issue 197 - July 1989
Revolution. Coup. Civil war.
Peru is teetering on the
brink of one or two or all
three. Vanessa Baird
Under a deep blue Andean sky a Indian woman is whitewashing a wall. She is not happy in her work. It may have something to do with the soldier, face concealed by a black ski-mask, pointing a gun at her.
She is one of the dozens of people being forced to obliterate the slogans on the walls of their shanty-town in the highland town of Huancayo. Soldiers invaded at dawn. Armoured cars block all exits. About 60 masked men line the road, armed with machine guns and walkie-talkies. A helicopter circles overhead.
Slowly, resentfully, the painters move their brushes to hide the large red letters and symbols: 'Long live the people's war.' 'Long live the Communist Party of Peru - Sendero Luminoso'.
The slogans are those of Sendero Luminoso - the Shining Path - a Maoist revolutionary organization so ruthless in its determination to demolish the Peruvian State that it has been likened to Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
The whitewash is thin. You can already see the writing coming through again. It hardly matters.
'How long before they get painted with slogans again?' I ask. 'A day. Maybe two.'
An estimated 15,000 people have died in Peru's 'dirty war'. The political violence started in 1980 when Sendero Luminoso took up arms. But Government forces have done most of the killing. In the province of Ayacucho alone 3,200 people have disappeared after having been arrested by the security forces. And as the painters work here in Huancayo, about 50 young people have been detained in a barracks just down the road - following a guerilla action in which 14 simultaneous dynamite blasts rocked the town.
On the day of the attack the army and police locked themselves into their barracks and stayed put. 'As they normally do,' explains local journalist Israél Galván. 'Then they make arbitrary arrests,' he continues. 'If they get the right people it is by chance.'
Huancayo is 12,000 feet up in the Andes and is a key town in Peru's civil war. The fertile countryside around provides Lima, the capital, with many of its staple foods. This area also provides energy via the Mantaro Valley hydro-electric scheme. So it is not surprising that Sendero Luminoso has become so active here. Electricity pylons are regularly blown up to throw Lima into darkness. And a huge co-operative with 4,000 head of cattle was recently destroyed.
Israél points to the mauve mountains that entirely surround Huancayo. He indicates which parts are controlled by Sendero. It seems that every part is except one.
'What happens there?'
'That is where the MRTA have control'. MRTA - the Revolutionary Movement Tupac Amaru - is another newer, smaller and more conventional revolutionary force which draws inspiration from Che Guevara.
Centuries of violence
But violence is nothing new in Peru. The history of the Andean peasant has been a tragic and brutal one - certainly since the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. Forced labour down the silver mines in barbaric conditions during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was followed by virtual slavery on the large estates of rich, mainly white, patrones. Their rule was authoritarian and abusive, degrading the Indian in virtually every respect. Indian women workers, for example, were treated as the sexual property of the patron and his sons.
In recent decades this abuse has been replaced by a different kind of violence: that of poverty and neglect. Lima, the seat of Government in Peru, is on the coast. This is where the white and mestizo (mixed-blood) ruling class lives. What happens in the interior of the country is of little interest to them.
The result has been social and economic neglect. People in Lima live an average of 20 years longer than those in some highland provinces, where the life expectancy is often less than 50 years. And children in the highlands are more than twice as likely to die before reaching the age of five as those in the capital. Education is so poor in the mountains that parents often have to send their children to Lima to study.
The region of Ayacucho, south of Huancayo, has been one of the most deprived of all. But Ayacucho does have a university. And here the children of peasants could learn about their own history and discover there were other ways of looking at the world than their traditional subjection.
The peasants were encouraged also by a left-wing military government which seized power in 1969 and instituted a programme of land reform. The Indian language Quechua was taught in schools for the first time. And grassroots community groups were set up.
But the land reform was a failure in the end. Only the richer peasants benefitted. Then the dictatorship shifted politically rightwards to be replaced eventually by the democratically-elected conservative Popular Action Government of Fernando Belaunde in 1980. The old pattern of neglect was firmly re-established.
