Fatal Attraction: Peru's Shining Path

September 25, 2007

For the third year running, more people have been "disappeared" in Peru than anywhere else in the world. Ten years of war between the armed forces and the Communist Party of Peru, known as Sendero Lummoso (Shining Path), have left 3,000 people disappeared and nearly 18,000 dead. Two-thirds of this "democratic" country is under military rule, much of that actually under guerrilla control.

The United States is poised to enter the scene, ostensibly to wage the war on drugs. Military assistance to Peru jumped from $1.5 million in 1989 to a proposed $36 million last year. Recently elected President Alberto Fujimori refused the aid, although observers agree he is likely to embrace a larger package in 1991,

Peru is desperate for change: Crushing poverty is accentuated by a prostrate economy and pervasive racist oppression against the Indian majority. It's no surprise that Peru outdistances most other nations in the size and depth of its grassroots movements. Nor is it surprising that armed revolution should gain ready adherents.

At a distance Sendero Lummoso begs ridicule: from its name, to its hallowing of "Gonzalo Thoughtî (Sendero's leader is known as Presidente Gonzalo), to its claim to be the beacon of world revolution. It speaks Chinese, at times literally, to the Peruvian peasantry. It exalts violence, and kills with unbridled cruelty. Sendero lashes out at the poor, displays utter contempt for the organizations the poor have built, and seeks to impose a new society from above while ignoring the opinions of the supposed beneficiaries.

Yet it has achieved undeniable success, confirming an appeal that many would prefer to deny. Despite the frequent and pervasive use of terror, violence is not the sum total of Sendero's relationship to the masses. Moreover, the terror itself seems to constitute an important part of its allure - a paradox which haunts the pages of this issue of the Report.

CARLOS IVAN DEGREGORI'S CHILLING portrait places Sendero in the context of the provincial Andean society from which it emerged and which it has largely come to dominate. For Degregori, Sendero's appeal is linked to the massive embrace of education by Andean peoples - a great yearning for truth, and for a means to end centuries of domination via deception. Sendero's quasi-religious and ultra- orthodox version of Marxism ("the scientific truth") meets this need, while proposing a new, no less hierarchical order, in which "the proletariat" (read: party members) could move from the base to the peak of the social pyramid.

Sendero apparently finds greatest support among women; its frontline comandantes are female. Carol Andreas argues that women have the most scores to settle in traditional Peruvian society because they have suffered at the hands of the entire structure of authority: from abusive husbands and fathers on up the ladder of the maledominated state, including the left parties and mass organizations that mouth women's rights but have never taken them seriously. Sendero offers women an ideology for explaining their oppression, and a vehicle for challenging the forces that oppress them.

When the guerrillas take over a region, they not only carry out showcase executions of landowners, merchants, cattle thieves and all those perceived to collaborate with them. They also become the arbiters of public morality. Nelson Marnique describes Draconian punishments for drunkenness, adultery and abuse. Though violently authoritarian, Sendero's rule guarantees peasants certain previously unknown elemental rights: personal security against common criminals, the efficient administration of justice, the assurance that public officials will carry out their duties.

THE LOGIC OF REVOLUTIONARY WAR, pursued relentlessly by Sendero, tends to come into conflict with the logic of campesino life, making survival ever more difficult. And in the areas the guerrillas are now attempting to penetrate - the cities and central highland valleys - the poor have a tradition of autonomous organization and struggle which makes them little disposed to Sendero's impositions.

However, the size and militancy of Peru's labor, peasant and community movements have not kept the allure of authoritarianism from infecting society at large. Army massacres of Indian peasants no longer make the news; the most abhorrent abuses evoke little outcry. As Manrique points out, more and more people have embraced the notion of "Kill them all and get it over with."

An army that acts with impunity and considers any popular movement to be subversive is agood complement to Sendero. As both sides lay siege to Peru's democratic grassroots organizations, the nation is being steadily transformed into precisely the kind of society Sendern claimed it was all along: fascist and semi-feudal - one in which all paths to a revolution that is not authoritarian are closed.

Arcane as war in the far-off Andes may seem, there is something universal in the drama unfolding there. Sendero's politics magnify and crystalize the authoritarianism present in so many political movements, right, left and center. Their slogan, "Except for power, all is illusion, " is the essence of traditional party politics carried to its logical extreme. Perhaps the fatal attraction Sendero evokes is not so mysterious after all. As Manrique concludes, "The stuff of which our dreams are made, can become our worst nightmare."


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