I had been on the ground in Lima for 40 hours, and I was beginning to worry that I would never meet the man I had come to see -- the man who had risen from nothing to become the front-runner in the race for president of Peru. Knowing he would be returning from Colombia that afternoon, I had positioned myself near the parking-lot exit gate outside the airport's international terminal, hoping to intercept him. About 100 feet away, a black Mitsubishi Montero was idling, preparing to depart. My guy was in there. I took out my cell phone and called the number the candidate's aide had given me. The aide, standing next to the Montero, answered my call and looked toward me as I described myself and announced my intentions. He walked over to me, I handed him my business card, and he returned to the vehicle, passing my card through a partially opened window. A few minutes later, the Montero slowly pulled away, a guard lifted the gate, and the SUV came to a stop a few feet away from me. One of the back doors swung open, and a brown-skinned man waved for me to get in. "Hello, I'm Alejandro Toledo," he said.
As I settled into my seat, I noticed one of Toledo's bodyguards crouched in the back of the vehicle and, behind us, a light blue pickup truck carrying three more security agents.
I had spoken to Toledo by phone several weeks before my arrival in Lima, but I wasn't sure he remembered the conversation. As we pulled up to the pay kiosk, I began to remind him of my assignment but was interrupted by a group of kids selling trinkets to passersby. Recognizing the passenger next to me in the backseat, the children began chanting, "Toledo! Toledo! Toledo!" They crowded his window, asking for money. "Not now, another time," Toledo told them with a smile. As we drove away, he turned toward me and said, "I used to do that."
And, in fact, he did. Born in the Andean highlands, reared in a squalid coastal fishing village, Toledo shined shoes and peddled snow cones as a boy to earn enough money to convince his father to let him stay in school. He made it to the United States with the help of two Peace Corps workers, parlayed a soccer scholarship at the University of San Francisco into an undergraduate education and went on to earn three graduate degrees from Stanford, where he met his wife, Eliane Karp, MA '75. Viewed by Peru's underclass as a symbol of possibility, Toledo has lived much of his adult life in the United States, studying at the Farm, teaching at Harvard and working for the World Bank. Now, at 54, the man who says he has "never lost anything important" may be on the cusp of winning Peru's highest office. A few weeks before the April 8 presidential election, polls showed him well ahead of the other major candidates.
Toledo says he will bring political stability to this troubled nation -- unsteadied first by the authoritarian practices of former president Alberto Fujimori's government and more recently by revelations of corruption that finally doomed the old regime. After winning re-election last May in what many Peruvians believed was a tainted vote count, Fujimori fled to Japan in November and resigned in exile. Toledo, who claimed to have won the 2000 election and who pushed for Fujimori's ouster, has emerged as the most likely presidential successor. A Toledo victory would be historic. He would be the first civilian "cholo" -- part Indian, part Latino -- to head Peru's government.
What made this possible? How did the son of an impoverished bricklayer reach the doorstep of Peru's presidential palace? That's what I was in Lima to find out.
When Alejandro Toledo was born in 1946 in Cabana, a village in Peru's central highlands, living conditions were so bad that simply surviving one's childhood was a measure of success, and imagining a prosperous future was mostly a dream. He was the eighth of 16 children, seven of whom died in infancy.
In 1952, when Toledo was 6, his family joined many other highlanders moving to the fishing town of Chimbote, a five-hour drive north of Lima on the Pacific Ocean. Like many of the new arrivals, Toledo's father, a mason, simply claimed a plot of dusty land and erected a home on it. The neighborhood was dubbed "San Isidro" after one of Lima's poshest sections, but the similarities ended with the name. The Chimbote version had dirt streets and homes built of straw mats or adobe with no electricity or running water. A large open sewer directly behind Toledo's house served as the neighborhood toilet and garbage dump. Water came from a well 50 yards away.
