Undone in the Realm of the Visible

September 25, 2007

By now most NACLA readers will have read something of the famous Vladivideos that contributed to the fall of the Fujimori government and continue to rock Peruvian politics. The series of videos—named after their producer and director, Vladimiro Montesinos, the once invincible head of the Peruvian National Intelligence System (SIN)—first became public in September of last year when a single video cassette was smuggled out of SIN headquarters. This video, which was repeatedly aired on Lima’s Canal N and excerpted for replay on the website of one of Lima’s leading opposition newspapers, El Comercio, showed Montesinos in conversation with Alex Kouri, a congressman who had been elected as an opposition candidate. More specifically, the tape shows Montesinos handing over $15,000 in cash to Kouri in return for his signature on a document and his promise to move over to the government, or Fujimorista, side of the national legislature. When Kouri objects that the $15,000 is not even enough to cover the costs of his own election, Montesinos responds with what would become the signature phrase of the video: “Tell me how much you want.”

In the months following the Kouri video, Peruvians were subjected to a seemingly endless stream of horrifying videos, all showing the crass arrogance and corruption with which the Fujimori government had been running the affairs of state. These videos showed government partisans and the owners of newspapers and television stations plotting with Montesinos to unseat opposition congressmen, arrange local elections and orchestrate media campaigns. Most recently, on April 14, a video was released showing generals from all branches of the Peruvian Armed Forces signing their allegiance to the Fujimori government in the aftermath of the famous autogolpe, or self-inflicted coup of April 1992, when Fujimori and Montesinos closed the Congress, took over the judiciary and declared a series of authoritarian measures designed to secure Fujimori’s hold on the executive branch, as well as to ease the implementation of his highly anti-popular neoliberal economic packages.

The Kouri video was by no means the first evidence that a number of “transfugas,” or “turncoats,” had broken ranks with the opposition (and their electorate) in return for monetary and political favors. Nor has it come as a surprise to most political analysts that the military had effectively signed over its autonomy to Fujimori’s nefarious “intelligence czar.” During the months preceding Fujimori’s third inauguration last July 28, Lima’s opposition press printed almost daily reports detailing the sorts of deals and payouts that were being made in the backrooms of both the Presidential Palace and the Pentagonito, or “Little Pentagon,” where Montesinos held court. These reports, moreover, only served to cement the already widespread understanding that Fujimori’s hold on power was due, at least in part, to similar sorts of backroom deals. Wild as it may seem, Montesinos’ intelligence operatives were widely known to have drugged opposition congressmen and politicians in order to then film (or photograph) them with prostitutes. These sensitive videos (many of which were later turned over to the Catholic Church for “safekeeping”) were then used to blackmail the congressmen into either keeping quiet or switching sides. In addition to these sorts of lurid scandals, questions were constantly being asked about how the millions of dollars from the privatization of Peru’s state enterprises and natural resources had been spent. Finally, an endless stream of reports and rumors had circulated about the large sums of money being paid to Fujimori, Montesinos and their cronies by foreign mining concerns, businesses and banks wishing to do business in Peru.

So why did it take a video to set off the chain of events that led to the fall of both Fujimori and the all-powerful Montesinos? One immediate explanation for the fascination of the Vladivideos was most certainly the reputation of the National Intelligence System (SIN), for what we are viewing when we watch these tapes is a supposedly invisible and all-powerful intelligence apparatus that has turned its own weapons of surveillance on itself.

The other precedent for watching this scene of a state watching itself, however, was the war that had brought Fujimori into power and the sorts of fears upon which both Fujimori and Montesinos staked their particular forms of power. During the 1980s there was a violent and prolonged war fought between the Peruvian Armed Forces, the Maoist Peruvian Communist Party (“Shining Path”) and a second, less brutal guerrilla movement, the MRTA. Nearly 30,000 Peruvians died in this 12-year war, the vast majority of them peasants, poor urban residents and grassroots and left-wing leaders who were either not involved with any of the armed groups or actively opposed to them.

Ironically, during the same years in which this war was being fought, Peru was also witnessing its first democratically elected government since 1966, and the first in which illiterate peasants had been allowed to vote. It was also a period of neoliberal reforms aimed, for the most part, at making the Peruvian economy more hospitable to foreign capital. The move to “restructure” the state and the economy really only took off, however, with the government of Alberto Fujimori, who first took office in July 1990, as the country entered its tenth year of war. Fujimori was then re-elected in 1995 and again, through fraudulent elections, in 2000. Faced with widespread popular mobilizations as well as the scandals caused by the Vladivideos, Fujimori resigned in disgrace in November 2000.

In many respects, the new state that emerged from this period of war and economic reform resembled neoliberal states in other parts of the world. Welfare services were reduced or eliminated; public economic sectors privatized; government bureaucracies reduced; and economic policy decisions centralized in the executive branch. In all this, the Peruvian state that emerged from the hands of the IMF and World Bank technocrats contained few surprises—with the major exception of the central role played by the intelligence services. From the beginning, Fujimori’s principal, though unofficial, advisor was Vladimiro Montesinos, a lawyer with known links to drug traffickers who had been expelled from the army during the 1970s on charges of informing for the CIA. From his position as Fujimori’s unofficial “right-hand man,” Montesinos was catapulted into power as what most political observers described as Peru’s second most powerful individual. Under his direction, Fujimori consolidated the various intelligence branches that once answered to different branches of the armed forces and police into a centralized National Intelligence Service (SIN) under the direct authority of the executive branch. Within the first 18 months of Fujimori’s government, SIN had established “nuclei” in each section of the civil service.

