A Cold War Legacy: Dealing with Human Rights Abuses in Peru

Photo Credit: LA TimesHenry Wadsworth Longfellow. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The World Bank’s 2017 report on the Peruvian economy portrays a country on the rise. Its sub-heading reads ‘Over the past decade, Peru has been one the region’s fastest-growing economies with an average growth rate 5.9% in a context of low inflation’. The report moves on to laud higher employment and income, as well as lower poverty rates. However, macro-economic indicators conceal a population still scarred and polarised by close to two decades of Civil War.

From 1980 until the mid 1990s, Peru was consumed by conflict between the state military and the Mao-inspired ‘Shining Path’ communist guerrillas. The Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimates that the conflict claimed the lives 70,000 people, of which many were innocent residents of the war-torn countryside. Roughly one third of the deaths were committed by the state and many of the bodies were never found.

Truth and reconciliation for the Peruvian nation suffered a major setback this December, with the official pardon of ex-President Alberto Fujimori. While his presidency, between 1990 and 2000, has been credited with scattering the ‘Shining Path’ and the stabilisation of the economy, he did so with distinctly brutal and authoritarian tools. In 2009, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison for the sanctioning of death squads that massacred civilians under the guise of ‘anti-terrorism’.

For many Peruvians, the pardon, announced on Christmas Eve, will have been a devastating insult to the memories of their loved ones. ‘We want to know what they did to my son. Did they bury him, or throw him in the river? That’s what we want to know.’ stated Atenor Hoyos Cubas in an interview with Human Rights Watch earlier in 2017. His pain is shared by thousands of families in Peru, who are yet to receive justice or clarity on the atrocities.

A Cold War Legacy

The nature of this conflict was to a great extent determined by the hegemonic influence of the global Cold War. Like so many nations worldwide, the Peruvian experience was moulded by the struggle between superpowers to implement their capitalist or communist vision of global modernity, in the aftermath of World War II.

The US was the chief-sculptor. As in many Latin American states, US containment policies had been active in Peru since the 1950s, trading military funding and training for a strong domestic stance against communism. In early 1992, the Bush administration released $10 million of military aid and $60 million in economic assistance to Fujimori’s government. The US played the role of the enabler, giving the Peruvian military the capacity and encouragement to respond with an iron fist.

Cold War conditions tended to leave developing countries around the world with a stark choice to make. They could accept aid packages from international institutions such as the IMF, but with imposed neo-liberal (austerity) reforms as well as anti-communism. Alternatively, they could maintain their economic autonomy, but be cut off from international finance. Neither option was a winner. Latin America as a whole primarily took the former option and, from 1980-90, the GDP per capita of the continent declined by 4.5%. From 1985-1990, Peru took the latter route and their isolation led to hyperinflation and increased poverty. This choice between two evils left Peru between a rock and a hard place, with both routes yielding misery that would enhance the threat of the militant left.

The unrestrained and unlawful response of Fujimori’s government was the product of a US anti-communist policy that would support military strength and capitalist window-dressing regardless of what was beneath it. It is the legacy of state-sponsored violence that the Peruvian nation is struggling with to the present day, rather than the blood spilled by the ‘Shining Path’.

Fujimori a free man once again

Alberto Fujimori was released this Christmas by current Peruvian President, Pedro Kuczynski, on medical grounds, but there are doubts over his eligibility for the pardon. Rather, it is widely believed that it was politically motivated manoeuvre. Kuczynski’s financial business, Westfield Capital, has been implicated in the continent-wide Odebrecht corruption scandal. The aftermath of the scandal has already seen a transition from suit to jumpsuit for some of Latin America’s leading businessmen and politicians. Just a few days before the pardon, Kuczynski narrowly survived an impeachment vote in congress, but his victory was clinched by the abstention of none other than Fujimori’s congressman son, Kenji, and ten of his political affiliates.

The response to this apparently political pardon has been one of outrage from many Peruvians. Thousands took to the streets of Lima, and continue to do so, with photos of their friends and family who disappeared during Fujimori’s presidency.

The Peruvian Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa and 238 other writers signed an open letter saying the decision covered the nation ‘in infamy and shame’, calling the pardon ‘the most crude and cynical political calculus’.

The office of the UN high commissioner of human rights commented ‘We are appalled by this decision. It is a slap in the face for the victims and witnesses whose tireless commitment brought him to justice.’

What of the future?

The pardon of Fujimori casts a light on the ongoing interaction between Peru’s difficulties with state corruption and the scars of its Cold War legacy of human rights violations. However, one negative outcome should not be allowed to overshadow the work being done to overcome this impasse. Important measures have been implemented such as a national registry for victims of forced sterilisations, one of Fujimori’s policies for reducing birth rates, to provide a forum for Peruvian women to make connections with other victims and share their experiences.

Moreover, the upcoming trial of Ollanta Humala provides a real opportunity strike a blow against state corruption and deliver justice for victims of war atrocities. President of Peru from 2011 to 2016, Humala has also been caught on the wrong side of the Odebrecht corruption scandal. He is also being investigated separately investigated for torture and disappearances during the war, after ex-soldiers came out in public in 2017 and identified him as the infamous army commander ‘Captain Carlos’.

While pleading his innocence in Congress, Kuczynski proclaimed that ‘the people of a nation do not forget or forgive’. This statement now seems bitterly ironic, as days later he proceeded to re-open wounds closer to the heart of the Peruvian nation than a corruption scandal could ever be. Perhaps, though, he is right. The families of victims of Peru’s Cold War experience will never forget and may never forgive, but economic growth offers few answers. The pursuit of justice and reconciliation might.