The Corner of the Living: Ayacucho on the Eve of the Shining Path Insurgency

The Corner of the Living: Ayacucho on the Eve of the Shining Path Insurgency

The Corner of the Living: Ayacucho on the Eve of the Shining Path Insurgency

The Corner of the Living: Ayacucho on the Eve of the Shining Path Insurgency

Synopsis

Peru's indigenous peoples played a key role in the tortured tale of Shining Path guerrillas from the 1960s through the first decade of the 21st century. The villagers of Chuschi and Huaychao, high in the mountains of the department of Ayacucho, have an iconic place in this violent history. Emphasizing the years leading up to the peak period of violence from 1980 to 2000, when 69,000 people lost their lives, Miguel La Serna asks why some Andean peasants chose to embrace Shining Path ideology and others did not.
Drawing on archival materials and ethnographic field work, La Serna argues that historically rooted and locally specific power relations, social conflicts, and cultural understandings shaped the responses of indigenous peasants to the insurgency. In Chuschi, the guerrillas found indigenous support for the movement and dreamed of sparking a worldwide Maoist revolution. In Huaychao, by contrast, villagers rose up against Shining Path forces, precipitating more violence and feeding an international uproar that took on political significance for Peru during the Cold War. The Corner of the Living illuminates both the stark realities of life for the rural poor everywhere and why they may or may not choose to mobilize around a revolutionary cause.

Excerpt

On 17 May 1980—the eve of the first democratic elections in Peru after twelve years of military rule—five hooded Shining Path guerrillas entered the voter registration office in Chuschi, a village of mostly Quechua-speaking peasants in the Andean department of Ayacucho. Once inside, the Senderistas tied up the registrar on duty and set the registry and ballot boxes ablaze. the event, known thereafter as the Inicio de la Lucha Armada (Initiation of the Armed Struggle—ILA), symbolically ignited the Shining Path guerrilla insurrection. in the coming years Chuschi would serve as an early rebel stronghold and the location of numerous insurgent acts.

Three years later, on 21 January 1983, a column of eight Senderistas descended on Huaychao, another Ayacuchan village, chanting revolutionary slogans and waving the red Communist flag. Just as villagers from Chuschi had greeted the militants with loud cheers of support in years past, so did the indigenous peasants of Huaychao, who shouted: “Long live the armed struggle!” the Huaychainos escorted the Senderistas into their despacho, a small assembly room with a thatched roof and dirt floor located at the edge of the village square. After a lengthy debate, the Huaychainos attacked the guerrillas in a swift, coordinated assault. the villagers then dragged their captives outside and tied them to the large juez rumi (rock of justice) in the village square before torturing and killing them. the counferrebellion in Huaychao led to the proliferation of peasant counterinsurgency militias known as the rondas campesinas.

Why did indigenous peasants in Ayacucho have such disparate reactions to Shining Path? More important, why did these reactions involve heavy doses of violence? Perhaps it had something to do with the name Ayacucho, which in Quechua means “the corner of the dead.” Given its history as the epicenter of a civil war that between 1980 and 2000 claimed the lives of 69,000 people—most of them Quechua-speaking highland-

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