Thursday, August 26th, 2010

Does the end justify the means? Theodore Dalrymple had to think about that when he read that Alberto Fujimori, former president of Peru, had been sentenced to seven and a half years’ imprisonment for corruption, to run concurrently with the twenty-five years he is already serving for abuse of human rights:

As it happens, I was in Peru just before, during and after the election that first brought Fujimori to power. His opponent was the world-famous novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa, who I, like many others, assumed would win. Indeed, I hoped that he would win. He was highly intelligent, extremely eloquent, had a clear idea of what was needed for Peru to emerge from its current nightmare, and he was standing for election out of patriotism and for the good of his country. He had nothing to prove, nothing to gain; it is rare indeed to encounter a candidate so transparently unmotivated by personal goals.

Fujimori won. I hadn’t appreciated just how much his obscurity might help him, so great was the disillusionment in the country with national figures. Fujimori was a distinguished academic agronomist, but you could be the most famous agronomist in the world and still live in the most perfect obscurity. One Peruvian peasant captured the mood perfectly when asked why he had voted for Fujimori. ‘Because I didn’t know anything about him,’ he replied. In other words, every man’s past disqualifies him from high public office.

The Peru that Fujimori inherited was in terrible condition. Inflation was so rapid that you couldn’t buy anything of any value in the local currency: you had to use dollars. Money-changers, of whom there seemed to be thousands, stood in the streets, waving thick wads of notes at passers-by in exchange for dollars. Once, in Arequipa, my friend and I walked out to visit a convent there. The rate was 90,000 intis per dollar (and each inti was 1,000,000 old soles) on the way; on the way back, an hour later, it was 110,000 – or, to put it more dramatically, 110,000,000,000 old soles. I suppose that inflation of this kind at least makes you adept at mental arithmetic.

But inflation was, if not the least of Peru’s worries, at least not the worst or greatest of Peru’s worries. That honour belonged to Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), the Maoist insurgency that at the time controlled quite a lot of the national territory. I was convinced that, if Sendero won, there would be another Cambodia in Peru: a Cambodia on a much larger scale. And it was far from certain at the time that Sendero would not win. Indeed, if I had had to put my money on it winning or losing, I think I would have put it on it winning.

The history of Sendero was instructive, from two points of view. The first is that it destroys the notion that such revolutionary movements are the direct and spontaneous product of the grievances of the poor. The second is that it illustrates the dangerous folly of expanding tertiary education as a means of economic development rather than as a consequence of economic development.

The founder of Sendero was the professor of philosophy at Ayacucho University, Abimael Guzman, known to his acolytes as Presidente Gonzalo; his ideas, if such they merit being called, being the application of Maoism to Peru, were known collectively as Gonzalo Thought. Although living in clandestinity, he was already the object of a grotesque cult of personality and he wrote and spoke in that terrible langue de bois that is not the least of the tortures inflicted on society by communist regimes because it claims a monopoly of public speech and bores into the brain like a loud burrowing insect:

The ideology of the international proletariat erupted in the crucible of the class struggle, as Marxism, becoming Marxism-Leninism and, subsequently, Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. Thus the all-powerful scientific ideology of the proletariat, all-powerful because it is true, has three stages: 1) Marxism, 2) Leninism, 3) Maoism; three stages, moments or landmarks of its dialectical process or development; of a single entity that in a hundred and forty years, from the Manifesto, and in the most heroic epoch of the class struggle, in the bloody and fruitful struggles of the two lines within each communist party and in the immense labour of the titans of thought and action that only the proletariat could generate, three inextinguishable luminaries stood out: Marx, Lenin Mao Tse-Tung, who through three leaps have armed us with the invincible Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, today principally Maoism.

Ayacucho University itself had been in abeyance since the seventeenth century; the Peruvian government thought to revive it as a means of developing the economy of the local area, one of the poorest and most backward in the country, and bringing to it a modicum of social progress. What it brought instead was a Peruvian Pol Pot (who had written his thesis on Kant), who was easily able to influence and indoctrinate young men and women who were the first generation ever to receive tertiary education, and who were, in all truth, the scions of an immemorially oppressed people.

The combination of millenarian hopes and age-old resentments is an unfortunate one, to say the least; Gonzalo Thought, so called, gave ideological sanction to bestial brutality, and turned sadistic revenge into the fulfilment of a supposedly scientific destiny. From what I personally saw in Ayacucho on the eve of the election, which had the atmosphere of a city under siege, waiting for the barbarians to arrive and carry out their long-announced massacre, I was convinced that, if Sendero achieved power, millions would be slaughtered.

I also saw, and heard about, actions by the Peruvian army that were less than gentlemanly. People suspected of Senderista sympathies were disappeared (it took the twentieth century to turn the verb ‘to disappear’ into a transitive one). I saw relatives petitioning the local garrison officer for news of their husbands, sons and brothers whom the army had whisked away and obviously consigned to permanent oblivion. The army did not say please and thank you for what it commandeered; it was more an occupying force than a protector of the people.

Still, it was what stood between Peru and the Apocalypse. But, at the time of Fujimori’s election, it looked as if it might collapse.

On my way back to Europe, I happened on the aircraft to sit near a man who turned out to be an investigator for Amnesty International. When I told him about what I had seen the Peruvian Army do, he looked like a man who had just been fed with a tantalisingly delicious dish, or a cat at the cream; it was, it seemed to me, exactly what he wanted to hear. He almost purred. But when I told him what I had seen Sendero do, his expression turned sour; and he looked at me as if I were a credulous bearer of tales about unicorns or sea-monsters. He turned away from me and took no further interest in my conversation. No doubt illogically, I lost a great deal of my respect for Amnesty after that; constituted governments do a lot of evil, but they are not the only ones to do evil. In this case, the government was the lesser evil, and by far.


  1. Hoz Compton says:

    I was in Peru during the terrorism and inflation. To me, Fujimori saved Peru. Sometimes the means are justified by the end.

    I will never forget his speech at San Marcos University regarding graffiti.

    The man had courage. His failings were human.

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