For a brief moment she was Peru's Hillary Clinton. Israeli born Eliane Karp Toledo helped her husband to depose Alberto Fujimori, but then she was accused of spending millions on flowers and shoes. First interview from her exile in the US

Eliane Karp Toledo

Sobering lessons

PUBLISHED IN |  Mar 30, 07

PALO ALTO, California – The living room of Eliane Karp Toledo’s home is a perfect setting for her contradiction-filled life. Almost nothing in it matches anything else. A wooden armchair upholstered in blue fabric with white dots stands across from a metal armchair with heavy leather upholstery. A massive, dark brown grandfather clock, like the kind one finds in antique shops, looks down on a bouquet of bold-red tulips, and artistic photographs in black and white are hanging adjacent to abstract paintings done with thick brush strokes.

The design is just right for Eliane Karp – the daughter of Holocaust survivors who fell in love with the Indians of America, the former member of the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair youth movement who worked for the World Bank, the pale-skinned redhead who married an Inca Indian. However, she points out, the decor is not her doing. This is only a temporary home; her real home is still in Peru. This house, in Palo Alto, was rented from a professor at Stanford University, where she and her husband, Alejandro Toledo, have been teaching since the end of his term as president of Peru last summer. The couple has a daughter named Chantal, who is in her twenties.

Karp is 54, but looks younger. Slim, with the body of an adolescent and no makeup, she goes back and forth into the study and removes more and more books and pamphlets from the two suitcases she took with her from Peru, to show what she and her husband accomplished there during his five-year term: a photograph with prime minister Ariel Sharon, taken during a state visit to Israel by the presidential couple; various graphs of Peru’s GNP and exports-imports; and innumerable photos of the “First Lady,” la Primera Dama de la nacion, in traditional Indian garb in the remote Andes Mountains.

She misses Peru, especially the visits to those mountains and the special relations she forged over the years with the Indian tribes. What she misses less is the white elite of Lima, the capital, the politicians and the owners of capital, who, she claims, did all they could to make her and her husband’s life miserable in the past seven years. In the end, life in the country she loves so much and where she lived for the past decade, became intolerable, and now she is living in a kind of voluntary exile.

“I did not run away,” she says in the first interview she has given since she and her husband left Peru, “but I wanted to live like every normal person. I wanted to be able to walk on the street without anyone recognizing me. Here I can wander about freely without any journalist chasing me. I was not born into a rich family, and I worked all my life. Now, too, I have to work, and in Peru I cannot work anymore. People are afraid to employ me, for political reasons. The people who are now in power want all the Toledos to disappear or die, so no one will remember that they ever existed. Only recently we learned that a few cleaning people who worked in the presidential palace were fired because their surname is Toledo, even though they have no connection with my husband. They are not even from the same village.”

Her political career began about 10 years ago. Before that she was a lecturer at Stanford and at the University of Lima, and worked for several international banks. In the early 1990s she lived in Israel and worked for Bank Leumi. When she returned to Peru in 1997 and joined her husband’s presidential campaign, she was compared by some to Hillary Clinton and Eva Peron: to the former because of her decisive opinions and political involvement, and to the latter because of her strong ties with the people. But readers of the Peruvian press in recent years would gain the impression that she is more of a double of Imelda Marcos – an ambitious, manipulative woman who was pulling the strings and maneuvering her husband, while spending vast sums from the state coffers on dresses, dog food and liquor. A commission of inquiry established by the Peruvian parliament is now investigating Karp’s activity during her husband’s tenure, and a few members of Peru’s Congress have called on the committee chairman to seek the aid of Interpol to call her in for questioning. Karp is wanted only to testify; it is her aides who are suspected of transferring the money.

Do you intend to go to Peru and testify?

Karp: “No. I have already said everything I had to say to the state comptroller there. He has it all written down. There is nothing new. This whole commission of inquiry is in the hands of the party that is in opposition to my husband (APRA). They have no verified information. They have nothing at all. They can make a lot of noise and shows in the media, but there is no truth in any of it. It is a political move against my husband and against me. He is the only president in the past twenty years who completed his term of office with a high percentage of public support. That is exactly what the current president, Alan Garcia, wants to erase from the public consciousness. He is wasting all his time on this affair and in inventing stories. There is no truth in any of the charges against me. There is not even one item of information that is correct. It is all invention. I am not a prostitute and I never was a prostitute, but how can I prove that? I have no way to prove it, if respected members of parliament come and say that. What can I do? How can I show the world that it is all made up, from A to Z?”

