Peru's Growing Social Activism ; Groups That Champion Women, Human Rights, and Other Causes Find a New Voice in Post-Fujimori Era

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The calm of a quiet Sunday morning was broken at the main square of this Andean mountain city by a parade of university students.

Dressed in costume, students blew whistles and chanted "Where are they?" - the question that across Latin America refers to civilians who "disappeared" during past anti-subversion campaigns.

The colorful street theater - calling for the public to participate in a human rights rally - is part of a resurgence of citizen participation in public affairs across Peru.

From an increasingly pluralistic press and growing numbers of community organizations to these recent demonstrations in the town that gave birth to the Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) movement, Peruvians are breaking the silence they largely kept for the past two decades.

What the fear engendered by the Shining Path terrorist group in the 1980s didn't do to squelch an emerging civil society, Peruvian analysts say, the authoritarian rule of Alberto Fujimori over the past decade did. International rights and development organizations had come to speak of the Andean "sandwich" - a backward Peru sandwiched between Ecuador and Bolivia, two countries with more- vibrant citizen participation.

But all that changed over recent months - starting with the April presidential election, when the public perceived that Mr. Fujimori resorted to widespread fraud to hold on to power.

"The first round of the election was such a catalyst for public involvement that it took everyone by surprise," says Enver Quinteros, a history student at Ayacucho's San Cristobal de Huamanga University, where Shining Path leader Abimael Guzman once taught philosophy. "People were inching back before, but I see that date as the rebirth of student involvement."

Mr. Quinteros, now involved in human rights issues and student discussion groups on "rebuilding Peru's democratic institutions," fondly recalls the day after the first round. Many Peruvians believe opposition candidate Alejandro Toledo won, but official results showed Fujimori leading with just under 50 percent and thus requiring a runoff.

"About 30 students decided we had to do something, so we carried a coffin marked 'democracy' around the central square," he says. And to their surprise, hundreds of Ayacuchans came out to watch, many indicating their support.

"There's a growing desire to participate," says Ernesto de la Jara Basombrio, director of Ideele, a legal defense institute in Lima. "People want something other than manipulation from their political leaders."

For years, Peruvians learned to associate democracy with terrorism, violence, and corruption, Mr. de la Jara says. "But all that has changed very quickly." He cites the example of Ayacucho, where long lists of citizens signed up this year to run for public office.

To some observers, the participation rebirth is all the more surprising in Ayacucho. The stark Andean province was the region hardest hit by the Shining Path violence. It became a bastion of support for Fujimori when he smashed the terrorist organization, and he then poured in millions of dollars for infrastructure work and public-assistance programs.

But ironically, it was Fujimori himself who planted the seeds of the participation renaissance, analysts say. …