The revolutionary challenge of the Sendero Luminoso

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No. 109, Mid-September/Mid-November 1992

The Communist Party of Peru (PCP), widely known as the Sendero Luminoso or Shining Path, has been subjected to an international avalanche of condemnation and slander. The Peruvian Party of Mariateguist Unity, a component of the United Left (IU) coalition, for example, opposes the Sendero claiming that ‘through the use of terror’ it tries ‘to lead the country towards a Pol Pot type alternative’. In the USA, the left-wing weekly, The Guardian charges the Sendero with waging ‘war against the country’s popular movements’. Meanwhile, according to the British newspaper The Independent, the Sendero are ‘the most secretive, highly-organised and murderous of all contemporary terrorist groups’. EDDIE ABRAHAMS and TREVOR RAYNE begin an examination of Sendero Luminoso’s political programme.

FRFI 109 p8 picture 1

It was reported on 13 September 1992 that Peruvian state forces had arrested Abimael Guzman — Chairman Gonzalo — leader of the Sendero Luminoso, together with a number of his comrades. If these reports are correct, then those arrested face torture and murder by the Fujimori regime. Socialists must mobilise in their defence. The arrests will not halt the struggle of the Peruvian oppressed masses against imperialist and neo-colonial barbarism.


While proclaiming itself a Marxist-Leninist organisation and drawing its inspiration from Mao Zedong the Sendero has no familiar international counterpart. This has been enough for them to be dismissed by sectarian and Eurocentric ‘British Marxists’. However, a serious socialist study shows the Sendero to be an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movement whose ideological and political standpoint merits discussion and debate. Whatever differences British communists may have with the PCP, it is an indisputable fact that a Sendero victory in Peru will dramatically shift the Latin American and international balance of class forces in favour of the working class and dispossessed.

It is this reality that lies behind the frenzied barrage of slander against the Sendero. They have succeeded in organising a mass revolutionary movement and an effective armed struggle based on those who, in Marx’s phrase, ‘have nothing to lose but their chains’: the absolutely impoverished and destitute Peruvian Indian peasantry, and the rural and shantytown working class. Living permanently on the edge of starvation and death they are imbued with profound hatred for and total indifference to the fate and destiny of the wealthy and privileged ruling class and petit bourgeoisie. The Sendero gives organised political expression to this class hatred. Distinctively, while seeking the unity of all oppressed sectors, it refuses to work with or countenance even the tiniest compromise with Social Democratic or populist organisations, viewing them as instruments of the Peruvian state and the imperialist ruling classes.

In contrast to the left, informed bourgeois commentators recognise the significance of the Sendero’s achievement:

‘For all practical intents, Sendero Luminoso is the first guerrilla military organisation in the hemisphere to acquire a mass base among the urban poor on a relevant scale. Many have tried; the only others that succeeded to some degree were the Sandinista Front in 1979, just before the overthrow of Anastasia Somoza, and the Popular Liberation Forces (a communist organisation) in El Salvador.’ Jorge G Castaneda, International Herald Tribune, 21 April 1992.

Sue Branford of the BBC’s Latin America Service writes in The Guardian:

‘Its support comes mainly from Andean Indians and poor Peruvians of mixed blood who have since colonial times felt deep resentment towards the ruling class of rich Peruvians of largely European descent.’ (14 February 1992)

In The Independent, Simon Strong notes that 25 per cent of those interviewed in informal opinion polls ‘say they support the insurgents’ who:

‘... have infiltrated or dominated several of Huancayo’s trade unions and become more openly active in the poorest district.’ (19 February 1992)


 FRFI 109 p8 picture 2

1. Sendero guerrilla; 2. Money-changing in Lima; 3. May 1992: massacre of Sendero prisoners after a 4-day siege


Peru: a ‘democracy’ not worth saving

Capitalist development, whether under regimes led by bourgeois nationalists (General Velasco 1968-1975), social-democratic populists (President Garcia 1985-1990) or neoliberals (Fujimori, elected President 1990), has dramatically failed to meet even the minimum needs of the majority of Peruvians. It has produced social conditions worse than those experienced in the time of the Incan empire, where hunger was unknown. For the past 30 years Peru has undergone a consistent deterioration in its economy and living standards.