Are you concerned that Interpol will issue a warrant for your arrest?

“They can come and take me, you know. I am not hiding. It’s ridiculous. I teach every day at Stanford. There is no such thing as an Interpol arrest warrant. In any case, I think that outside Peru, the legal authorities need at least some proof.”

Members of Congress allege that during a four-month period in 2001-2002, you wasted $250,000 on clothes, visits to beauty salons and food.

“That is not true. They took all kinds of items that have nothing to do with me and put them together in order to create the impression that I spent that amount of money. Such as, for example, uniforms for all the members of the Presidential Guard for five years. That is one of the items included in the $250,000. Or, for example, food for the dogs that guard the palace. They also say I bought flowers. Yes, it’s true, I did buy flowers. Not for a quarter-of-a-million dollars, but it’s true that I bought flowers. Do you have any idea of the state the palace was in when we entered it in 2001? The previous president, Fujimori, did not live in the palace, but in the cellars of the head of his security service. The palace was in a frightful condition. There were cockroaches in the kitchen. Everything was filthy. In the first days we all got stomach poisoning. I may have bought flowers, but Fujimori bought drugs and weapons. That is the difference between us.”

Fujimori’s demise

Alberto Fujimori

Alberto Fujimori

A little background would be useful here. Alejandro Toledo was elected president of Peru in 2001, after two terms served by Alberto Fujimori in the 1990s. Peru was then without a doubt one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and the whole show was run by Fujimori himself and by his security chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, who was known as “Rasputin.” The two turned Peru into a country where everything and everyone had a price (“$6,000 for an item on the front-page,” Karp says), including judges, members of Congress and journalists. Before the elections in which Fujimori was defeated, thousands of video cassettes were found showing Montesinos’ people threatening politicians and extracting from them a commitment to support the president. Some of the tapes contained embarrassing scenes, such as visits to prostitutes and the use of drugs.

That wasn’t all. While Montesinos and Fujimori pretended to be cooperating with the U.S. authorities in the struggle against drug trafficking, the two actually played a central role in it in Peru. Peruvian mafiosi later related that Montesinos placed an airfield at their disposal, and on one occasion hundreds of kilograms of cocaine were discovered aboard Fujimori’s private plane. The two also collaborated in money-laundering, in arms sales and in the transfer of weapons to the Colombian left-wing underground group FARC. In 2003, when the Montesinos trial opened, it turned out that over the years he had lined his pockets to the tune of $200 million.

Concurrently, the two turned Peru into a full-fledged dictatorship, in which the lives of their political opponents were threatened, serious restrictions were imposed on the press, and hit squads were commissioned to carry out assassinations. Karp recalls with emotion the period leading up to the elections that her husband won, noting that the two of them were a key target for attack by Montesinos. As a former member of the Hashomer Hatzair movement – and having learned from her father, who fought in the Resistance against the Nazis, the duty to fight repressive regimes everywhere – Karp asserts that she would take to the streets again to topple Fujimori.

It was a nerve-racking experience. During the campaign her husband received no fewer than 117 death threats from the Montesinos camp, and Karp still remembers the threatening phone calls, along the lines of, “You don’t know who you’re messing with, so get out while you can.” At one of the numerous mass demonstrations in Peru in 2000 calling for Fujimori’s ouster, Karp was injured by teargas at short range and was dragged from the site by her friends.

Fujimori’s rule ended when, in an unprecedented act, he fled the country and submitted his resignation by fax from the plane. Toledo’s ascension to power was perceived in Peru as the opening of a new chapter and an opportunity to restore a little order to the chaotic and utterly corrupt country. Neither he nor his wife was a professional politician. He came from a small Indian village, from a poor family of 16. He had spent most of his professional life in academia and at the World Bank. Thus there was no better candidate than Toledo, who had not been sullied by the degenerate local politics, to clean up the mess.

