Observer from Lima

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Peru's collective air rage

Peruvians love to tell visitors what's wrong with their country. Of course, if others find fault, it's a different story - particularly if they come from Chile, Peru's rival to the south.

So when it emerged last month that Lan, Chile's biggest airline, had shown an in-flight video depicting Lima as a squalid and dirty city with vagrants urinating in rubbish-strewn streets, the capital's residents were somewhat chagrined.

Lan claimed it had bought the video - meant to highlight "adventure" tourism - sight unseen from a company in California.

With an eye on next April's elections, Peruvian politicians lined up to express their indignation. Congress even hauled in Emilio Rodriguez Larrai'n, president of Lan's Peruvian subsidiary, to explain himself.

Lan apologised in full-page ads in Peruvian newspapers and sacked those responsible, but Ignacio Walker, Chile's foreign minister, aggravated tensions by saying Peru was whipping up a storm in a teacup.

Peru has called off trade talks with Chile, and a Congressional committee proposes to exclude Chile from investing in ports and airports. Carlos Ferrero, Peru's prime minister, has vowed to seek damages from Lan in court.

Lan is promising to make amends by making a new film that shows the colonial "City of Kings" in all its splendour. Observer suggests that this time any shots of tramps relieving themselves be edited out.

Walking for talks

The ongoing trade talks between the Andean countries and Washington aren't going too well and the strain between cabinet members is showing.

A final deal was supposed to be signed by Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and the US in January, but a new deadline of the middle of this year still looks hopelessly optimistic; there is new talk of an extension until September.

In the ninth and most recent round of talks, held in Lima, the head of the Peruvian team was left to address the media alone after Lucio Gutiérrez ) was ousted as president of Ecuador, prompting that country's team to walk out.

Peru desperately wants to secure a deal with Washington. But Lima is awash with rumours that Ecuador's new administration is about to withdraw, and that Colombia and the US are looking at how to proceed alone.

Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, Peru's widely respected finance minister, has one solution.

PPK, as he is known, recently suggested to Alfredo Ferrero, the minister of foreign trade and tourism, that he should hold a demonstration in favour of a trade agreement.

Besides raising the profile of the negotiations, the former Wall Street banker said that marching might also help the somewhat portly Ferrero to lose weight.

Ferrero, who despite his greater mass lacks PPK's gravitas, responded with a barbed reference to his older colleague's age: "It also helps keep you looking young," he said.

Cola politics

Alejandro Toledo, Peru's scandal-ridden president, has hardly captured the hearts of his countrymen. Polls consistently indicate he is one of South America's least popular heads of state; his approval ratings are just above 10 per cent.

So it is perhaps understandable that attention has shifted to the hopefuls jostling for position ahead of presidential elections next April.

Among them are two former presidents - Alan Garcia, who presided over the country's economic ruin in the 1980s, and Valentin Paniagua, whose main achievement is that as interim head of state he had little time to make too many mistakes.

But recent polls suggest two of the most popular candidates aren't even in the race.

Luis Castan~eda, the mayor of Lima, has publicly said that he won't be standing. The other name that tops some polls is Alberto Fujimori, the former president who won popularity for taming terrorism but whose administration collapsed while he was travelling in Asia in 2000. He famously resigned by fax.

Of Japanese decent, he claimed asylum in Japan and has never returned to Peru. The authorities in Lima are still paying lip-service to the idea of trying to persuade Japan to extradite him to face about 20 charges of corruption and murder.

But Fujimori has announced plans to launch his own soft drink - Fuji Cola - to "quench the thirst of popular discontent" and to raise funds for a possible return.

Revisionist history

Peru's Shining Path Maoist rebels were one of the most feared guerrilla groups in Latin America in the 1980s. But according to Oscar Ramirez Durand, a former commander in the organisation, they were run by a pussy-cat.

Ramirez Durand, Peru's most wanted fugitive in the 1990s, told a Lima court this month that Abimael Guzman, the Shining Path's founder, was not the fighting type. "Abimael Guzman is a coward, a crybaby, a farce, a despot and an alcoholic," he said. At least he inspired loyalty in his men.

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