Peru Crisis Underscores Poverty, Uncertain Future

Article excerpt

A nearly vanquished guerrilla group, the Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru, took Peru and the world by surprise last December when in a single military attack it captured a significant portion of Lima's elite and the international diplomatic corps.

Peruvians have suffered through one of the worst civil conflicts in the hemisphere and long ago tired of the violence wrought by the Tupac Amaru and the more notorious Shining Path.

The Tupac Amaru's military success surprised even the most astute analysts. Most consider the group largely defeated, its top leadership in jail, its numbers reduced to a few hundred militants in isolated jungle regions of the country. In contrast, its rival, the Shining Path, appears to have reconstituted its military apparatus and has reasserted its presence in Peru through coordinated bombing attacks.

The Tupac Amaru's assault on the Japanese ambassador's residence has reminded Peruvians of its military prowess; but the group's ability to maintain the political space it has gained once the immediate crisis is resolved is highly dubious, given its lack of a popular base of support.

Poverty worsens

However, the conditions that spawned the Tupac Amaru's existence have worsened in recent years. Although the Fujimori government has tamed inflation and brought economic stability, the plight of Peru's poor steadily deteriorates. To avoid continuing guerrilla violence, the government must begin to address the roots of that violence: pervasive poverty, persistent human rights abuses and the lack of democratic institutions.

Religious in the shantytowns surrounding Lima provide direct testimony of Peru's poverty: increasing disease and infant mortality rates, families eking out a subsistence level income, dependence on soup kitchens for at least one hot meal a day, and kids who can no longer go to school because they must work to support the family. No economic miracle has come to these communities.

A range of grassroots and popular organizations continue to speak out for the rights of poor Peruvians, but it is increasingly difficult to be heard or represented. The obstacles to creating and strengthening democratic institutions are more firmly entrenched than ever.

Authoritarian structures enhanced or put in place by the Fujimori government hinder the development of transparent processes and democratic accountability.

In fact, President Alberto K. Fujimori is handling the present crisis as he has managed his presidency, concentrating decision-making power in himself and an inner circle of advisers, many of whom hold no public position and hence are not accountable for their actions.

The frustration felt by the international community and foreign diplomats at the lack of information provided by the Peruvian government about the hostage crisis reflects the frustration felt by most Peruvians on a daily basis.

Since the April 1992 autogolpe, or presidential coup, Fujimori has extended his control over the legislative and judicial branches. The Peruvian Congress is subservient to the president and prone to passing "midnight laws," at odd hours and bypassing existing procedures and debate. Perhaps the most egregious example is a recent law "interpreting" the constitution to allow for Fujimori to run for yet a third term in the year 2000.

Military control

Another such law was the sweeping amnesty passed in June 1995 for all civilian or military personnel under investigation or imprisoned for human rights violations committed since the Shining Path launched its armed revolution. The Peruvian military has steadily expanded its power over the course of the Fujimori government. maintaining control over significant areas of the country through "states of emergency," despite the overall sharp decline in the level of guerrilla activity.

The amnesty further emboldened the military. …