Indian origins

Alejandro Toledo (photo: AgĂȘncia Brasil)

Alejandro Toledo (photo: AgĂȘncia Brasil)

Toledo opened his term of office by launching a broad investigation into the corruption that had afflicted the Fujimori period. The commission that probed his predecessor’s behavior listed no fewer than 1,400 senior figures as suspects in corruption, among them Supreme Court justices, members of the secret service, members of parliament, businessmen and owners of television stations. It was considered the most comprehensive investigation of its kind in the history of Latin America, a part of the world known for its corruption.

There was also another reason for the popular excitement: Toledo was the first president of Indian origin. It may sound obvious that in a country where more than 50 percent of the population is Indian, one of them should be elected president, but nevertheless nearly 200 years elapsed after Peru gained its independence before a member of the continent’s indigenous peoples stood at the head of the executive branch. And Karp was the winning card by his side. Commentators in Peru and elsewhere agree that Toledo’s election victory belongs to her in large measure as well.

“Without Eliane Karp,” Hernan Chaparro Melo, a leading pollster, said in 2000, “Toledo could not have produced a solid image to become an alternative to Fujimori.”

In this interview, too, Karp often uses the first person plural – as in “we accomplished” and “we were elected.” The fact that she stood by his side constantly, her charisma and rhetorical skills, and above all her command of the native Peruvian Indian language Quechua – which she learned during her professional work as an anthropologist – generated momentum in support for Toledo and imbued the two with a revolutionary image, as being ready to serve the interests of the people and not of the elites. It is precisely this, his wife explains, that also brought down their wrath upon her.

“I chose to confront the most painful issue in Peruvian society,” she explains, “namely the indigenous issue. This issue is highly sensitive for all of society, because it entails racism and the exclusion of more than half the population from everything democracy has to offer. It is simply untenable in the 21st century.

“I can understand the reaction of the elite and of the traditional parties,” she continues. “They had been running this game all along and had never succeeded in fomenting any change; they had not even tried to foment any change. Suddenly they saw two people, relative outsiders, telling them what to do. Alejandro is not like ‘one of the family’ in the traditional society of Lima. He comes from the mountains, and all his social ties and his education do not exist in Lima. And Peru is a very centralistic state. Everything is concentrated in the capital – information, education, economy. So, suddenly someone comes from outside Lima, particularly someone like Alejandro, who came out of nowhere, who had never before lived in Lima, and pops up and becomes president. The elite did not take this too well. I am referring to businessmen, judges, media people, everyone. There’s a certain number of families who think they control the country, and through the media succeed in controlling society.

“We told them that a major change needed to be carried out in society, that an attempt had to be made to integrate the indigenous people in a state of a new kind, one which would grant everyone the same benefits and make available equal opportunities for everyone. The traditional parties felt that it was all going to be done at their expense. There was a very strong counter-reaction, not by the indigenous people, but by the rest of society. Many people who do not belong to what is known as the opinion molders in society were delighted with these changes. I visited the villages all the time. I brought them vaccinations and I tried to establish schools and work on all kinds of projects. But I think everything that is different and arrives so with such force, is bound to create a very strong counter-reaction. Which is exactly what happened.”

As befits an ambitious, opinionated woman, Karp did not make do with the ceremonial status of the president’s wife. Toledo appointed her head of the National Commission on Andean, Amazon and Afro-Peruvian Communities. Her goal, she says, was to try to reduce the poverty among the indigenous people, revive Peru’s cultural and linguistic heritage, and act as a type of coordinator of various projects in this sphere. She proposed several laws, including the need to obtain the agreement of indigenous tribes to make commercial or scientific use of their nature reserves, and granting protection to tribes wishing to continue to remain isolated in the Andes or in the Amazon region.

As in other countries in Latin America, in Peru there is a direct connection between poverty and ethnic origin. Being an Indian generally is synonymous with being poor and uneducated; being white usually means being an urban dweller of the middle class or higher. The statistics are astounding: More than half the Indians in Peru have no access to clean water, and the homes of nearly 80 percent are not hooked up to a proper sewage system. About two-thirds of the Indians do not receive professional medical care or orderly education from the state. In this state of affairs, the word “citizen” is all but meaningless.

