Book Reviews

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This month’s books look at different forms of domination of Third World countries. Economic via the IMF and cultural via the scientific community.

Peru’s slippery path

Peru: Paths to poverty
by Michael Reid
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Latin America Bureau, 1 Amwell Street, London EC1R £2.95.
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If what we call ‘development’ has something to’ do with improving a country’s general living standards, then Peru must be among the world’s fastest ‘de-developers’. Today average living standards are at their lowest since the mid-1950’s, unemployment is fast increasing and the ever-yawning gap betweenrich and poor in Peru is growing wider.

Tracing the background to this process is the aim of the appropriately named Peru, Paths to Poverty. Michael Reid shows how nine years of economic policy-making a la IME have produced a drastic deterioration in the lot of the poor - not just in terms of money income, but also in health, education and housing. And he suggests that, far from solving the country’s basic problems by building the foundations for self-sustained growth, the IMF’s logic will make Peru even more vulnerable to the fluctuations of the world economy.

Historically, economic growth in Peru has been intimately tied to its role as a supplier of raw materials, especially minerals. The development of these extractive industries has had scant spin-off for the other areas of the economy, leaving it highly exposed to the fluctuations in commodity markets.

Peru fell back on relying on loans from the international banks - just at the time the banks were flush with OPEC petrodollars and falling over themselves to find new customers to lend to.

The resulting debt crisis ushered in a new and even more direct form of foreign domination. The acquiescence of the banks in rescheduling repayments hinged on Peru putting an IMF economic programme into practice. Since 1977 - with a brief respite in 1980 and 1981 - the IMF has effectively directed the main thrust of economic policy-making in Peru.

When President Fernando Belaunde came to power in 1980, the government opted for a clearly free-market approach.

Five years on, even Belaunde’s more ardent supporters admit that the policy has not been a great success. The private sector has shown little dynamism. and the foreign investors have stayed away. The debt problem is worse than ever: as of July 1984 the government has suspended interest payments to the banks. Meanwhile annual inflation has surged ahead into three figures, with wages lagging far behind. And there is no immediate prospect of an end to the worst slump in Peru’s history, in which two workers out of every three have no proper job.

Perhaps more worrying for conservatives is that the IMF medicine is helping to contribute to a ground-swell of public unrest which may be difficult to contain. The surprise victory of Lima’s first ever marxist mayor, Alfonso Barrantes, in 1983’s municipal elections is taken by some as a portent of a left-wing victory in the general elections this April.

At the same time frustration and disillusionment with conventional politics is clearly leading a growing number of young people to view armed insurrection as the only route to real change. Peru’s maoist guerrillas, known as Sendero Luminoso or ‘Shining Path’, have not only survived five years of military and police repression, but have widened the scope and daring of their actions.

On the vexed issue of development models applicable to countries like Peru, Michael Reid raises more questions than he manages to answer. Though he attacks the IMF and is aware of the structural constraints surrounding the Velasco experiment, he finds little in the way of a coherent alternative path to development coming out of the main opposition groups. And Sendero Luminoso, it seems, does not give such matters a thought.

John Crabtree

John Crabtree is a freelance writer and specialist on the Andean countries of Latin America.

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Science suppressed

Aborted discovery
by Susantha Goonatilake
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Zed Books £5.95 (pbk)
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And also teach them to read
by Sheryl Hirshon with Judy Butler
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Lawrence Hill £7.95 (pbk)
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Many pre-colonial cultures were as subtle and creative as anything to come out of Europe. But then came colonialism.

The colonisers brought with them their own opinions, demands, authority and technology - and their own institutions of learning. Native cultures were swamped and have atrophied. As with other forms of oppression, both the oppressor and the oppressed were damaged and the result has been a loss for humanity as a whole.

This is Susantha Goonatilake’s thesis in Aborted Discovery. He has subtitled the book ‘Science and creativity in the Third World’ and it ithe outlines the development of science and technology from early times to the present day. He is particularly concerned with comparing what really happened in the Third World with the more familiar Eurocentric version of events.

Science, as we have increasingly come to recognise, consists not so much of discoveries as of creations. However rigorously Nature disciplines our thinking, our science-making is never totally a reflection of external reality: it is a creative human response to what we find around us. If we are deprived of a range of alternative responses then our approach is limited.

A survey of scientists working in Asia finds them still subject to the criteria of Western science, authenticated from the North. Their influence is further weakened by their peripheral position in the world’s scientific communities. Potential forms of discovery have thus been aborted. We may never know what we have missed.

