Questioning The Invisible
issue 321 - March 2000
Bedbugs and the President’s tractor…
The wrong kind of aid… The subtle difference between
killing and execution… What really matters now…
‘Things, things, things,’ I’m thinking, as I settle down for a night in the tooth-chattering mountain town of Tambo. Around me in the CODEAC office are boxes of seed, tins of fertilizer, blankets. I have seen so many things on this trip. Schoolrooms, bridges, health posts, latrines, roads. All manner of matter and infrastructure.
It’s the useful stuff of development: what’s been needed in rural Peru for so many decades. And the Peruvian Government – with the help of substantial European Union funding – and a huge array of aid agencies have been doing it very visibly.
All well and good.
Or is it? What about the things we cannot see? I think as I lie there, being voraciously nibbled by bedbugs between half a dozen thick ‘aid’ blankets. What about human rights? The rule of law? A functioning democracy? Freedom from violence and torture? Racial equality? Gender equality? An economic system that does not just enrich the rich and impoverish the poor?
Things matter, especially when you lack them. But simply handing out material things can block the way to real dynamic development. They can have an unpredictably disempowering effect on the recipient and, of course, a predictably empowering effect on the donor.
These are not new thoughts. Many have noted the ‘clientalism’ of Fujimori’s state. It has become a generous-seeming donor. The State has become the new ‘patron’. Fujimori has made much of wanting to deal ‘directly with the people’, not wanting or needing ‘intermediaries’. He has no time for the social, democratic institutions that he thinks ‘get in the way’. This is the leader, remember, who closed down parliament in 1992, sacked the entire judiciary and replaced it with yes-men and -women on insecure temporary contracts.
His has been a centralist, technocratic regime. But he has also skilfully presented himself as a man of the people, and a man who gets things done. Every now and again he garners support by travelling around the countryside on a tractor, wearing – despite his second-generation Japanese origins – the traditional Andean peasant garb.
Bombarded by aid
In the village of Chalhuamayo, a community of returnees about an hour by motorbike from Tambo, the negative effects of the wrong kind of giving are apparent.
This unprepossessing place, hemmed in by mountains and on the road that joins highland to jungle, took a hammering. It suffered eight major attacks, coming from both sides. ‘But Sendero was the worst,’ says Paulino, a village spokesperson.
More recently the community received another bombardment – this time in the form of food aid. One year it received so much from various unco-ordinated agencies that the people stopped sowing. The next year they waited for the same thing to happen, which of course it didn’t.
‘The truth is there is tremendous passivity in some communities now,’ admits Elizabeth Leon of Oxfam.
I get a sense of it as I stand chatting to a group of villagers outside a a smartly tiled brand-new building. It’s a communal diner built by one of the state agencies. ‘Why don’t you use it?’ I ask. One of the women, Ida Anaya Sulca, replies: ‘We are still waiting for supplies.’ I guess she knows it’s no real explanation.
Probably this facility was never really needed here. Which points to a larger problem: most state aid is devised in Lima, with little local consultation, and the old mistrust of Ayacuchans still prevails in the capital. Also most of it is in material rather than human resources. So Chalhuamayo has a big new school and a health centre – but locals complain that the teachers and the nurse are so poorly paid that they don’t bother to turn up.
It’s hard to gauge the hidden damage caused by the creation of a culture of dependency that has resulted from the violence and its aftermath.
‘There is no denying that this has happened,’ says Elizabeth León. But the more progressive agencies are moving towards programmes that encourage local democracy.
Oxfam, for example, is now helping communities to make proposals to, and negotiate more effectively with, their local municipalities for services – water, electricity and so forth. Cultivating active citizenship may not appeal to donors as immediately as emergency food aid but it’s crucial work.
Similarly the European Union, which has a large programme in Ayacucho, is now putting more emphasis on non-material skills: management, leadership, marketing of produce.
'Peasant men get drunk together and tell stories about
how brave they were in beating the terrorists'
But there are still plenty of rotten apples in the aid cart. Of the astounding 120 aid agencies registered in Ayacucho only half actually exist – the other half are ‘phantoms’, according to local anthropologist José Coronel.
Of the 60 that do exist, 13 – including CODEAC, Oxfam and World Vision – have come together to co-ordinate their activities. ‘Up to now agencies have tended to act as though they had nothing to learn from each other: they had to know best,’ critiques Coronel. ‘But the culture is changing, and very much for the better.’
