What happened at Ayacucho

Ronan Bennett

  • Shining Path: The World’s Deadliest Revolutionary Force by Simon Strong
    HarperCollins, 274 pp, £16.99, June 1992, ISBN 0 00 215930 9
  • Shining Path of Peru edited by David Scott Palmer
    Hurst, 271 pp, £12.95, June 1992, ISBN 1 85065 152 3
  • Peru under Fire: Human Rights since the Return of Democracy compiled by Americas Watch
    Yale, 169 pp, £12.95, June 1992, ISBN 0 300 05237 5

Travelling in the Andean highlands of Peru some thirty years ago, Peter Matthiessen observed a group of drunken Quechua Indians. ‘In this state the Quechua looks more slack-jawed and brutish than the most primitive man imaginable.’ The Indians were ‘rife with hatreds and resentments ... But they are so subdued by their own poverty, and by their failure to realise how very numerous they are, that a Quechua revolution, while one day inevitable, remains remote.’

The revolution came sooner than Matthiessen expected. Its foot-soldiers are no slack-jawed brutes, but highly disciplined and motivated guerrilla fighters. It is led by Abimael Guzman and organised by the Communist Party of Peru, popularly known as Sendero Luminoso – Shining Path. Sendero’s revolution began 12 years ago in Ayacucho, one of the most backward and isolated towns of the Peruvian Andes, whose name in Quechua means ‘Corner of the Dead’, in memory of those who fell in 1824 in the decisive battle between Bolivar’s forces, under Sucre, and those loyal to the Spanish Crown. Thus Ayacucho can be considered the birthplace of the modern Peruvian state, and may yet prove to be its burial site.

The revolution’s ferocity has given the Corner of the Dead a new and chilling resonance. Journalists, at first mystified by the theatricality and macabre ritual of Sendero’s violence, groped for clichés, something to help box the complexities of peasant insurgency and Maoist revolution into the requirements of the six hundred-word news story. They came up with ‘the Khmer Rouge of Latin America’. The tag stuck, but like all such tags does more to hinder than enhance understanding of the nature, causes and trajectory of Sendero’s revolution. It is the achievement of these books, particularly Simon Strong’s, to rip off the tags and subject the contents of the box to rational argument and analysis.

The roots of the revolution stretch back to the legendary barbarity of Pizarro’s conquest, beginning with the murder of the Inca Atahualpa and the slaughter of the Inca aristocracy. Defeated, leaderless, politically fragmented and cowed by the savagery of the white invaders, the Quechua Indians were almost at once reduced to slavery while the colonists helped themselves to the region’s fabulous riches. There were slave rebellions, hopeless, brutal, millenarian. In the rebellion of 1780-81 Tupac Amaru, a mestizo chieftain who claimed direct descent from the Inca, issued decrees liberating the slaves from the Cerro Rico mines and abolishing forced labour. The rebellion turned into an orgy of murder and pillage. As they advanced, the rebels butchered anyone with a trace of Spanish blood unfortunate enough to fall into their hands, executed priests and fired churches.

The rebels’ savagery was, however, surpassed by that of the colonists. When the Spanish captured Tupac Amaru, they brought him and his family to face torture and execution in the main square of Cuzco. There, after cutting out the rebel leader’s tongue, they lashed his limbs to four horses but failed to quarter him. Still breathing, the ‘liberator’, defiant to the end, was decapitated at the foot of the gallows.

From its inception, the Peruvian state was oligarchical and racist. ‘The tension between Western and Indian culture,’ Strong writes, ‘is at the heart of Peru’s post-conquest history.’ A small ruling class of European descent, established mainly on the coast, held sway over a huge territory with impressive natural resources. Until the 1970s they kept the Indians on their estates in conditions of virtual serfdom.

In the early part of this century, middle-class Peruvian radicals attempted to bridge the gap. Something like an ‘indigenous’ movement sprang up as young intellectuals came increasingly to understand the importance of Peru’s cultural duality. José Carlos Mariategui, who in 1930 founded the Socialist Party and whose thought has been an important influence on Sendero, mixed his highly theoretical Marxism with the millenarian strains of indigenous tradition.

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