At certain points, one will have the misfortune of encountering a book where the author thinks that an important historical subject is merely a backdrop for his own personal problems. Santiago Roncagliolo’s nonfiction work on the Sendero Luminoso insurgency, La cuarta espada: la historia de Abimael Guzman y el Sendero Luminoso is such a volume. While this book is informative on the level of telling the story of the origins of Abimael Guzman (who is more famously known by his nom de guerre, “Presidente Gonzalo”) and his Maoist political party, el Sendero Luminoso or the Shining Path, the complete absence in the text of any theoretical and historical complexity means that the void is often filled with descriptions of how the actions of the Sendero Luminoso made the author “feel” as a petit-bourgeois adolescent and young adult coming of age in Peru. If anything, it is his silences and inadvertent personal slips that tell the real story of the corrupt neoliberal society that allowed the Shining Path to flourish around the highlands of Ayacucho, and ultimately threaten the Peruvian state itself. While I could not of course excuse the Sendero’s actions, and in spite of the author protests against not taking sides at many points in the text, I came away from the book somewhat sympathetic to at least the causes behind the Guzman’s Maoist fundamentalism. Though I admit, it is somewhat akin to sympathy for the devil.
Let’s get the ugly stuff out of the way first. The Sendero Luminoso are some bad, bad people. Its founder and ideological progenitor, Abimael Guzman, a former philosophy professor and lawyer from Arequipa, Peru, has the reputation in that country of Osama Bin Laden in this country, at least in the bourgeois media. All you have to do is look at videos such as the following one documenting his capture twenty years on. No translation is needed, I think:
There is reason to compare Guzman to Bin Laden, Pol Pot, and numerous other sociopaths in history. There is first and foremost the massacres of peasants that he ordered, including the brutal killings of 69 peasants, including women and children, in Lucanamarca in 1983. There are the bombs, the murder of leftist leaders, the alleged collaborations with drug cartels, etc. etc. Many of these crimes have been admitted by Guzman directly, and he has said that they were excesses in a state of war. When considering this subject then, one must always have these things in mind first.
That said, one would think that, faced with this unique historical phenomenon, a serious journalist or researcher would try to get to the bottom of it all. Not Roncagliolo, however. First of all, he is quite clear why he is writing this book: because it will sell. He had already written a book, Abril Rojo, which was a novel based around the same historical events. One of his opening anecdotes in the book comes from his childhood exile in Mexico. His parents were on the wrong side of the Peruvian junta’s favor, and like many liberal / leftists in Latin America at the time, had to move to other countries until things cooled down on the home front. One of little Santiaguito’s first memories of his native country were photographs in the newspapers of Sendero Luminoso’s public postcard announcing the opening of the armed struggle in 1980: hanging dead dogs throughout Lima with the placard, “Deng Xiao Ping: son of a bitch” attached. This of course was a traumatic moment for the author, as were the bombings in Lima during the insurgency that prevented him in his adolescence from getting to second base with his then girlfriend. One is tempted here to go off on a tangent about how Roncagliolo’s own attitudes are a microcosm of Latin America in general: born of parents with leftist leanings to the point of having to flee the country, he matures into an ambitious journalist devoting himself to what sells and trite psycho-pop explanations of history. Guzman, from the author’s reading, apparently had father and abandonment issues, the fall of the Sendero was due to a sex triangle, etc. etc. It’s like Carlos Fuentes’s La Muerte de Artemio Cruz all over again, without the exquisite prose that the Mexican novelist regularly produced.
Roncagliolo has to thus “cold call” multiple people and encounters many dead ends in his pursuit of Guzman’s story. He is obsessed in the first part of the book with finding out the personal story of “Presidente Gonzalo”. All he finds are a few facts of his rather turbulent childhood: a bastard child abandoned by his mother and finally taken in by his father’s family at the behest of his wife, the Peruvian journalist concludes that the origin of the Sendero was in Guzman’s unrequited love for a neighbor girl. From there, the story jumps around, shrouded in secrecy, with only a alphabet soup of Marxist groups in the late 1960’s serving as a backdrop. It should be noted here that Roncagliolo’s documenting of people’s characterization of Guzman giving off the air of “a school teacher from the provinces” drips with condescending dismissal. Indeed, one could say that this is central to Latin American reality, and not just Latin America: the disdain the metropolitan center has for the rest of the country. In this case, the Sendero had the gall to take the ire and rage of some filthy Indians in the mountains into the pristine bourgeois neighborhoods of the capital. Despite the objective immorality of the crimes of the Sendero Luminoso, it is clear that this sort of chauvinism augmented the evil of the Maoist insurgency among the “decent” sectors of the population who are used to the rabble being in their place.
Eventually, Roncagliolo does end up getting some leads for his book, up to the second in command of the Sendero Luminoso itself, Elena Iparraguirre, the wife of Presidente Gonzalo. He visits the prisons where Shining Path prisoners are held, speaks to former collaborators and the police and military who defeated the insurgency. To be fair, as the book goes on, Roncagliolo becomes less flippant about his subject and manages to hobble together something resembling objectivity. At his best points, he simply lets the people speak. One person, for example, describes how the Sendero Luminoso in some places installed a government where there was none: including the enforcement of strict behavior codes and combating social vices. In some places, they even outlawed the miniskirt. As in many insurgency situations in rural Latin America, their greatest opposition were other peasants armed directly by the Peruvian military. However, Roncagliolo also tries not to pull any punches against the counterinsurgency, and many people state that the military was far worse than the Sendero Luminoso in terms of rape and the arbitrary murder of civilians. If this was indeed a war for state power, and not just arbitrary gansterism as the bourgeois media proclaims it to be, then fellow state actors advocating “collateral damage” in places like Vietnam or the drone wars in the Middle East would have little to say that is credible on the subject of the unnecessary taking of innocent life.