This war, for the most part, was a war fought between two entities—the state and Shining Path—that were continually working to hide themselves from a field of vision dominated by images of “unauthored” or anonymous violence.[1] The one Shining Path slogan that was known to all Peruvians was a warning, frequently issued in the writings and speeches of the movement’s militants, that “the Party has a thousand eyes and ears.” Shining Path used this slogan to cultivate a politics of fear: Betrayal of the party would be discovered and punished. This threat was made all the more convincing by the notorious invisibility of the party. Organized in a cell structure, the party had a decentralized chain of command and membership on all levels remained secret. Thus, the party was not only all-seeing, but also invisible and everywhere—which is to say, nowhere in particular.

One source of Montesinos’ concern—indeed obsession—with administering the domain of the visible can be traced to Shining Path, as the state’s principal enemy for many years. To defeat the guerrillas, it was necessary to mimic their power, and that power was itself based to no small degree on the party’s claims to control the domain of the visible. It is thus not surprising that some years later when Shining Path leader, Abimael Guzman, was finally captured, the state’s first move was to reverse the mystique surrounding party invisibility by putting Guzman on display for the press and TV cameras. In an effort to dramatize his poor physical condition, the Lima press published photographs of Guzman shirtless. The most widely viewed images of Guzman, however, showed him caged and wearing prison stripes. These photographs were clearly meant to show that it was now the state that controlled what and who could be seen.

Guzman’s arrest was not, of course, the only instance in which the state took advantage of its access to media to turn visual display into a weapon against Shining Path’s mystique of invisibility. Throughout the final years of the war, arrested “terrorists” were routinely brought before TV cameras, as were the arms caches, flags and “propaganda” found by counterinsurgency and intelligence forces.[2] Finally, a repentance program was initiated after Guzman’s arrest. Through this program, any party member or sympathizer who gave the names of at least two other party members would receive a reduced or commuted sentence. The end result was not only a significant flight from local party cells, but also the creation of an extensive national network of “eyes and ears” attached this time—however tentatively—to the intelligence services of the state. In some cases in the conflict-ridden Huallaga Valley, entire communities were registered by the military as “repenters.”

The administration of knowledge, surveillance and propaganda is, of course, central to all liberal state formations. What perhaps made it unique in Peru was the arrogance with which Montesinos, Fujimori and their crew believed that they could effectively replace real democratic governance, and the traditional (albeit always deficient) welfare functions of the Latin American state, with the careful, Machiavellian management of vision itself. It is here, of course, that the problem of corruption takes center stage, for corruption was the hidden truth of Fujimori’s state. As long as it remained hidden from view, corruption was a truth known only through the diffuse mechanisms of rumor, partial reports, insinuations and suspicion. The illicit forms of wealth generated by payoffs and bribes could be imagined as effective sources of power within the state. Once revealed in their grainy, black- and-white reality, however, the petty acts of graft, theft and extortion that constitute “corruption” ceased to be the hidden truth about the fortress of the state. They became instead signs of the inherent fragility of Fujimori’s decaying hold on power.

Fujimori, like other neoliberal reformers around the globe, based his demands for both greater authority and judicial and state reform on the need to “unmask” corruption and make government more “transparent.” What in fact took place was the creation of a form of government in which authoritarianism was justified as the most expedient means to achieve this “transparency.” Lacking citizen involvement, the only means to attain “transparency” was through the careful management and manipulation of appearances. As Machiavelli himself astutely wrote many centuries ago as advice to a different sort of Prince with a similar sort of problem: “Everyone is in a position to watch.”

Corruption is not just about legality and morality. It is also, on some fundamental level, about the fragility of power itself. The very term derives from the Latin corruptio, meaning to “break up” or “deteriorate.” Though viewed by its participants as a cynical means to concentrate or solidify their power, corruption, by its very name, in fact signals the breaking up or deterioration of the foundations of power. This deterioration is what the cloak of secrecy surrounding corruption is all about. To be successful, corruption must be kept secret or out of view not because of what it reveals of either individual moral character or the trespassing of law (although these are also important secondary considerations), but also, and more fundamentally, because of what it reveals of the structural vulnerability and arrogance of a form of governance that is based on the quick accumulation of individual wealth, the devaluation of all forms of collective action and property, and the exclusion of the nonprivileged. If the Vladivideos revealed the rottenness of corruption in all its pettiness and deceit, then that rot should be read as an indictment of a form of government in which democratic procedure and popular participation have been sacrificed to the goal of individual wealth.

Deborah Poole is associate professor of anthropology at the Graduate Faculty, New School for Social Research, where she is also chair of the Anthropology Department and Janey Program in Latin American Studies. Her publications include Vision, Race and Modernity: A Visual Economy of the Andean Image World (Princeton University Press, 1997) and Unruly Order: Violence, Power, and Cultural Identity in the Andean Highlands of Peru (Westview Press, 1994).

1. Interestingly, many of the MRTA’s most devastating defeats came when important leaders or militants were arrested following the discovery of photographs they had taken of themselves. In this sense, the MRTA’s sense of publicity can be productively contrasted with Shining Path’s incredible investment in invisibility. This mantle of invisibility was broken with the discovery in 1991 of video tapes of the group’s central committee and of festivities in which Guzman and other leaders had been filmed by the party itself.

2. Today Shining Path has been reduced to two columns, under different and probably competing leaderships, that operate in the coca-producing areas of the Huallaga Valley and the Apurimac-Ene region of Ayacucho. These post-Guzman groups survive on payments from the coca trade. In the Ayacucho area, they have also attempted to disassociate themselves from the earlier brutalities of the 1980s war, with propaganda and speeches that claim the party has learned from its past abuses and will no longer punish peasants. It is unclear if this propaganda has had any success.


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