge handling a highly sensitive case, one that these officials feared would cause great embarrassment for Peru. The case in question involved the extra-judicial execution of guerrilla fighters involved in the traumatic 1997 Japanese embassy siege in Lima. A ghostly smirk seems to hang over the whole affair: Montesinos, of course, was one of the accused.
Now everyone in Lima with a foot in politics, law or business seems to fear the clandestine recording device. I recently sat in the office of a senior prosecutor, who preferred to switch on the radio as we discussed certain delicate issues — matters that lost some of their edge as Peruvian ballads of love and loss drifted from the woofers.
In fact, it is interesting to consider whether President Obama's frostiness regarding the NSA affair and Edward Snowden's legal plight, or British Prime Minister David Cameron's outright indifference to both, may come down to a bit more than affection for counter-terrorist snooping. A year ago, as the Leveson inquiry into press ethics was poking around the liaisons between the tabloid press, police and the political elite, several of Cameron's text messages saw the light of day. Chummy and just a little bit flirtatious with Rupert Murdoch's arch-lieutenant Rebekah Brooks, the mention of these texts caused Cameron, who is already roseate in complexion, to generate enough hot blood for a proper blush before the judge.
Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, has had it considerably worse. His own loose thumb on the smart phone has revealed itself to be mightily sympathetic toward the Popular Party's former treasurer Luis Bárcenas, currently remanded in custody after a number of well-furnished Swiss bank accounts were found in his name. Prospects of a resignation were only dampened by the urgent need to keep ailing Spain stable and afloat.
No one who supports transparency and integrity in public office should regret either revelation; both Cameron and Rajoy's texts in fact resulted from full judicial investigations, and were thus released in the public interest. But these and other cases across Europe and America, of politicians and ministers caught swapping texts, dirty photos or compromising salutations, pixelated or not, have become essential nutrition for the breaking news agenda and titillation of the day — just as the vladivideo in its turn dominated the way Peruvians came to regard their rulers.
Openness in state affairs is infinitely superior to its opposite. Constant communication from high office has also become the staple of democratic popularity: the simple message of Spanish campaign guru Antonio Solá is to keep on talking. Yet this swirling gale of recorded words and signs is also likely to make the human beneath the politician just a little resentful of the hordes craning into his or her soul. Could it be that this explains the inclination to give voters a taste of the same? Do the walls of a cell in Peru echo to the sound of smug laughter?