But whatever new approach to science is to come from the Third World one of the likely prerequisites will be literacy. People have to have the means to enquire and develop their skills.

A vivid account of a literacy campaign aimed at doing just this is to be found in And Also Teach Them to Read. It follows the experience of Sheryl Hirshon in Nicaragua as she accompanies a team of twenty-five city teenagers who went to act as tutors to peasants in the countryside in 1979.

The fatigue, the frustrations, the uncertainties and the exhilaration of the operation are all recorded together with sharp impressions of the personalities involved. She had to cope not just with the poverty and disease in a difficult climate but also with the confusions and enmities which are an inevitable by-product of rapid social change.

Her efforts helped over a hundred peasants to learn to read - and also, hopefully, to begin to shape the future of a new society.

Brian Gent


Let Me Speak!
...being the book that gave voice to Bolivian women

I once had Domitila Barrios pointed out to me as she walked past on the street. She was a strong, stocky woman, made even larger by the bulky skirts and woollens needed to keep out the chill of the high Andes.

She could have been any Bolivian miner’s wife on her way up the hill to the company store. Yet by now she was a well-travelled celebrity, feted around the world as the authentic voice of Bolivian women. It would have been interesting to meet her here on her own ground- the village of Siglo XX, a bleak miners’ camp alongside Bolivia’s largest tin mine.

I was tempted to go up and speak to her. This was an opportunity that might not come again. But it seemed wrong. Alright perhaps at some foreign gathering where she might expect such an approach, but here it would have been something of an intrusion.

I had in any case read Let me speak! her autobiography that had allowed thousands around the world to share her life. What could a casual conversation add to a book of such power and depth? Part history, part political tract, part horror story, it’s a disturbing and memorable experience for any Western reader.

The book puts one nagging question, this way and that, paje after page. Why is it that the same tin that preserves our food, carries electrons whizzing round our TV sets and computers and generally makes our lives more comfortable still leaves the people who hack it out of the solid rock living in such abject poverty?

The question is not very original. Nor indeed is the answer: the blame is once again laid squarely at the feet of international capitalism. But what does arrest and hold the attention is the character and courage of the author.

Domitila Barrios de Chungara was born in a small village near Siglo XX. Her father was a long-time union organiser and political activist and her family suffered repression and discrimination as a result.

Her own political awakening was to come after she had married a miner and through her involvement in the ‘Housewives Committee’ at Siglo XX. The miners’ wives had founded their own organization to help defend themselves and their families from the periodic bouts of repression from Bolivia’s military governments.

Their husbands did not think much of this. ‘You should have heard the guffaws from the men at that time. They’d say, "The women have organized a committee! Let them! It won’t even last forty-eight hours."

The men weren’t used to having a woman speak on the same platform as them. So they shouted: "Go back home! Back to the kitchen! Back to the washing!" And they jeered and booed them.’

The most dramatic parts of Domitila’s story illuminate the experience of being a woman in a notoriously macho society and above all the difficulties of being a political fighter and a mother.

Her growing reputation as someone who would stand up for the rights of the miners families regularly put her in conflict with the military authorities - and landed her in jail. On the first occasion she was threatened that, if she refused to recant, her small children would suffer.

Later she is accused, falsely, of recruiting miners for Che Guevara’ s guerillas and, though heavily pregnant, is again jailed and beaten up. One evening shortly after being tortured she goes into labour and alone in her cell gives birth to a child. She passes out during the birth and wakes up later covered in blood with the dead baby lying cold beside her.

‘Did the baby die inside me? Did it die after being born because no-one helped it? I don’t know.’

Her painful experiences did eventually start to sap her confidence. ‘I felt like a criminal. In the cells they had convinced me that I was very guilty. I was sorry that I had ever become involved with the Committee. Why had I spoken out? Why had I denounced injustice? I’d ask myself that. At times I wished I’d had a stick of dynamite so I could blow myself up with my children and end it all.’

The book is a first-person narration - based mostly on tape-recorded conversations with Brazilian journalist Moema Viezzer. And most of its power comes from its conversational tone. Her political ideas were formed as she went along, gleaning what clarification she could from the miners’ leaders who had impressed her. Later there were academics who would lend her books. The resulting brew is fiercely socialist.

But the strength of the book is less in its political message that its human one: the reassurance that there are people with this kind of courage - a kind that most of us, hopefully, will never need.

Peter Stalker

Let Me Speak!
by Domitila Barrios de Chungara
with Moema Viezzer (1978)
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Monthly Review Press
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