Roncagliolo can’t really get into the details of Guzman’s thought, except to let some people echo the idea that Presidente Gonzalo wasn’t as bright as people made him out to be. It seems from what I have seen in the Peruvian media that people make it a sport to insult his intelligence. My own negative assessment of Maoism in general would keep me from taking a side in this regard. But someone who was the sole leader of an insurgency that threatened the existence of the Peruvian state and led a war that was twelve years long before he was captured in the capital was either politically clever or exceptionally lucky. Or the Peruvian state was just that incompetent. Something tells me that the truth is a combination of all of these factors. From the condescending remarks about Guzman and the author’s own unwillingness to engage in any serious investigations of the historical and ideological causes of the “People’s War”, I am led to believe that the only reason that the Sendero Luminoso had any resonance is because Peruvian society, like other parts of Latin America at that time and currently, is just that broken. That doesn’t excuse the excesses of the Shining Path or even justify its existence, but the cluelessness of authors such as Roncagliolo (who is now an expatriate living in Spain, so there’s that) makes me understand why some poor Indian would want to plant a bomb in the middle of an affluent neighborhood.
Indeed, the only justification for Guzman’s radicalization that is passed over quickly in the text is his arrival as a professor in the city of Ayacucho. There, he experiences first hand the radical poverty and inequality of the indigenous population, and this at some point is combined with his own study of Maoist thought and praxis. When he got there, indigenous people couldn’t even walk on the sidewalk lest they brush up against a civilized white person. He also encounters all of the sectarian bickering on the left, the endless splits, sellouts, dropouts, and betrayals by supposed leftists like Roncagliolo’s parents. (The author tells a story about how his mother drops all pretensions of leftism during the many Latin American inflation crises in the 1980’s, concluding that socialism “simply did not work”.) In a country where people in opposition went from discussing Marx into the night in hushed apartments to cabinet ministry positions trying to attract foreign investment in less than a decade, is it any wonder that Guzman had no patience for these people? More often than not, the showing of their true colors was just a revelation of their class and racial privilege in a heavily stratified society. At one point in the book, Guzman’s current lawyer states that in Peru, Abimael Guzman is the only person who has not sold out. When I read that, and thought on my years of studying and living in Latin America, I thought he had a point. Abimael Guzman may be a devil, but at least he isn’t a whore.
I suppose I have come to conclude in my life that I will never be shocked at the violence of the oppressed when confronted with the daily violence of the oppressor who sometimes robs and kills with a briefcase, at other times with an actual gun. I don’t of course advocate Maoist guerrilla war, but I don’t think that it is the greatest evil known to humanity. If anything, it is an inevitable result of the daily war on the poor, the indigenous, and the voiceless. Efforts such as those of Roncagliolo’s to reduce it to a matter of algebraic equations of violence and emotional problems are intellectual banalities that border on thought-crime.
That was going to be the end of my essay until I screened the recent film, The East, last night. Here is the trailer:
Warning: Spoiler alert. Spoiler alert. I see spoiler alerts everywhere.
Not so surprisingly, this Hollywood treatment of “ecoterrorism” suffered from many of the same defects as the Sendero Luminoso book. It tried to reduce the political questions to the personal: one character turns ecoterrorist because her daddy is a big, bad CEO (who ends up repenting of the evil he has done). The ideological head of the terrorist cell is an abandoned rich orphan who decides to go all Bruce Wayne on the evil polluting corporations. The actual cell is a mix of hippy commune and something out of that film sensationalizing the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. The political is really personal, and the problem is people simply don’t know the truth. The protagonist, an ex-FBI agent who works for a mercenary corporate intelligence corporation, eventually goes from being a spy for corporation to trying to warn her fellow agents working in the field of how bad these corporations really are, and recruit them to stop clear-cutting, polluting, and all sorts of other evil, evil things. The problem is not with a bad system, but bad people, etc. etc. [Vomit]
Of course, the open secret is that we all know what we are doing to each other and the environment, we just don’t give a shit. Here, I am opposed to Plato: evil isn’t caused by ignorance. It is caused by fear of not having stuff. As long as I have access to hot showers and the new iPhone, why should I care about some poor schmoe not as fortunate as I am? And even if I do care, what is my threshold for actually doing something about it? What am I willing to give up? People are ready to turn a blind eye as long as their health and prosperity are dependent on it. What else are we supposed to do?
You can give me leftist platitudes about how it’s capitalism’s fault. But when the social order you are advocating wants more, not less, for everyone, while miraculously reducing the carbon footprint and turning back some of the environmental damage already done (which already may be irreparable), and getting about eight billion people on the same page to do it all, I guess I have to be frank in stating that I don’t know the difference between this and blind religious faith. Other than religious faith has a better back story and accouterments (I love the smell of incense in the morning).
Either way, there were some aspects of the film that I liked, especially some of the “popcorn” aspects (action, suspense, emotionally manipulative camera shots). I would watch this movie as entertainment, and it might be a useful political discussion starter. But it is by no means accurate on its most essential points. But that wasn’t to be expected anyway judging from the people who made it.