Dressed in blue jeans, an alpaca sweater, sandals and a large straw hat, Hugo Blanco stands outside the main doors of the Gran Hotel Bolívar in downtown Lima. He is holding up the latest issue of Lucha Indígena, just in case I miss him.
Peru’s rulers never liked him, Blanco tells me. But his followers adored him. As soon as he returned to Peru from exile in Sweden in 1978, Blanco was elected to Parliament. Soon afterwards he became a member of Congress – though that did not save him from police brutality. He was once beaten, for instance, when he attended a protest organized by Lima’s street vendors.
In 1983, Blanco was suspended from Congress after accusing General Roberto Clemente Noel of genocide. Twenty years later, a Peruvian truth commission established Noel’s role in violations, tortures and extra-judicial executions during his stint as political-military chief in the highland region of Ayacucho.
‘In the meantime I had to find another way to earn a living,’ Blanco tells me. Ever resourceful, he began to sell coffee as a street vendor, incredibly, just a stone’s throw from Congress – the very institution from which he had been ejected. ‘Many of the employees went out of their way to avoid me, but some bought my coffee, just for the thrill of it,’ he says, laughing. Needless to say, Blanco became the subject of considerable gossip. ‘One day a journalist from one of the local dailies asked me if I was not embarrassed to sell coffee on the street. “Look,” I said, “just two blocks away, other congressmen dressed in expensive suits and ties are selling out the country and they don’t seem to be bothered by it. So why should I be embarrassed by earning a living in an honest manner?”’ I ask if the story made it to the newspaper. ‘Unfortunately not,’ he chortles. ‘I suppose I didn’t give him the quote he was looking for.’
Although Blanco can’t remember how many times he’s been jailed, he’s been on 14 hunger strikes – the latest just last year. ‘In one of those strikes I was so frail that the interior minister of the day actually sent me a coffin as a present!’
Blanco then recalls the details surrounding one of his arrests during the first term of President Alan García. He was taken into custody after a public protest in Pucallpa on 9 February 1989. ‘A comrade saw policemen wrap a banner around my head and throw me into the back of a car. He called other union members in Lima who, in turn, contacted the Secretary General of Amnesty International in London. An international campaign to protest my arrest was mounted right away. That’s why I am not amongst those “disappeared” by García.’
But before they released him, García’s men kicked Blanco in the liver and genitals. He carefully straightens the straw hat that adorns his snowy white head. ‘They kept me on my knees and whenever I fell back on the soles of my feet, they propped me up with blows aimed at my head. As a result I am not too keen on removing my hat,’ he says. As a consequence of so many police beatings a vein burst in his brain. ‘The beatings caused a split between the skull and the brain,’ he explains. After surgery his doctor feared that his skull might not withstand even an accidental minor bump. ‘And so, he ordered me to keep a hat on my head at all times.’
The struggle now is about the survival of all species. To defend Pachamama [Mother Earth] against the predatory multinational timber, mining, oil and gas companies
Blanco then jots down some names on a piece of paper and reads them aloud. It is the names of the people that the national police gunned down at the protest. ‘Eight people dead, twenty-six wounded and eighteen missing,’ Blanco recalls sombrely. ‘I saw a lot of blood in Pucallpa.’
According to Peru’s Association in Defence of Human Rights (Aprodeh), as many as 3,000 peasants took part in that protest. Protesters asked for better prices for their crops and payment for the debt the government had owed rice and corn producers since September 1988. With inflation then running at more than 2,000 per cent and ever-increasing calls for García to resign, demonstrations had become a familiar feature of the Peruvian landscape. ‘And so, President García felt he had to teach the protesters a lesson,’ says Blanco. ‘And, of course, accuse me of terrorism.’
I ask Blanco what experiences stand out in his mind. He takes a deep breath. ‘It’s hard to tell,’ he says softly, his wrinkled fingers constantly fidgeting with his hat. ‘When I was in prison, I was not allowed to speak to my mother in her native Quechua.’ Pause. ‘That affected me a great deal.’ Then he recounts a story told to him when he was a child, which shocked him into numbness. ‘It was the tale of a landowner in my hometown who branded his farmers with the same burning iron rod that he used to brand his animals. That story is to this day engraved in my brain,’ he adds. ‘And, of course, the latest massacre, the Bagua massacre, has also had a profound impact on me.’
On 5 June 2009, a protest in the Bagua region of the Peruvian Amazon turned into a true massacre, Blanco tells me. Amazonian indigenous groups had organized the protest – blocking roads, waterways and pipelines – in reaction to controversial decrees issued by President García – now on his second turn as president. The decrees were designed to enable multinational corporations to pursue oil, gas, lumber and mining projects on communal lands without the consent of indigenous residents. (García has reportedly parcelled out 72 per cent of the Peruvian Amazon to private interests.) When Peruvian police and armed forces were sent to thwart the protest and break up a roadblock along a stretch of highway in the town of Bagua, all hell broke loose. Officially, 24 police and 10 protesters were killed. But eyewitnesses claim that at least 200 indigenous people lost their lives in the deadly encounter. ‘People saw policemen dump bodies into the Marañon and Utcubamba Rivers,’ says Blanco, raising his thick grey eyebrows and wagging his finger in the air.
‘García is notorious for being very economical with the truth. Look, an Awajún woman was helping one indigenous protester, who had been injured, when a policeman asked her: “What are you doing?” She replied, “I’m trying to get medical assistance for this wounded man.” “No,” he said, “no-one has been wounded here.” He took his gun out and shot him dead right in front of her eyes.’
What took place in Bagua is important to Blanco because it illustrates the well-organized nature of the Amazonian indigenous movement. But it also highlights his departure from old-style Marxist thinking. Blanco no longer believes that the struggle is just about class and social justice, or procuring land for disenfranchized peasants.
I don’t do things for people to remember me. I simply want to put an end to capitalism before capitalism puts an end to us
‘The struggle now is about the survival of all species,’ he says. ‘To defend Pachamama [Mother Earth] against the predatory multinational timber, mining, oil and gas companies. These companies are poisoning our rivers, destroying our soil, killing the fish, killing the birds and killing our people, too.’
And this destruction, he says, is with the full support of government authorities who are mere servants of the neoliberal system. ‘We have reached a point where the private ownership of the means of production has turned into the private ownership of the means of destruction,’ he says. And the most sensitive to that ferocious assault on the environment, he emphasizes, are the indigenous people, since they are closely linked to nature. ‘That’s why they are the vanguard in the fight to save Mother Earth.’
Finally, I ask Blanco how he would like to be remembered.
‘Let people remember me any way they want,’ he says with a shrug. ‘I don’t do things for people to remember me. I simply want to put an end to capitalism before capitalism puts an end to us.’
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