60 per cent of Peru’s 22 million population live in critical poverty with an average income of $15.5 per month. In rural areas this drops to $12.2. The income of the richest 2 per cent is 24 times that of two-thirds of the rest of the population. In 1991 just 150,000 Peruvians paid income tax. 86.4 per cent of the population are either under- or unemployed. Infant mortality is 87 per thousand live births. Life expectancy in impoverished rural areas such as Ayacucho is only 46.7 years. In Lima, the Peruvian capital of seven million people, 40 per cent live in shanty towns; up from 20 per cent in 1961. Seven out of ten lack basic services such as water, electricity and sewage. Between 1987 and 1991 real wages dropped by 66 per cent.

In 1986 average calorie intake was approximately 90 per cent of the required level. After Fujimori’s IMF-dictated ‘reforms’ in 1990-91 this dropped to just over 50 per cent. Spending on health and education a pitiful 1 per cent and 1.6 per cent of GNP respectively were further slashed to repay Peru’s $21bn foreign debt. In 1991 the official figures put cholera deaths at 2,540 with 263,761 others afflicted.

International and domestic capitalists continue to drain the country of its resources and wealth. Between 1981-86, as a result of unequal exchange, the purchasing power of Peru’s exports was driven down by 26.2 per cent. Its mineral, petroleum, fishmeal and cotton prices are dictated by transnational corporations on the world market. Debt service repayments as a percentage of foreign exchange receipts during the 1980s reached as high as 50 per cent. In 1991 between $40-60m was paid monthly in servicing this debt, equivalent to 20 per cent of the national budget. During the 1980s Peru suffered a $600m capital flight. Following the Fujimori coup in April it is estimated that another $200m was taken out of the country.

The principle holders of Peruvian short-term debt include the Midland Bank, Chase Manhattan, Bank of Tokyo and Credit Lyonnaise. During the 1980s the following multinationals operated out of Peru: Nestle, Philips, Bayer, Reckitts & Coleman, Matsushita, Goodyear, Pirelli, Procter and Gamble, Nissan, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo. Over 40 per cent of foreign investment is made by the US-based Southern Peru Copper Corporation whose President Mr Preble remarked that ‘remitting profits is as simple as writing a cheque’.

Such plunder and poverty is sustained by state terror. A 1991 UN report stated that for four successive years, the Peruvian government has had the worst human rights record for any government in the world. The Peru Peace Network, a US-based anti-Sendero organisation, writes that:

‘The Peruvian state has engaged in indiscriminate and arbitrary violence ... killing thousands of innocent civilians, principally poor peasants ... Entire villages have been destroyed...’ Peru: caught in the crossfire, p27

Simon Strongin his new book writes that the Peruvian army:

‘acts like an occupation rather than a protection force, relying on ‘indiscriminate killing to weed out the enemy from its midst.’ Shining Path: the world’s deadliest revolutionary force, p142

The January 1992 issue of Amnesty International’s magazine states:

‘Although thousands of civilians have been reported extrajudicially executed or ‘disappeared’ in the emergency zones during the past decade, no members of the armed forces are known to have been convicted for their part in these violations.’

During the first 14 months of Fujimori’s government 3,761 people were killed and 236 ‘disappeared’ by state forces and death squads. Then in April, Fujimori, after having described human rights organisations as ‘useful idiots’ and ‘legal arms’ of the Sendero, staged a coup in alliance with the military. Congress was dissolved, habeas corpus abrogated and a new anti-terrorist law was so broadly defined as to include almost anyone. So-called terrorism cases are now to be decided in secret tribunals where the identities of judges and prosecutors will be concealed. 170 judges were sacked for not undertaking state repression with sufficient enthusiasm. Today 55 per cent of Peru’s population lives under martial law and are deprived of rights to free assembly and movement whilst the army can raid their homes without a warrant.

