News24

From 'shoe shine boy' to President

2001-07-28 11:36

Lima, Peru - Alejandro Toledo says his training for his new job started when he was eight years old - shining shoes in the streets in northern Peru. He will be inaugurated as president on Saturday.

Toledo, who overcame poverty to earn a doctorate from Stanford University, said on Friday his top priority will be to improve the plight of Peru's poor in a country where only half of the labor force has steady work.

Remembering his early years in the streets of the northern coast city of Chimbote, Toledo told reporters: "It was at that age that I earned my first doctorate in economy."

Toledo, 55, became Peru's first freely elected president of Indian descent. He was elected for a five-year term last month in a close runoff with former President Alan Garcia. To get the job, he endured smear campaigns in a battle against the autocratic regime of ex-President Alberto Fujimori.

Toledo has never held political office

Toledo made an unsuccessful presidential run in 1995, and in May of last year withdrew from a presidential runoff against Fujimori, accusing him of planning to rig the results in a fraud-riddled election.

Fujimori fled in November to Japan, his parents' homeland, where he was granted citizenship as corruption scandals involving his ex-intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos ended his 10-year rule.

Toledo is scheduled to take the presidential sash from provisional President Valentin Paniagua around noon (1700 GMT) in Peru's Congress.

More than a dozen dignitaries plan to attend the ceremony, including 11 Latin American presidents, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick.

Many Peruvians, wary after years of Fujimori's demagoguery, where alarmed during this year's campaign when Toledo capitalized on his Indian heritage and poor background to present himself to Peru's poor.

He beckoned to supporters at rallies with outstretched arms while aides chanted over loudspeakers, "Pachacutec! Pachacutec!" the name of a 15th-century Inca emperor.

A pledge to respect democracy

But Toledo has pledged to respect the checks and balances of democracy, and fulfill his promises of a balanced budget and creating 2 million new jobs over the next five years.

"I admire Pachacutec for his capacity to integrate, unite and construct in difficult times," Toledo told radio station Radioprogramas on Friday.

He has enlisted the help of skilled technocrats to help steer Peru's economy out of its three-year slump, in part by lowering taxes to encourage consumer spending and business investment.

His finance minister is Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a former investment banker in the United States with important ties to international investors. Toledo chose as his prime minister Roberto Danino, an expert in international corporate transactions who worked in Washington for years.

His father said high school was a waste of time

Toledo was born in an isolated village in Peru's central Andes, the eighth of 16 children, seven of whom died in infancy. His family moved to Chimbote in search of a better life when he was 6.

He had to convince his father that allowing him to attend high school was not a waste of time.

Toledo won a scholarship to attend the University of San Francisco with the help of Joel and Nancy Meister, two American Peace Corps volunteers who arrived in Chimbote in 1964. He went on to earn a master's degree in economics and a doctorate in education from Stanford University.

"Even then he had a lot of charisma and people recognized that he was special," Joel Meister, 60, told The Associated Press. "He was very intelligent and very much concerned about social conditions in Peru."

The Meisters returned to Peru from Tucson, Arizona, to attend Toledo's swearing in.

"I can't imagine anybody who is in a better position to deal with the tremendous challenge," said Meister, now a professor of public health at the University of Arizona. "He's somebody who has very strong roots in poverty in Peru and he's also very well connected to the international financial community." - AP