The anger and disappointment of the peasants could no longer be ignored. And their children in the University in Ayacucho took up arms under the leadership of philosophy professor Abimael Guzman. They called themselves the Communist Party of Peru - Shining Path (after Peruvian revolutionary thinker Jose Mariategui, whose shining path they wanted to follow).
President Belaunde and his Popular Action Government were quite unprepared for this. And the security forces responded so brutally that the Government lost the support of the people. The army has ever since been the best recruiting agent for the guerillas.
Today the Government of Peru is in the hands of President Alán García of APRA (the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance) but he has had little more success in dealing with this conflict.
Indeed there seems to be strange game being played in Peru today. The Government pretends to govern, the security forces pretend to defend, and people pretend not to notice that neither is performing either function.
The Government talks about 'defending democracy' - though it has imposed a State of Emergency which denies 40 per cent of Peruvians their democratic rights and gives the military effective control over one third of the country. Sendero Luminoso for its part is successfully chipping away at democracy by assassinating local government leaders; more than 200 mayors, prefects and governors have been murdered to date. Meanwhile a new right-wing paramilitary group 'Comando Rodrigo Franco' - has been assassinating left-wing politicians and trade-union leaders.
If the Government appears to have lost its military grip, its handling of the economy is even less impressive. Inflation is likely to reach 10,000 per cent by the end of this year. The effects are evident. Even the beggars go around with large plastic bags, gathering wads of almost valueless notes. And it is almost impossible to move around central Lima these days for the crush of dollar-hungry money-changers. Coins have disappeared from circulation altogether: they are being made into washers.
The human cost is high. Salaries cannot keep pace with inflation. Street children are thinner and more numerous. Markets run out of fish-heads early - they are the only part most people can afford to buy. And, of course, crime has increased, taking increasingly desperate forms. Someone tells me of a plate of food stolen from under his nose in a restaurant.
Meanwhile, many Peruvians are voting with their feet. They are emigrating at a rate of 10,000 a month. If the exodus continues at this rate one million people will have left by 1992.
Foreigners too are being discouraged. The murder at the end of May by Sendero of a British tourist on a walking holiday seems to have been aimed at cutting tourism and deepening the country's economic crisis. And foreign aid workers are also under threat. During the past year, four have been murdered. In Huancayo a North American and his Peruvian colleague were killed just a few months ago. All others have now been pulled out.
'We have come to realize that we are on Sendero's hit list,' said one foreign aid worker who had known the dead American. 'Not at the top of the list, but there.' He realized he would have to leave when he visited a peasant community and found that their agricultural development project had ground to a halt. Peasant leaders told him they were 'under orders' not to harvest.
This is standard Sendero procedure. Peasants - under threat of execution - are told to produce only for themselves. The idea is to starve the towns of food. Eventually the urban poor will not be able to stand it any more and will revolt.
'Anything which gives people hope within the system must be destroyed,' said one aid worker. That means foreign aid projects and even peasant organizations. Twelve peasant leaders were recently executed not far from Huancayo.
Most political commentators in Peru are opposed to the violence. But there are some who can also see positive aspects to the current chaos. Journalist Mirko Lauer believes that 'we are seeing the crumbling of the old order. That unjust coalition of ineffective privileges is going to hell. People might be afraid. But that old order could have lasted another 100 or 200 years had it not been for this crisis'.
The crisis has certainly led to a tremendous upsurge in community action. In some areas of the countryside, peasants have formed self-defence groups - rondas campesinas - to defend themselves against the armed groups. And peasant farmers have also formed a united front against the Government and have been striking for reasonable prices.
The response of shanty-town women in Lima has been to set up communal kitchens. Only by buying food in bulk and cooking it together can they feed their families. More of these are being set up every day and the women who meet there have become more vociferous in defending their rights - and those of their children. 'We have become massively rebellious,' is how one activist puts it.
Even the middle-class has been obliged to become more co-operative. A teacher relates how in the college where she works the staff rarely communicated with each other until they started buying food in bulk together. 'Now we have become friends. This is happening in many places. People are more united. There is more solidarity.'