Peruvian democracy, which opponents of Sendero are so eager to defend, has never been other than democracy for a few and barbarism for the majority. To defend this ‘democracy’s’ war against the Sendero is to support the means of imperialist and domestic capitalist plunder. This form of bourgeois democracy has been a feature of Latin America since the mid-1980s. During the 1960s and 1970s brutal military regimes violently crushed the working class and revolutionary movements on the continent. However, the growing social and economic problems exacerbated by the foreign debt burden produced mass immiseration which once again threatened to ignite into popular insurrection. The military regimes therefore inaugurated limited ‘democratic openings’ and yielded to bourgeois political parties. The latter formed governments and legalised social democracy as a more effective means of forestalling revolution and channelling the masses onto the parliamentary road. Meanwhile they retained in place their military apparatus and death squads. Thus they sought to prolong the privilege of the established ruling classes.


The failure of left nationalism and social democracy

‘Shining Path’s advance demonstrated the relative failure of the other left-wing parties to capture the aspirations of the poor.’ Shining Path, p39

Despite the intolerable conditions imposed on the Peruvian people, the nationalist and social democratic left has repeatedly failed to challenge the combined power of the local oligarchy and its imperialist allies. Furthermore when in government they have consistently attacked the working class and peasantry.

The Velasco regime’s much praised land reform merely transferred the title to land from a handful of large rural landowners to state-run co-ops controlled by the urban bourgeoisie. Only 2.3 per cent of confiscated land went to the peasantry. Thus the division between a mass of impoverished peasants farming tiny plots and huge farms producing for export continued. In 1969 Velasco enacted laws restricting free high school education. This led to uprisings and riots across the country which were put down by force.

In 1985 Alan Garcia heading the virulently anti-communist APRA (American Popular Revolutionary Alliance) came to power with left-wing and anti-imperialist credentials. He was soon unmasked. On 18/19 June 1986 he ordered the most atrocious prison massacre in modern Latin American history when state troops murdered nearly 300 Sendero prisoners. Under Garcia’s government, ‘counter-insurgency experts’ from Israel, the United States and Britain were invited to supervise the war against the Sendero. In 1988 Garcia adopted austerity measures and devaluation which by 1989 had reduced working class wages to 60 per cent of their previous purchasing power and the informal economy mushroomed.

Garcia’s 1985 victory was hailed by the leader of the United Left, a coalition of left social democrats and Trotskyists as ‘a popular triumph’. He added that ‘the right has been erased from the scene in this country’. The United Left, formed in 1980, has registered significant electoral successes and established itself in municipal government on a narrow social democratic platform. In 1990 it supported the Fujimori presidential campaign and was rewarded with a ministerial position; Gloria Helfer became the first Education Minister under Fujimori. A bourgeois commentator comparing the Sendero and the United Left writes:

‘The major difference is that the IU wants to participate in the political system and the Sendero wants to destroy it.’ Tom Marks in Shining Path of Peru, ed DS Palmer, p202

The United Left, and APRA, have ties to a shrinking section of the workers in the mines and public sector but have little support among the peasantry, rural working class and the working class of the shantytowns, where the Sendero have organised. In the context of economic deterioration and intensified social and class polarisation, the IU had two options: to side with the momentum of the revolution or to defend the state under the cloak of reforms; it chose the latter. Even in the aftermath of Fujimori’s coup, rather than mobilise with the most oppressed against reaction they pleaded for the restoration of their privileges within the rotten political system as the best way of defeating the Sendero.