Karp tried to better the Indians’ condition in terms of education and health. She coordinated a visit by a number of Israeli physicians to operate on children with a split lip; she brought vaccinations against hepatitis and malaria to villages that had never seen a physician.

“We tried to bring to the center of the public discourse a subject which had never been addressed,” she continues. “Peruvian society is extremely conservative and very fond of the status quo. It makes no difference that we had a solid case – that the Indians are a very large part of the population, who live in shameful poverty and that we as a society are obliged to cope with this. It was very difficult for the elite to cope with this. I went on television often and tried to explain the situation of the Indians. They live so far away – I myself sometimes reached them in army helicopters. In some cases I met people who had never before seen people from the city.

“As I continued to deal with this subject, some politicians said I was causing Peru’s disintegration, that I was splitting the country into two, that I was stirring up old ghosts, as though they had ever been dormant. The problems that were generated by the Spanish conquest have never been resolved. The Spaniards came and took the best lands and the natural resources, and together with them the rights of the indigenous peoples. Since then, those peoples have simply been invisible. They do not exist, they have no opinion and no one asks them what they think. But if you say something is wrong, then other people are afraid that whatever else happens might be at their expense.”

Few days of grace

Machu Pichu (photo: Jose Luis Hitos)

Machu Pichu (photo: Jose Luis Hitos)

The Peruvian press did not give Karp many days of grace. Numberless reports and articles dealt with the redheaded woman who was constantly at the president’s side and with the gringa who had taken control of Peru. Newspaper cartoons portrayed her as a fat woman hunched over her husband, dictating his actions. Psychoanalysts were called upon to analyze her character and her past. Thousands of rumors circulated about her past and present lovers. (“I only wish I had had so many lovers,” Karp says, laughing. “No, not really – that would only have caused more trouble.”)

Karp believes that in addition to her and her husband’s preoccupation with the Indians, there were certain elements in her character that sparked such great fury. “A woman in Peru has to be pretty and smiling. The first rule is ‘Be pretty and shut up.’ And I, as you must have noticed, am not exactly a ‘good Jewish girl.’ They expected that I would not express any opinions, that I would only be there. Maybe I was supposed to take part in tea parties and cocktail receptions. None of that happened, of course, and that was hard for them.

“It’s hard to be a woman in Latin American society,” she continues. “A member of Congress told me that a law should be passed to prevent me from expressing an opinion. People also complained often that I was a foreigner. But I am not a foreigner: I have Peruvian citizenship from my marriage to Alejandro. There were also people who told my husband that they would stop supporting him if I went on talking.”

But you really are an outsider.

“Yes, but we were elected – 53 percent of the population voted for us. That was a clear mandate for change. We had a commitment to our voters. And if other people didn’t like it – fine, that was their problem. That’s the whole idea of democracy.”

Was the opposition to you due to the fact that you are Jewish and white?

“I think that a woman who came from the outside, no matter what her color, would not have been accepted well. I think that what they didn’t like was the role I played. It’s not my name or the way I look. It’s the type of woman I am. In Latin American society there is the ideal of the woman who sits quietly and waits to be subdued. The male establishment doesn’t like aggressive women who have ideas of their own.”

Do you consider yourself an aggressive woman?

“Intellectually, yes. Very much so. I also do martial arts, specifically Korean Taekwondo, though it goes without saying that I never used it outside the training arena. In Peruvian society I am perceived as aggressive. I think that in a society of this kind there is something very provocative in me.”

The ‘illegitimate child’

One of the episodes that weighed heavily on Toledo and Karp was that of the “illegitimate daughter.” On the eve of the 2000 elections, a 13-year-old girl named Zarai stated on Peruvian television that her biological father, the presidential candidate Alejandro Toledo, was denying his paternity. The girl also demanded that they both do a DNA test to determine his paternity. It is now known that the hosts of the television program who gave Zarai a platform to state her case received a large payment from Montesinos, who at the time was still pulling the strings. The goal, of course, was to adversely affect Toledo’s chances in the presidential race.