This aptitude for communal action - which has a strong tradition in Peru - is perhaps the greatest hope for the country. And it is matched by an equally strong popular revulsion for the violence and authoritarianism of Sendero Luminoso.
A study by a Commission1 of Peru's Senate found that 90 per cent of the population wanted a peaceful solution to the country's problems. It concluded that 'the vast majority condemns and rejects Sendero. But it also condemns and rejects poverty and structural violence, injustice in social relations and the ineptitude of the State to promote peace based upon radical social transformation.'
The extraordinary thing about Peru today is that in spite of the chaos there is not only a popular consensus but also a tremendous moral and social energy. No government has yet capitalized on this by launching a psychological and economic (as opposed to purely military) campaign against the violence of Sendero. Politicians could also learn a lesson or two from shanty-town mothers on how to run an economy on a pittance.
But there is at least some hope on the party political front. A democratically-elected socialist government is a possibility. In the 1985 election, three-quarters of the electorate voted for socialism in one form or another. The largest share went to the ruling centre-left APRA party, but the five-year-old United Left party - a coalition of everything from Maoists to social democrats - did manage to get nearly a quarter of the vote.
Sendero sees this parliamentary Left, and especially the United Left party led by Marxist Alfonso Barrantes, as its main enemy. They are after all competing for the support from the same people, and their analysis of what is wrong with the country is similar.
Ballot or bullet
Elections are due next year. But most peopIe are wondering whether they will be pre-empted by a coup or a civil war.
The prospects are not good, mainly because there are so many possible scenarios for a right-wing coup. There could be a coup to stop Alfonso Barrantes coming to power. Or the coup could happen after he gets elected - as happened with Allende in Chile in 1973.
Rumours abound that a military coup before the elections would suit President Garcia. He could then play the role of martyr and return to power at a later stage. It seems unlikely, however, that the army would go along with this. Indeed, the military has already intimated that the President would not come out of a coup with his life.
A coup before the election might, however, suit the right-wing Fredemo party led by novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. Nobody wants to inherit the current chaos. If the military staged a short coup it could wipe out Sendero Luminoso and the MRTA - and probably hundreds of thousands of innocent people besides - and then hand over power to a right-wing civilian Government probably led by Vargas Llosa. Such a government might also be more inclined to make a deal with the US to let in troops to eradicate coca production - cocaine paste is Peru's biggest export - in exchange for helping to get rid of Sendero. This might make the US more amenable to supplying fresh loans on favourable terms to the poverty-stricken country.
This is probably the most dangerous scenario of all. The social injustices which have led to the emergence of the guerrilla groups in the first place will remain. The civil war that is bound to occur at some stage may just be bloodier.
One of the most dangerous ingredients on the Peruvian scene is the one the Indian woman in Huancayo is so resentfully putting on the wall - whitewash. The demand for justice and equality has been made. It cannot be painted over.
1 Special Senate Commission on the Causes of Violence and the Alternatives for Peace, Violence and Peace, Lima, November 1988.
Worth reading... on Peru
A good start is John Hemming's superb and vivid history, Conquest of the Incas (Penguin, 1983). In Peru: Paths to Poverty (LAB, 1985) Mike Reid traces the causes of the country's crisis from Inca times to 1985.
Two great fiction writers have been translated into English. Deep Rivers and Blood Feast by José Maria Arguedas are being published by Texas University Press. Rejected by his wealthy stepmother, Arguedas was brought up by Indians in a highland community. absorbing their stories and traditions.
Mario Vargas Liosa comes from another, more European tradition. But he does manage to evoke Peru and Peruvians with perception and wit. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (Faber and Faber, 1983), set in Lima, is racy, largely autobiographical and extremely funny. In a different vein is The Real Life of Alejandro Mayte, (Faber and Faber, 1988), which tells the story of a failed 1950s Troskyist revolutionary. For Vargas Liosa it is something of a political apology marking his shift from the revolutionary politics of his youth to the Right. Whatever his politics, Vargas Llosa's writing remains brilliant.
They say that we do not know anything
They say that some learned men are saying this about us
What is there on the banks of these rivers, Doctor?
From A call to certain academics by José María Arguedas.