Malice at the Palace

updated 10/03/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/03/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

FOUR YEARS AGO MATHEMATICS professor Alberto Fujimori became president of Peru with the promise that he would crush the radical Communist guerrilla movement known as Shining Path. He did the job, but only after assuming dictatorial powers temporarily. Now he has a new rebellion on his hands—and no get-tough measure seems likely to stop it. The rebel leader? His own wife.

The country's first couple have taken their marital problems public—very public—and all Peru is watching. The hostilities erupted last July, when First Lady Susana Higuchi, 44, called her husband a tyrant in a TV interview. Alberto, 56, responded by pushing a bill through Congress preventing her from running against him in elections next April.

So on Aug. 3, Susana moved out of the ornate presidential palace in downtown Lima. Days later, Alberto did too, taking two of their four children—ages 14 to 19—with him. When she tried to return, he had security guards block her way. Naturally, she called the press. That persuaded him to let her back in, but on Aug. 23 he went on national TV to "fire" her as first lady. For good measure he also cut off her water, phone and fax and welded shut the doors to her part of the palace. Fortunately she had a cellular phone. "They've closed the doors," she told reporters. "It's very difficult for me to receive visitors. I am alone."

This being a preelection year, the president unwelded the doors—which Susana now sees as the first step toward reconciliation. "Our differences are merely political, not marital," she told PEOPLE. Indeed, the two do not seem headed for divorce court. "My religious convictions prohibit divorce," says Susana, like her husband a Roman Catholic. "For better or for worse, we'll be together until death, to the end."

They may also be together on the next ballot. Well, not exactly together. Recently, Susana announced her presidential candidacy and said she would challenge the law prohibiting her from running against her husband. She also announced the creation of a new political party called Harmony, 21st Century, which may be as long as it will take.

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