When Toledo finished elementary school at age 11, his father expected him to end his studies and get a job as his older siblings had done. But with a teacher's encouragement, Toledo pleaded with his father to allow him to continue his schooling, promising to work nights and weekends to help support the family. His father relented, and Toledo became the first person in his family to attend high school.
Aspirations in San Isidro, even for a boy with Toledo's promise, were usually confined to working in the local steel mill or one of the fishmeal canneries that gave Chimbote a most unpleasant smell. And that might have been Toledo's fate had not two Peace Corps volunteers visited his home one day in 1964. Joel Meister, '62, and Nancy Deeds had just arrived in Chimbote and were going door to door seeking lodging for Deeds. At first, Toledo's father rejected the couple's request to rent a room -- nine people already lived in the three-bedroom home. But Toledo convinced his father to reconsider, pointing out that the family would earn an extra 150 soles per month, or about $7.
Toledo and the two young Americans -- who later married in Chimbote -- quickly became friends and collaborators. He introduced them to community leaders and recruited them as advisers for a teen social and sports club that he founded. His long conversations with Meister and Deeds over the next year revealed to Toledo the world that lay outside his fishing village, and broadened his ambitions. "My world had not had any connection to the United States," Toledo told me. "I decided I wanted to get out of Chimbote."
Inspired and emboldened, Toledo applied for a local civic group's scholarship to study in the United States. He was chosen from among Chimbote's brightest high school students to receive the one-year grant.
By this time, the Meisters had completed their Peace Corps tour and begun graduate studies at UC-Berkeley. In October 1965, Deeds wrote to her parents, describing Toledo. "Alejandro is a particularly bright boy, with tremendous drive, and ability for hard work," she wrote. "Alejandro will not make it in Peru. . . . there are too many forces against him. . . . [H]e couldn't get into a Peruvian university because Chimbote boys aren't accepted unless they have influence."
Toledo had won the U.S. scholarship, but he wasn't sure what university he would attend or how he could pay for his trip. Again, the Meisters came through. They helped him get into USF -- which had a special program for non-English-speaking students -- and agreed to provide financial assistance. Toledo, in turn, agreed that he would one day return to Peru and use his education to help his homeland.
On the day after Christmas in 1965, Toledo boarded an airplane for the first time and flew to San Francisco. It was a journey into the unknown. During a stopover in Los Angeles, he says, he tried to step onto an airport escalator, tripped and fell. "I had never seen one before."
When he arrived in San Francisco, the clothes in his small suitcase still reeked of Chimbote's fishmeal canneries, so the Meisters took him to Sears and bought him a new outfit.
That first year was difficult. He lived initially with a Swiss family in San Francisco who had agreed to give him room and board and a few dollars a month in exchange for housework and gardening. Within a few weeks, it was clear that Toledo, who had never operated a modern appliance, wasn't going to earn his keep as a cook and cleaner. He moved out.
More troubling were his struggles in school. A top student in Peru, he floundered at USF early on because he barely spoke English. "I studied twice as much as the other students," he says.
He improved his English and his grades; and by the end of his first year, Toledo had resolved to stay and complete his degree. But his scholarship had expired, and he had no way to pay for additional studies. Fortunately, USF soccer coach Steve Negoesco had noticed Toledo during a tryout the previous season and now invited him to play for the team. Quick and an excellent ball-handler, Toledo made the starting lineup as a center forward. Negoesco awarded him a partial athletic scholarship; and for the next three years, Toledo used that, along with several jobs -- including one pumping gas on the graveyard shift -- to pay his tuition.
Toledo feels his scrappy U.S. experience later served him well in politics. The ingenuity and resolve required to succeed in college steeled him against the long odds that faced his dream of leading Peru. "I've almost never taken 'no' for an answer," he says. "That's how I've gotten from Cabana to here. It has allowed me to prevent obstacles from stopping me."
