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
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
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. …