More important still, however, is encouraging fledgling local organizations to spring from the ashes of war. Before the troubles Peru was awash with all manner of local and grassroots groups. But the Sendero years killed such action dead, especially during the late 1980s. Across Peru mayors and community leaders resigned in their thousands in the face of all-too-real death threats.
The emergence of the rondas campesinas as organized forces of self-defence has been a huge morale booster for battered local communities.
‘Peasant men still get drunk together and tell stories about how brave they were in beating the terrorists. This deals with trauma in a way that also bolsters their confidence and self-esteem,’ says anthropologist Kimberly Theidon.
Though the men bore arms, the women too played an important and acknowledged role. They were sentries – at times the last line of defence, armed with sticks topped with kitchen knives – and providers of food and support.
The rondas are also socially inclusive – everyone, in theory, belongs to one. There were high hopes that the peasant patrols would form the basis for rebuilding local democracy. But these have not been fully realized. The relationship between the rondas and the Government has at times been rocky – especially following the arrest of hundreds of rondero leaders amid accusations of abuse of power. Nor is the relationship between the rondas and the military trouble-free.
More hopeful perhaps are the effects of the changing role and status of Andean women. I recall how hard it used to be to get Andean women talking if there were men about. It’s still pretty difficult in many cases, but there are noticeable changes. Ida, the woman in Chalhuamayo, is a good example of an outspoken Andean new woman. Having spent her refugee years in the town of Huanta she has a good command of Spanish, the language of power, and like many women she will have developed other skills, such as street vending.
‘The experience of taking refuge in towns was perhaps not so negative for women in the long term as it was for men,’ says Ana Maria Rebaza of the agency Displacement Platform. ‘Often the men have been the keenest to return to the traditional patriarchal ways of the countryside, while the women and children have wanted to remain in towns.’
Another important factor is that in the towns the women came into contact with Mothers Clubs, effectively the backbone of the women’s movement in Peru. The growth of Mothers Clubs in Ayacucho during the past decade has been phenomenal. Whereas there were only 60 clubs in the department in the late 1970s, in 1995 the Departmental Federation of Mothers Clubs of Ayacucho (FEDECMA) had 1,400 clubs with 80,000 affiliated women, both urban and rural. This organization managed to resist numerous attempts at control and infiltration by Sendero and has been in the vanguard of promoting peace and human-rights awareness.
Gender equality is still a long way off, but women are generally much more involved in decision-making these days. Wilma Ortega, President of FEDECMA, cites many cases of Ayacuchan women now in leading positions in their communities. True, this happens more in towns than in the countryside, but the trend is general. Through the Mothers Clubs some of the burning social issues affecting campesina women – alcoholism and domestic violence among them – can be addressed. In fact, the women of Chalhuamayo went to Tambo for a course on domestic violence and strategies for dealing with it.
‘The situation has definitely improved as a result,’ says Ida.
Unfortunately all these efforts are being made within a national climate that is increasingly hostile to human rights and to the practice of democratic politics. President Fujimori’s decision to pull Peru out of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 1999 has only confirmed fears.
I think of this while listening to Felicita Valladares in her café in the town of Huanta. She is saying that there is hardly any local politics in Huanta these days. No-one has the time for meetings. Everyone is just trying to keep their head above water. The story is repeated across Peru, where free-market economic policies have hit hardest the poor and lower-middle classes, especially those working in the poorly paid public sector, while increasing more than ever the consumer power of the rich.
Felicita is a survivor. She has raised and educated her four children by both running this café and training as a nursing auxiliary. The last time we met was in 1985 and under very different circumstances. I’d come to Huanta after hearing a rumour that a stringer for the national daily La República had been killed by anti-terrorist police. On arrival, it was all too obviously true. Mourners were gathered in a house on the square and inside it the body of 28-year old Fredy Valladares was laid out, a bullet hole in his forehead. A child – maybe his? – was tracing patterns on the coffin, too young, too confused to be able to take in what was going on and what it might mean. Another, more disturbed boy was shooting at people with his fingers.
Fredy’s widow, Felicita, a strong-seeming woman, was distraught. I will never forget the moment she handed me his libreta electoral, the voting booklet Peruvians are obliged to carry as ID. It was soaked in his blood.
