LIMA, Peru—Peruvian pro-lifers agree that hardly any government could be worst for the cause of life and family than the recent regime of Alberto Fujimori.

In fact, during his 11-year term, Fujimori's government legalized sterilization, promoted the toughest birth-control campaign in Peru's history and approved a controversial “sex education” program. And its campaign of forced and sometimes deadly tubal ligations among poor peasant women prompted harsh criticism from the U.S. Congress, several human rights groups, and even from some feminist organizations.

President-elect Alejandro Toledo, who was a key player in the process that finally ousted Fujimori last November, has tried to make a fresh start, distancing himself as much as possible from his predecessor since being elected president in a June 3 runoff election. Toledo has strong U.S. connections, having left the impoverished port village of Chimbote at the age of 16 to study at the University of San Francisco on a scholarship, and subsequently to obtain a doctorate in economics from Stanford University.

Some Peruvian pro-lifers reacted with satisfaction when Toledo, instead of receiving the greetings of the Peruvian bishops at home after his victory as is customary, decided to visit the Peruvian bishops' conference and talk to its permanent council, which was holding its regular session at the time.

Immediately after the hour-long meeting, the bishops' conference issued a press release stating that the meeting “served to initiate a dialogue with the new president-elect, establish channels of communication between the Catholic Church and the new government, and to face, together with all Peruvians, the problems that affect our homeland.”

A bishop present at the meeting said that the president of the conference, Bishop Luis Bambarén of Chimbote, raised the issue of the sterilization program as a way to politely probe Toledo on his own position.

In various moments during Bishop Bambarén's explanation, the president-elect clearly nodded expressing his agreement, a gesture that was later interpreted as “very positive” by Bishop Bambarén. But the bishop consulted by the Register noted that “Toledo did not express any comment, much less a commitment [to prevent further abuses] in this matter.”

Added the bishop, “He instead talked clearly about joining forces with the Church in fighting poverty.”

Catholic Advisers

Still, many bishops as well as several pro-life leaders have expressed optimism over the fact that two strong, outspoken Catholic politicians are among Toledo's closest advisers.

One is Carlos Ferrero Costa, a founder of the Christian Democratic Party in Peru who is slated to become the next Speaker of the Peruvian Congress. Ferrero was one of the few politicians to openly oppose Fuji-mori's legalization of sterilization.

The other is Luis Solari de la Puente, a convert and a highly regarded surgeon who until very recently was a member of the Pro-Life Commission of the Peruvian bishops' conference.

Solari was crucial in making known worldwide the brutal consequences of Fujimori's sterilization campaign. For this and other services paid to the Church, he was awarded the “Pro Ecclesia et Romano Pontifice” distinction by Pope John Paul II in 1998.

Solari is the secretary-general of Toledo's Perú Posible party and is a key member of the president-elect's entourage.

But other pro-lifers are much less optimistic about what could happen with Toledo on life and family issues. Dr. Raúl Cantella, one of Peru's top AIDS experts and a colleague of Solari's at the Pro-Life Commission, warned that Perú Posible has many more supporters of birth control and “sex education” than pro-lifers.

Cantella, who unsuccessfully ran for congress in Peru's last general election, cited the influence of Toledo's Belgian wife, Eliane Karp. “Karp has made clear that she favors birth control, abortion and the approach to ‘gender issues’ shared by European nations,” Cantella said.

He also said that Solari withdrew from Perú Posible after registering strong objections to the fact that the party's platform included several items referring to population control and “sex education.”

Cantella said Solari returned to the party only after Toledo personally assured him that such programs would be eliminated from the government's agenda.

Cantella's account could not be confirmed by Solari, who was not available for comment because he was coordinating trips to the United States. and Europe that Toledo will make before assuming office July 28. As well, Perú Posible spokesman Jorge Toledo said he was not in a position to confirm or deny it.

Another pro-life leader, psychiatrist Maíta García, also expressed concern about the influence that Karp and her feminist entourage might have. Karp has stated that she will not have a passive role during her husband's term, and has promised that she will focus on “women's issues,” a term many regard as a euphemism for promoting birth control.

Personal Questions

García also mentioned what she described as “Toledo's very weak personal credibility, especially in family issues.” Allegations persist that Toledo fathered a child outside his marriage and used his political influence to win a favorable judgment in a paternity suit.

Toledo has adamantly denied the girl is his, but he agreed to an out-of-court settlement allowing the child to bear his name and has refused to submit to a DNA test to establish paternity.

There are also clinical records showing he tested positive for cocaine after an extramarital hotel rendezvous with three women in 1998.

In what many observers viewed as being partly an indirect reference to these problems, Peru's bishops issued a post-election document stressing that “the root of the crisis affecting our country is of moral nature, which has a direct effect in the social, political, economic and legal fields.”

Said the document, “This situation demands now a commitment of the rulers and the ruled to work for the moral regeneration of our nation.”

Toledo has recently made overtures to Christians. Between the first presidential vote in early April and the June runoff against the runner-up, Alan García, Toledo started changing his references to the “Apus”—ancient Inca divinities—to references to “God” and even “Christ.”

And while Toledo went on vacation after the first vote to an exclusive resort in the Dominican Republic while García remained in Lima to participate in Holy Week celebrations, the Sunday following his June victory Toledo inaugurated a chapel at a shantytown in Lima and attended Mass. He even made his Jewish vice president, David Waisman, raise hands and join with him in praying the Our Father.

The unprecedented visit to the bishops' conference also fit with Toledo's efforts to project a more religious and moral image. But, many Peruvian pro-lifers warn, only time will tell if this new image is a reality or just a temporary political expedient.

Alejandro Bermúdez is based in Lima, Peru.