Peru’s local wars

COVER The Corner of the LivingThe Corner of the Living: Ayacucho on the Eve of the Shining Path Insurgency
Miguel La Serna
2012, University of North Carolina Press
304 pages

ONE OF the key issues complicating Marxist visions in Latin America has been the role of the peasantry,

Principal early themes of debate on the left in the region were the character of the forthcoming socialist revolution and the extent to which the proletariat – the industrial working class – would lead it. The left’s resounding failure was its reluctance to come to terms with the key issue that limited its relevance in the region: the peasant question.

Given Latin America’s agrarian character, the Communist International, for example, did not expect a revolution to take place in the region and there was little incentive within communist movements to care about rural rebellion.

One thinker who recognized this failing and tried to address it was the visionary Peruvian writer José Carlos Mariátegui, who tried to reconcile doctrinaire Marxism with his passionate concern for indigenous culture. His Siete ensayos de interpretación de la realidad peruana (1928) remains a key text in the analysis of land distribution and the status of indigenous people and he was one of the first socialists to turn Marxism-Leninism on it head by stressing the revolutionary potential of peasants – the indigenous peasantry, not the industrial proletariat, was the true revolutionary class in Latin America.

Mariátegui saw socialism as a means of redeeming Peru’s poor indigenous masses and diverse elements on the left have since drawn selectively upon his thought, not least the Maoists of the Peruvian guerrilla movement Sendero Luminoso which are the subject of Miguel La Serna’s The Corner of the Living.

Sendero Luminoso remains one of the most intriguing and enigmatic political movements ever to have emerged in Latin America, not least because of the iron grip it maintained over its cadres and – at one stage – its real potential to sweep away everything before it in its uncompromising advance from Peru’s hinterland towards its cities.

Sendero’s leader, Abimael Guzmán – known to followers as “Presidente Gonzalo” – was a loyal subscriber to Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought (Maoism) and sought to apply directly Mao’s theory of revolution beginning in the countryside and encircling the towns, with leadership eventually passing from the peasants to the urban working class.

Other ideologues such as Antonio Díaz Martínez advanced visions of agrarian reform and paid great attention to indigenous questions, often rejecting Peru’s national culture as an alien imposition upon indigenous cultures.

The outcome was a bloody insurgency in the Peruvian highlands that lasted for most of the 1980s and continued sporadically into the 1990s, costing the lives of at least 70,000 people. Sendero Luminoso remains active, although as with other guerrilla movements it has been recategorized as a drug-trafficking terrorist group by Washington to facilitate continuing US interventions in the affairs of Latin American countries.

Miguel la Serna examines the role played by indigenous villagers in the story of Sendero in two villages in the highland department of Ayacucho: Chuschi and Huaychao.

He employs these two examples to ask a question at the very heart of the study of peasant mobilization in Latin America: why some peasants chose to embrace Sendero Luminoso’s ideology while others did not.

Chuschi, a village of Quechua-speaking peasants, is an iconic place in the history of Maoism as the scene of the first act in Sendero’s insurgency in 1980 when a group of five guerrillas seized a voter registration office and burned the ballot boxes – the spark that would eventually ignite a firestorm scorching large swathes of Peru’s highlands.

The village would become a rebel stronghold where the guerrillas enjoyed significant levels of local support and the base for numerous insurgent operations.

Huaychao, on the face of it a not dissimilar village, is an equally important place in Sendero’s history, for it was here in 1983 that a column of senderistas was welcomed into the town, then attacked, captured, tortured and executed – sparking a counter-rebellion that would lead to the formation of counter-insurgent militias across the region.

La Serna conducts a comparative study to consider these two very different responses to the Maoist insurgency among remarkably similar villages, situating his work from the outset in more recent scholarship on Peru’s civil war by looking at its historical precursors and hence in terms of broader and longer struggles for indigenous peasant citizenship.

He argues that in order to make sense of the divergent responses to Sendero – and hence divergent peasant responses to mobilization – it is essential to understand the dynamics of local relationships and conflicts during times of peace.

Above all, it is essential to understand the diversity within the categories of “peasant” and “indigenous” and the local experiences, attitudes and traditions that greatly complicate the use of overarching structures and identities in analysis.

La Serna argues that long-developing power relations, social conflicts and cultural understandings at the local level conditioned indigenous peasant responses to the Maoist insurgency, and develops the notion of the local “power pact” referring to the tacit, collective and morally established expectations that subjugated peoples have of those who subjugate them. La Serna writes:

“As only a localized approach such as this one can show, it was precisely in the villages where a significant portion of the population felt that power holders had broken their end of this power pact that subversive groups such as Shining Path received the earliest and staunchest support. By contrast, in regions where customary authority and justice had largely preserved this power pact, Shining Path cadres met fervent and even violent resistance.” [p. 16]

Despite the complexity of this issue, the author offers a lucid, simple and very appealing approach to understanding peasant behaviour, albeit one that will be as uncomfortable for orthodox Marxists as it will for the Peruvian conservatives such as the writer Mario Vargas Llosa who sought to understand counter-insurgent violence through a very static, detached view of the peasant condition. La Serna writes:

“Historical actors – even poor, second-class citizens – do not always act in their best economic or political interests. Nor do they always act in any predetermined or unified way. On the contrary, Ayacuchans had many reasons for supporting or resisting Shining Path. It would therefore be a mistake to apply simple explanatory models to complicated historical actors and situations.” [p. 216]

The author also argues that such an approach has great utility in the effort to understand complicated insurgencies in other forgotten “corners” of the globe, such as the areas under the control of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Human and symbolic targets of collective violence, he suggests, are not just political targets, or random victims of immoral insurgents – they are often selected as culpably illegitimate victims by subaltern actors seeking to restore a sense of justice, order and security in otherwise marginalized communities.

La Serna concludes with a plea for scholars to look beyond the global to the local in an effort to resolve the pressing problems that Andean peoples still face:

“As the recent wave of vigilante violence in the Andes suggests, the greatest tragedy of the Peruvian civil war is neither the high number of civilian casualties nor the devastating blow it inflicted to the country’s economic progress and democratic process. Rather, it is that far too little has been done to address the local injustices and grievances that led ordinary people to resort to violence in the first place.” [p. 219]

Latin American Review of Books – Latamrob

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