I’m feeling nervous now. Should I have come back here? Will I just be opening up old wounds?
A teenage girl is serving as I enter the café. I explain to her who I am and why I have come. She goes to fetch her mother, Felicita. The latter is very much as I remember her. It takes a while for what I am saying to sink in but she soon loosens up and begins to talk. The beers come out.
‘Of course I would have liked to have left Huanta after Fredy’s murder,’ she says. ‘But I had no option. I dedicated myself to bringing up my children.’
With quiet pride she tells me that her two eldest sons are now at university in Lima. The third, 17-year-old Kristha who sits with us, hopes to go next.
Felicita asks about the NI and only half-joking says: ‘Maybe I should carry on where Fredy left off. Perhaps I could become your correspondent from Huanta.’
I am left, as so often on this trip, with feelings of deep sadness combined with tremendous respect for people like Felicita, who just carry on in the face of grinding adversity and loss.
The knives of dogmatism
Later, and in another town, I come across another person who has carried on, in spite of everything. But he leaves me with quite different feelings. During my month in Ayacucho, I have heard no-one with any good to say about Sendero Luminoso in its current form. People who were part of the movement or had sympathy with it before tend to say it has lost its course. Others breathe a huge sigh of relief that the threat of Sendero, although not entirely gone, has at least receded.
Is there no-one here who still believes in The Revolution, in Gonzalo Thought?
Finally, I find one who does. He has a feral, hunted look about him, as well he might. Personally he has suffered terribly for his convictions and one can’t help but feel some degree of compassion and admiration.
He starts off by pouring scorn on the Government’s claims that Sendero Luminoso are responsible for 25,000 deaths. What, I ask him, is a more realistic figure, expecting him to say about half that number. But no. ‘We didn’t kill,’ he answers flatly.
Pardon me? What about all the campesinos, teachers, community leaders?
‘We did not kill,’ he repeats. ‘We executed spies and traitors. The reactionaries killed.’
What about the car bombs and suchlike?
‘Oh yes,’ he says. ‘People didn’t like the car bombs! But that’s war.’
He then rails against Sendero experts, academics who he says earn big salaries and travel the world, but who do not speak for the movement. Ayacucho is crawling with them, he spits.
Then he says something that sends shudders down my spine, mainly because I believe he really does mean it: ‘Half the people in this town need to be executed.’
These are not the clumsy rantings of a fool, or the excesses of youth. They are the knives of seasoned dogmatism: hard, sharp and harnessed to intellectual power. They have a fixedness and rigidity that I find utterly chilling.
What are the chances of a resurgence of Sendero? I ask.
‘We will resurge, because the conditions of poverty and discrimination are the same as they were. Nothing has changed. But it will take many years to rebuild our strength.’
He is right about the causes. Extreme poverty does prevail in Ayacucho (see Facts), in spite of all the apparent aid. The conditions that gave rise to Sendero Luminoso in the first place have not disappeared.
He adds: ‘The Government is only developing the countryside at all because of us. There are roads, bridges, schools now, because of us.’
In a twisted sort of sense this is also true.
But the price has been appallingly high, in terms of lives and democratic hopes. The war between Sendero Luminoso and three Peruvian Governments has set the clock back years, maybe decades.
The conditions that gave rise to
Sendero have not disappeared
It has cleared the way for an arch-strategist like Fujimori, with strong military connections and little interest in political discourse. And it’s left all those Peruvians who care about civil society and human rights with a Sisyphean task of restoring faith in political process and democracy.
Meanwhile Fujimori has yet again pulled a rabbit out of the hat: reinterpreting the Constitution so that he can run as President for a third time. The opposition parties are up in arms, but weak. The second time Fujimori ran, in 1995, he won with a huge majority. Ordinary Peruvians may not have been overjoyed by his economic policies, but they were grateful for having been brought back from the edge of total violent chaos. As they say: ‘El Chino [the Chinaman] has really clobbered Sendero.’ They can forgive him much for that.
Whether the electorate will be in so generous a mood when he appeals to them for another five-year term in April remains to be seen. The campaign is well under way and the air thick with allegations of corruption, press censorship and media manipulation by Fujimori and his party, renamed Peru 2000.