Date: Wed, 30 Apr 1997 06:04:59 -0700
From: Arm The Spirit <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Peru, like most countries in Latin America, only garners sustained attention from American news organizations during spasms of political and military violence. And certainly the last four months have given American news producers no shortage of dramatic material: First, last December, a daring raid by Peru's Tupac Amaru guerrillas on the compound of the Japanese Embassy in Lima, taking nearly 500 hostages. Then last week came the Peruvian army's own daring raid on the compound, ordered by President Alberto Fujimori. Peruvian soldiers killed all the rebel captors and freed all but one of the hostages - a Peruvian Supreme Court justice who died during the military assault.
But the dazzling beginning and end of the hostage crisis conceal a much deeper malaise in Fujimori's Peru. Even though Fujimori has won a high-stakes political gamble by choreographing Tuesday's surprise raid, he still faces many obdurate political challenges. Indeed, the long period between the two raids gives us a truer picture of the mood of Peru than the high drama of hostage-taking and gunplay at a foreign embassy.
Most observers assumed that Peruvians would feel nothing but contempt for the guerrillas' embassy takeover and their subsequent bid to negotiate the release of 400 of their jailed comrades. After all, Peruvians were tired of the destructive cycles of violence that have wracked the country since the early 1980s. The competing "revolutionary wars" launched by the Tupac Amaru and the Shining Path against the government, which responded with "dirty war" tactics of its own, had left more than 30,000 dead, hundreds "disappeared", and billions of dollars in damages.
Yet many Peruvians seemed to greet the news of the embassy takeover with ambivalence. They openly distrust a Fujimori regime they think has betrayed them - but at the same time, the guerrilla wars have only reinforced their sense that they lack other viable alternatives.
On a visit to Lima just after the Dec. 17 embassy takeover by the Tupac Amaru (known by its Spanish acronym MRTA, I found some unlikely expressions of sympathy with the guerrilla group. One middle-class Peruvian housewife told me that she viewed the MRTA's well-planned assault as a pointed contrast to the growing chaos of the Fujimori government: "Maybe", she said, "we Peruvians should let them run the country for a while and see how they do."
Many of the critical middle and working-class constituencies that delivered some of Fujimori's strongest electoral support are becoming deeply disenchanted with the apparent failure of his economic reforms to trickle down to them. Once again, it seems, ordinary Peruvians had placed their hopes in a dynamic political leader who ended up defrauding them.
Popular disillusion with Fujimori comes after a long string of political successes for the hard-line Peruvian leader. On the economic front, he was credited with licking Peru's astronomical inflation, bringing it down from 7,600 percent in 1989 to around 10 percent by 1994. He was also admired for capturing the top leaders of both the MRTA and Shining Path, bringing political violence under control and returning stability to the country.
Not even his authoritarian style dampened his popular support. In 1992, when he closed Congress and suspended the nation's constitution to free up the military's hands to combat guerrilla violence, most Peruvians were relieved to have a president who did not shirk from "what needed to be done" to bring some semblance of order to Peru. Riding a high wave of popularity, Fujimori was reelected to a second term in 1995, and his free-market reforms were soon being lauded internationally for turning Peru around.
But whether they planned it that way or not, the MRTA had caught Fujimori at the tail-end of a particularly bad year. His free-market reforms seemed to be stalling, causing anxiety among poor Peruvians who had accepted Fujimori's claims that trade liberalization and economic austerity, while painful in the short-term, would bring long-term benefits to all Peruvians. Their faith had initially seemed justified: The Peruvian economy grew by record rates of 13.9 percent in 1994 and 7.7 percent in 1995. Foreign investment also increased dramatically.
Yet by 1996 the economy was faltering: The growth rate fell to a mere 2.8 percent, gasoline and food prices were on the rise, and unemployment remained stubbornly high. New opposition coalitions, such as the Democratic Forum and the Committe for Democracy, were beginning to make important inroads.
In a poll taken Dec. 15, two days before the MRTA takeover, Fujimori's approval rating had fallen to 41 percent - a dramatic drop, since his popularity had rarely dipped below 70 percent between 1992 and early 1996. On the eve of last Tuesday's raid, Fujimori's approval rating had fallen to an all-time low of 38 percent.
The MRTA had also shrewdly tapped into popular disconent by selecting the Japanese ambassador's residence as its target. The country symbolizes the misplaced priorities of Fujimori's policies to many Peruvian citizens: Japan has provided Peru with hundreds of millions of dollars in economic aid and private investment. "The Japanese government is supporting Fujimori", said Nestor Cerpa, the late MRTA leader. "And Fujimori's administration is ignoring the plight of 13 million hungry Peruvians."
In the wake of Tuesday's successful military action, Fujimori is betting that popular discontent with his government will subside. He has, after all, made good on his promise delivered just days before last December's embassy raid that crushing the MRTA would be papayita - a piece of cake. But just as the MRTA tragically miscalculated Fujimori's willingness to abide by the Japanese government's history of negotiating with terrorists, so, too, Furimori's posturing as a populist strongman may prove premature.
Instead, the biggest winner may prove to be Peru's strong-armed military high command, which would be still worse news for ordinary Peruvians. Just last week, Fujimori replaced his interior minister and security chief with hard-line generals, a move widely regarded (in hindsight, at least as an indication that he would deploy force to crush the rebels. (Once the raid was under way, the army had a distressingly free hand, as suggested by the reports that MRTA rebels were mutilated and dismembered, and that army commandos executed guerrillas trying to surrender to them.
But the raid only capped a round of aggressive recent activity signaling a pronounced new militarization of Peruvian society. In March, Fujimori's hard-line military allies, using renewed guerrilla activity as an excuse, had already begun to step up the repression. For example, Peruvian journalist Miguel Real received anonymous death threats after he broadcast an interview with Cerpa in which the MRTA leader denounced the military for working on the underground tunnels that later proved instrumental to last week's raid. Several weeks ago, an unidentified group of men opened fire on the official car of opposition Senator Javier Diez Canseco, wounding two bodyguards. Diez Canseco, who was among the first group of hostages to be freed by the MRTA, had been promoting the idea of a peace agreement between the government and the MRTA - and thereby earning the wrath of the military high command. And in late March, Amnesty International reported that the army arrested 39 peasants, including eight minors, whom they suspected of belonging to the MRTA in Chanchamayo, a jungle region in central Peru.
Amnesty says there is no evidence connecting the peasants to the MRTA. In addition, Amnesty officials claim that several peasants have been tortured while in army custody. Such developments are a harrowing reminder that in the war between Peru's guerrilla movements and the army, it is mostly innocent, anonymous Peruvians who get caught in the cross fire.
Jo-Marie Burt is associate editor of the North American Congress on Latin America's Report on the Americas.
Source: Newsday, Sunday Focus Section - April 27, 1997
Honor To The Martyrs Of The Edgar Sanchez Commando!
Tupac Amaru Lives! The Struggle Continues!
MRTA Solidarity Page - http://burn.ucsd.edu/~ats/mrta.htm