And the cultural agility he developed as he moved from one unfamiliar setting to another prepared him for the challenge of appealing to Peru's poor and wealthy alike. "I fly in the Concorde, drink champagne and eat caviar," Toledo says, "but I also eat ceviche, drink chicha and listen to folk music."
That ability to straddle two worlds was often apparent during my visit with Toledo. Not long after his exchange with the ragged children at the airport, we arrived at the elegant home of a television mogul who was celebrating his return from exile, a banishment resulting from his station's critical news broadcasts about Fujimori. As white-jacketed waiters with black bow ties wandered among the guests serving sushi, partygoers approached Toledo with hugs and hearty handshakes. The 5-foot-5 Toledo was the shortest man in the room, and the brownest, surrounded by wealthy, light-skinned Peruvians grateful for his role in ridding the country of Fujimori.
Two days later, I hooked up with him at the airport again, where he had just returned from Ecuador. Soon we were heading to a political rally.
We drove through shabby Lima neighborhoods, past buildings sagging from disrepair -- a haphazard mix of residences, businesses and office towers. Even after a decade of robust economic growth, half of Peru's 25 million citizens earn less per day than Americans spend on a cup of coffee.
At last we arrived, and with his bodyguards clearing the way, Toledo bounded up a flight of wooden steps onto a stage. A cheer went up from the crowd of about 10,000. "Toledo! Toledo! Toledo!" He smiled and waved, hoisted aloft a baby someone thrust into his arms. A new chant began. "Toledo presidente! Toledo presidente!"
Toledo walked to the edge of the stage and bent down, his hands outstretched. As photographers and television cameras jockeyed for position, several dozen people pushed forward trying to touch him. It reminded me of a rock concert, and Toledo was the star.
For the next 15 minutes, Toledo paced the stage, exhorting the crowd to dream of a new Peru. "Peru needs its parents to have jobs," he said. "We have to rebuild our country!" As we left the rally, I asked him how it felt to generate such a passionate response from the people he would like to lead. Toledo, his white cotton shirt drenched with sweat, replied, "It's nice, but with it comes a sense of enormous responsibility. The expectations are so high. You are sentenced not to fail."
He was ready for a break. We were whisked to the home of a wealthy friend, where Toledo occasionally goes to relax -- "I like to hide out and take a sauna," he said. Minutes later, I found myself enveloped in steam with Peru's would-be president. We talked politics -- Toledo said he had approached former Clinton adviser James Carville about running his campaign, but it didn't work out. "He wanted $5 million."
After a few minutes, Toledo grew silent. The man sitting beside me now, adrenaline drained and energy spent, no longer exuded the charismatic aura of the candidate. He leaned back against the wooden bench and closed his eyes. "I'm so tired," he said, and dozed off.
In the spring of 1970, in a battered car he had purchased for $300, Toledo drove from usf to Stanford to meet with education professor Martin Carnoy. Toledo had been in the United States for four years, was finishing up at USF and was hoping to attend graduate school. Thanks to a grant from the Ford Foundation, Carnoy was creating a fellowship program to train Latin American students to be education leaders in their native lands.
Carnoy accepted Toledo into the program and gave the penniless Peruvian a full scholarship. Toledo went on to earn a master's degree in education (1972), a master's in economics (1974) and a doctorate in education (1992). Although he didn't tell anyone -- he says the idea at the time would have seemed too fantastic -- he already was planning for a future run at the presidency of Peru by orienting his studies toward education and economics, issues of primary importance to his country. "Stanford began to prepare me for the presidency," says Toledo.
"I could see that this guy was a pusher, that he was very ambitious," says Carnoy. "He had the ambition of someone who has come from the bottom and clawed his way up -- who has the ambition to go way beyond where anyone expected him to go."
After Toledo's doctoral dissertation was approved in 1976 (he did not complete the revisions until 1992), he began a series of jobs that took him all over the world. At various times he lived in Buenos Aires, Lima, Stanford, Washington, Boston and Tokyo; worked for the United Nations and the World Bank (as a Latin American aid specialist); continued postgraduate studies; taught at Harvard's Institute for International Development and at a Japanese university; and served as an economics adviser to Peru's government.