The rise of the Sendero Luminoso

The economic and social crisis of Peru and the political bankruptcy of the nationalist and social democratic organisations facilitated revolutionary organisation amongst the mass movement. One organisation carrying out such work was the Communist Party of Peru under the leadership of Abimael Guzman, more popularly known as Chairman Gonzalo. The PCP was formed in 1970 and traces its origins to the 1964 split in the Peruvian Communist Party between Maoist and pro-Soviet factions. In 1979 it decided to launch the armed struggle and carried out its first military operation on 17 May 1980. In its programme, the PCP describes itself as a ‘Marxist-Leninist-Maoist, principally Maoist organisation’:

‘The Communist Party of Peru has Communism as its final aim but given that current Peruvian society is exploited and oppressed by imperialism, bureaucratic capitalism and semi-feudality, the revolution undergoes a democratic first stage, a second socialist stage so as to later develop successive cultural revolutions.’

In the classic Marxist conception of People’s War the Sendero combine the political and armed struggle under the ‘absolute leadership of the party’ with the aim of:

‘destroying by degrees the old power, principally its armed forces and repressive organs and ... the construction of the new power for the proletariat and the people.’

In its daily struggle, Sendero concretises this programme to secure the widest possible unity of the people against Peruvian capitalism and imperialism. The Financial Times notes:

‘Unusually sophisticated leaflets before last week’s armed strike offer a 22-point political programme with broad popular appeal – amid familiar Marxist rhetoric were calls for cuts in taxes, public service tariffs and fares, higher wages and pensions, homes for the homeless, improved health and education services and no privatisation.’ (28 July 1992)

The rise of the Sendero has been rapid. Within nine months of launching the armed struggle it had liberated vast tracts of land with only three people killed. By 1982 it had carried out 5,350 operations and by 1986 28,691. Today it operates in 21 out of the country’s 24 departments, while in 500 municipal districts and provinces the state’s police and army have no presence. In many liberated areas, the Sendero have established an alternative state power. Assessing their rise to pre-eminence among Peru’s revolutionary organisations, a Rand Corporation study notes:

‘Shining Path’s ability to operate on a military plane is a function of the strength, scope, and diversity of its popular base. This in turn will be a function of the movement’s efforts to politicise, mobilise, and subsequently organise a "peasant-worker alliance" ... It is a movement ... that clearly understands the value of political work.’ Sendero’s approach to the cities, p12

It is characteristic of Sendero that it undertook a decade of the most patient systematic study and political organisation among Ayacucho’s impoverished peasantry and rural proletariat before launching the armed struggle. Similar painstaking preparations have been undertaken in the shantytowns. They have established networks of popular organisations which in rural areas are incorporated in the Revolutionary People’s Defence Front. Its urban counterpart is the Revolutionary People’s Defence Movement which includes organisations for the intelligentsia and professionals. Noticeably, women play a key role in the movement both in the leadership and the ranks. Gabriela Tarazona-Sevillano, a former criminal affairs prosecutor in Peru writes that:

‘Since the movement’s start, women have played an important role, quite different from their historic role in Peru ... female militants are also often assigned the most ruthless of all terrorist assignments.’ Shining Path of Peru, pp180-181

Cornerstones of Sendero’s political work including education for the peasantry, justice against lawless government forces and cocaine gangs, organised self-defence and the welfare provision of liberated areas. According to Simon Strong this has ‘won Shining Path considerable popular goodwill’. A lawyer in Tingo Maria complains that Sendero have lost him all his clients as they ‘provide (the peasant) with effective justice in the absence of official justice’. In areas controlled by the Sendero they also transfer land to the rural poor.


The anti-Sendero slander exposed

A key element in the arsenal of slander against the Sendero is that they engage in widespread and systematic drug production and trafficking to secure their funding. This lie is nailed by Simon Strong among others. According to him, the Sendero believe that coca cultivation ‘must be eradicated systematically where circumstances permit’ and ‘excessive consumption must be punished by exemplary penalties’ (Simon Strong, Shining Path, p114-115). However, where the Sendero has been powerless to stop coca cultivation, it fights to defend the interests of the peasant cultivators against the marauding drug gangs. On pain of death it insists they pay higher prices for the peasants’ coca.