However, in 2002, Alejandro agreed to recognize his paternity. In the afternoon of October 17, 2002, Toledo met with Zarai and her mother in a Lima church, in the presence of lawyers from both sides. Toledo signed a document recognizing Zarai as his daughter and agreed to give her $100,000 and place at her disposal an apartment in Lima. “It was due to political pressure,” Karp now says of the episode. “The Montesinos people wanted to use it as an instrument to topple him.”

So she is not his daughter?

“We don’t know. The woman in question is not exactly the Holy Virgin. We do not know whose girl this is. My husband decided to put an end to this matter. She wants a father? Fine. After all, what she wanted was for someone to pay for her. Her mother wanted someone to take care of her daughter. They claimed to have proof of the father’s identity, but they never showed any proof. Obviously, if they had had some sort of proof, they would have shown it publicly. But that was their strategy – to set rumors in motion – and then, go prove that your sister is not a whore.”

How badly did this episode hurt you?

“It is very hypocritical. The current president, Alan Garcia, was caught a few months ago in exactly the same story. He has a child by another woman, and it happened while he was married. My husband and I were not married during the period in question. We were living apart. Well, come on. This happens to almost everyone in Peru. It was also managed very sloppily. The girl was presented like a piece of merchandise, as though she were a product. She was driven in a truck across the country in order to make a campaign of her. The girl’s privacy was not preserved. It was managed very badly, simply because it was a political matter. Today we know that Montesinos was behind it all. We have no doubt. It was a manipulation by Montesinos.”

Did you support your husband’s decision to admit his paternity?

“No. I would not have given in to the pressure. If I have a child, it is because I want a child. Maybe it was a smart move politically, but then they started to look for other things. I would not have given in to the pressure. Of course, I said that I was not involved, because in that period we were not living together, and the situation of a man in a case like this is not exactly the same as that of a woman. But I would have fought it. It was all a media show. Eighty percent of the men in Peru have this problem, including the current president. But Alejandro said, ‘Enough, the hell with it. I have a country to run, let’s be done with it. Okay, I recognize the girl.'”

According to Karp, it was Montesinos who was behind the tarnishing of her reputation in the first two or three years of her husband’s term of office. But since 2003, when his trial began, the focus of tension shifted to her husband’s main political rival, Garcia, who was elected president about half a year ago. One of his confidants is the Israeli-Peruvian businessman Baruch Ivcher, who owns a television station in Peru. Karp believes that Ivcher is mostly to blame for the wave of rumors and bad publicity to which she has been subjected recently. However, she does not want to go too deeply into this subject.

“Everything I will say about Ivcher will be translated in Peru and reverberate back to me 1,000 times,” she says. “He is a very strong person in Peru and has already caused me a great deal of damage, and I am not interested in opening up the subject again.”

Shared opposition

Quechua woman, Peru (photo: Guillermo Barrios del Valle)

Quechua woman, Peru (photo: Guillermo Barrios del Valle)

The beginning looked far more promising. Ivcher, who arrived in Peru in the 1970s and opened a mattress factory, was one of Fujimori’s greatest opponents. At one stage the former president prohibited him to own a television station, and Ivcher was compelled to leave Peru. The shared opposition to Fujimori made Ivcher and the Toledos partners. However, Karp says, after her husband was elected, Ivcher supported Garcia’s candidacy, and their ways parted.

The tension between him and Alejandro reached its peak in an event that took place at the residence of the Israeli ambassador to Peru in April 2004. Karp, who was overwrought, went over to Ivcher and threatened to throw him into jail. She also called him a “son of a bitch” – in Hebrew, too.

“My husband saved Ivcher’s life,” Karp says. “Fujimori issued an Interpol arrest warrant for him, and Ivcher was arrested while he was visiting Poland. It was Alejandro who arranged his release. After he returned to Peru, his only goal was to topple Alejandro. I think we were very mistaken in our assessment of him. In the end, we became bitter enemies.”

Why is he persecuting your husband?

“A great many things are going on there. I don’t want to go into it.”

He is not the only Israeli who is doing business in Peru. What are so many Israelis doing there?

“A great many Israelis collaborated with the Montesinos regime, particularly in arms sales. Israel should be very concerned about the fact that so many Israeli citizens are harming its image all over the world. They may be private individuals, but in the final analysis this is what local people remember. There is a great deal of opposition to these people in Peru.”

What is Ivcher doing in Peru?