In the early '90s, while he was at Harvard, Toledo's plans to run for president began to take shape. "I had been thinking about it for some time," he told me. "I saw an opportunity for a new political party. But I needed time to be prepared." Toledo was confident, but few others shared his optimism.
"It seemed like a wild thought at the time," recalls Jeffrey Sachs, a noted economist and Harvard faculty colleague.
As Toledo was beginning to formulate his plans, Peru was careening toward chaos. Two guerrilla movements, Shining Path and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, were terrorizing the country with indiscriminate bombings and murders. At 1 a.m. every morning, a military curfew descended on Lima, and anyone caught on the streets faced arrest. The economy was a shambles. Outgoing president Alan Garcia had cut the nation off from international assistance by withholding foreign debt payments. To make up the difference, his government simply printed more money -- so much that inflation went out of control. In 1990, prices rose 7,500 percent. The amount of money it took to buy a pack of cigarettes that year would have bought a new car five years earlier.
When Alberto Fujimori announced his intention to run for president in 1990, no one paid attention at first. He was a little-known college professor with no political experience. But Peruvians were disgusted with the country's traditional political parties, and Fujimori capitalized on the disillusionment. As president, Fujimori restored the economy, ending hyperinflation and promoting investment. He dismantled Shining Path and destroyed Tupac Amaru with a stunning raid that freed 71 rebel-held hostages at the Japanese ambassador's residence, killing all the guerrillas. He spent heavily on new roads and new schools. But behind the scenes, his intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, relentlessly harassed the president's enemies.
In 1994, Toledo returned to Peru, formed his own political party, Peru Posible, and entered the race for the 1995 presidential election. He was a nonfactor, finishing third with only 4 percent of the vote, and Fujimori was re-elected.
But as the 2000 election approached, a worsening economy and Fujimori's increasingly repressive tactics gnawed at the president's support. He strong-armed Congress into changing the constitution to allow him to seek a third term. Then Montesinos mounted a smear campaign against two of Fujimori's chief opponents, Lima mayor Alberto Andrada and Luis Castañeda, former head of Peru's social-security system. They never recovered, clearing the way for Toledo to emerge as a political force. But as Toledo's popularity surged, he became the target of a similar campaign of dirty tricks. He was followed, and his phones were bugged. When Toledo discussed strategy with his advisers, it had to be face-to-face to avoid the net of surveillance. "I was Montesinos's enemy No. 1," he says.
The tactics intensified. Television networks owned by Fujimori's allies broadcast a show in which a comedian impersonating Toledo held a whiskey bottle and acted drunk. A tv talk show interviewed a girl -- brought to Lima from an outlying city by an army officer -- who claimed (falsely) to be Toledo's illegitimate daughter. Worst of all for Toledo, while he and Karp were campaigning out of town, their teenage daughter, Chantal, received phone calls saying there was a bomb on her parents' plane. "That was the worst for me," says Toledo. "They knew my most vulnerable point."
But Toledo's rise continued. His base constituency was the country's traditionally voiceless Indians, but as Fujimori's authoritarian measures grew more brazen, Toledo began attracting other, better-off Peruvians fed up with the corruption. He drew huge crowds around the country. Even so, observers were stunned when exit polls during last April's presidential election showed Toledo winning. The government's official results, however, pronounced Fujimori the victor, with 49.9 percent to Toledo's 41 percent. Toledo claimed Fujimori had stolen the election, and a few weeks later, he withdrew from a May runoff that he -- and international observers -- said was illegally tilted against him. (Peru's constitution requires presidential candidates to receive at least 50 percent of the vote to be elected.)
With Toledo out of the race, Fujimori won re-election in May. But his government had lost its legitimacy. Following a summer of street protests about his alleged vote manipulation, Fujimori was reeling. The final blow came in September when an independent television station broadcast a leaked videotape that showed Montesinos making a $15,000 payment to an opposition congressman who subsequently became a Fujimori supporter. Ten days later, Montesinos fled the country.
During a swing through Southeast Asia in November, Fujimori announced from Tokyo that he was stepping down as president and would remain in Japan indefinitely.
More than anyone else, Toledo received credit for Fujimori's demise. "If it had not been for his efforts, the dictatorship would not have fallen," says Miguel Barandiaran, a retired Peruvian diplomat.
Barandiaran told me this at a luncheon arranged to introduce Toledo to a group of movers and shakers in Lima. Among those present was former general Francisco Morales Bermudez, a Toledo supporter, who served as Peru's president from 1975 to 1980 and who shepherded the country's move from a military regime to a constitutional democracy.
"We are celebrating with our next president, Alejandro Toledo," the meal's host, Adam Pollak, announced to the guests.
However, many among Peru's elite are skeptical of Toledo. "They don't like him because they can't accept someone from the bottom becoming president," says Pollak, a Romanian by birth who has made a fortune in chemical manufacturing in Peru.
Toledo's wife had made this point to me a few days earlier, emphasizing the role of race. She said that when she and Toledo first moved to Lima in 1981, people assumed he was her driver. "It's amazing that only a few years after that, he ran for president," she said.
She told me this as we stood with Toledo and a handful of political advisers on a Lima street corner late on a Saturday night, waiting to see if there was room in a restaurant to seat everybody. Just then, two light-skinned, well-dressed matrons walked toward Karp and Toledo. They stole a quick glance at Toledo, frowned and then passed by without saying a word. You could almost feel the temperature drop in their wake. "You see what I mean?" Karp said, turning toward me.
While Peruvians don't like to admit it, Toledo's race and impoverished background clearly feed suspicions about his populist actions. Critics view him as a leftist rabble-rouser. Wearing a bandana and blue jeans, Toledo led tens of thousands of Peruvians in a march to protest Fujimori's election "victory" last May, and he has been blamed for street violence aimed at government institutions. Six security guards died last July when a fire broke out in a downtown Lima bank after a huge Toledo-organized demonstration. Toledo says the fire was another attempt by Montesinos and Fujimori to discredit him.
The controversies were enough to sow mistrust even among some blue-collar Peruvians. "Toledo caused disorder; he's bellicose," says taxi driver Jose Colqué. "He's going to turn out like Alan Garcia. Garcia promised many things but left the country in chaos -- that's the fear with Toledo." (Ironically, 10 years after leaving Peru in disgrace, Garcia returned in January and entered the race for president.)
Some critics have said that instead of serving as a bridge between Peru's haves and have-nots, Toledo panders to both and serves neither. Fritz Du Bois, a respected Peruvian economist, applauds Toledo's support for privatizing state-owned companies and promoting business investment. But he says his plans for creating jobs by increasing government spending and lowering taxes for labor-intensive industries could create huge budget deficits. Du Bois points to a comment made by Toledo at a conference of financial analysts, in which he said he didn't mind having a little inflation if that was the price for creating jobs. "For a country that went through hyperinflation, that was frightening," Du Bois said. "He has very good ideas. Someday he'll have to decide which one of them he'll follow. Still, you look at his résumé on paper, and he looks like the right guy."
Being seen as the right guy would validate Toledo's once-audacious dream. "My success story is a statistical error," he told me as he surveyed a crowded Lima street one day. "It is the responsibility of the head of state and society's leaders to make sure that my case is not a statistical error, but that it is the rule.
"Thirteen million people here are sentenced to a life below the poverty line," he says. "My dream is that they should have the same access to required levels of health, nutrition and education that I got."
Tyler Bridges, '82, is a Miami Herald reporter and author of Bad Bet on the Bayou: The Rise of Gambling in Louisiana and the Fall of Governor Edwin Edwards.