“He is in large measure a shadowy figure. Very much an outsider. The Peruvian elite will never accept a Jew into its ranks. I didn’t see that he was received very well by the Jewish community, either. I never saw him attending synagogue, for example. He is busy making money.”

From what?

“You have to ask him. He sells mattresses. I never in my life heard of anyone who became a millionaire from mattresses, but you have to ask him. You have to ask him what he is doing and why it is so interesting for him to live in Peru.”

Ivcher’s response: Baruch Ivcher stated in reaction to claims made in the article: “My problems with Eliane Karp began when it was revealed that Alejandro Toledo had an illegitimate daughter. A journalist of mine uncovered the episode, and Karp asked me to take his television program off the air. I said I had no intention of doing that. The peak occurred at an event in the residence of the Israeli ambassador, when she called me a ‘son of a bitch’ in front of the entire diplomatic community of Peru. Besides that, most of the affairs involving her were first reported on my television programs. I do not intervene in journalistic content, but insist that journalists who work for me cross-check all information.

“Regarding the claim that he saved my life, it is true that Toledo was with me at the airport and assisted me psychologically, but it was the U.S. State Department and former Argentine president Raul Alfonsin who helped me then. Toledo was with me there, but did not help.

“As for … my business, I am perhaps the only person in Peru whose business is absolutely legitimate. Fujimori and Montesinos examined all my revenues to find improper dealings, but found nothing. I made money and I paid taxes. I never bribed anyone. I am in Peru because the Peruvians are a very nice people.”

Wait and see

After the last few tempestuous years, Karp’s new home in Palo Alto is also a place for reflection and soul-searching. There is perhaps no more suitable place than this house, with its quiet green garden in which a squirrel darts about in the trees.

“I learned that human nature can be quite ugly,” she explains. “I used to have more faith in human nature. I don’t think I believe in people anymore. I saw people changing their mind very quickly only because of their self-interests. One day they are smiling at you and the next day they are your enemy. Maybe Hashomer Hatzair wasn’t the right place to be educated in. But I am much more realistic now. Politics is not what you think or who you really are. It is a virtual reality that is created around you. They could have transformed me into an angel and they could have transformed me into a witch. It has no relation to reality. It’s not who I really am.

“I think that it also says something about democracy. I don’t think that people are stupid, only that it is very easy to manipulate them. I came from a very ideological home, and I came to Peru and discovered people without values, who clash with one another very easily, who can be bought with nonsense. On the Montesinos cassettes we discovered that he bought people with $5,000. To buy someone’s soul for $5,000? What in the world is that? What kind of person do you have to be in order to change your opinion for that amount of money?

“That is what I learned – that democracy is largely an illusion. What’s really in control in democracy is money and power and big business, the media, the rich people. That’s who’s in control. I don’t say that dictatorship is preferable. Of course not. I think that democracy has to come with a few other things – education, food, and medical care for everyone. Without that, the control of so much power by so few people can be dangerous.”

Do you still have friends in Peru?

“Of course. My life is in Peru. I am certain that I will be welcomed there. Wait and see. I will return. I hope it will be soon.”

Would you do it all again?

“Yes. Only this time I would be even more of a ‘naughty girl.’ I would be blunt. There are many things I wanted to say, but didn’t. Wait and see.”

What headline would you give your story?

“It depends who you talk to. If you talk to people who are not from the capital, and who saw what my husband and I did, they will tell you a completely different story. The only story you and everyone else heard about, and to which you have access, is the virtual story, which was invented by the media. But you will not succeed in hearing these people, because these people do not speak; no one asks them what they think. These people know a different person from the one that was portrayed in the media, or from what you can learn about me from Google.

“The Montesinos group was very successful in crushing us. But that is the history of power, the history of the human race. You come with a very strong ideology and you are not allowed to realize it. Human nature is always against change. My husband was alone many times, and he is a very strong person. In such a harsh society, the moment you begin to vacillate, you become the focal point of just one obsession – they want to kill you.

“Actually, it’s a story about two outsiders who reached the status of leadership. It is very rare for two strangers to reach the very heart of the executive branch. It almost never happens. And a person from such a poor background, too. When something like that happens, that person will pay a very steep price.”