Typical left characterisations of the Sendero also portray it as a violently sectarian organisation which refuses to work or unite with popular organisations and the rest of the left. Furthermore, the Sendero are accused of a systematic campaign of assassination of leaders of these organisations and trade unionists. The most notorious example presented is the execution on 15 February this year of Maria Elena Moyano, the Deputy Mayor of the Villa El Salvador shantytown on the outskirts of Lima. The left praised her as a champion of the poor, a grass roots organiser and the personification of a new mass popular movement. Her execution was presented as evidence that the Sendero is an enemy of this working class movement. Maria Moyano was an integral element of the government’s counter-insurgency strategy which besides brute military force includes more sophisticated tactics. To prevent the Sendero organising among the urban poor the Peruvian state is resorting to well-established counter-insurgency tactics. It combines controlled drip-feeding of communities with intelligence gathering and, in the words of General Sir Frank Kitson, requires the state to:

‘associate as many prominent members of the population especially those who have been engaged in non-violent action, with the government. This ... is known as co-optation and is described ... as drowning the revolution in baby’s milk.’ Low Intensity Operations, pp87-88

In Peru this tactic is executed through the agency of social democratic and left organisations and takes the form of the People’s Cafeterias and Glass of Milk programmes. These programmes are run by over 200 Non-Governmental Organisations and so-called ‘Popular Organisations’ and are funded by US, Dutch, German, Canadian and Spanish bodies. Their leadership manages budgets of millions of dollars. Between 1980-1989 the US supplied them with $16m in food and cash. In 1992 they expect to receive $75m.

In Villa El Salvador, Moyano was in the leadership of such organisations. An avowed opponent of Sendero, she saw ‘Popular Organisations’ as barricades against revolution:

‘This country would have exploded long ago if it had not been for the solidarity work of the Popular Organisations.’

The function of these ‘popular organisations’ is two-fold. They serve to isolate the revolutionaries and facilitate the collection of intelligence used for targeting them. Secondly, by allowing minimal food supplies to reach a destitute population they aim to reconcile the impoverished masses to capitalism and social democracy. El Piano, a newspaper supporting the Sendero notes that:

‘The objective is to maintain an enormous, extremely impoverished mass of people as beggars, without a critical spirit, without the will to fight, who think of nothing more than the next plate of food to be "given".’

Moyano was no innocent, independent grass roots activist. She was a member of the United Left. She belonged to the Movement for Socialist Affirmation to which the previously mentioned Gloria Helfer, the first Education Minister in Fujimori’s government, also belonged. In this capacity she vigorously fought against the Sendero and openly sided with the military inviting them to ‘change their image’ and come into shantytowns to ‘help in community works’. In this way, she argued, ‘we can defeat the Sendero’. Moyano’s usefulness in obstructing revolutionary organisation among the urban poor was recognised by the Financial Times in 1986. Then it included a special profile on her which focussed upon her establishing the elements of local government in the shantytowns, thereby inserting means of state control over this potentially explosive population.

Despite her so-called ‘popularity’ only 3,000 people attended her funeral: the population of Villa El Salvador is 300,000. Present were the Minister of Interior, the Vice President of Peru, ex-President Belaunde Terry, representatives from APRA, the IU and big business, the military and the police. In Peru, the custom of the military is to murder popular leaders, not attend their funerals. Fujimori called her a ‘martyr in the struggle against the Sendero’. The bourgeois newspaper Caretas, with known links to the military, described her as ‘one of the most effective generals of the campaign’ against the Sendero.

Those who so loudly denounced the Sendero said nothing of this. Peru is in a state of civil war. There is no middle road. Class polarisation is at its most extreme. No class force, no political organisation can avoid being drawn to one or the other side. Moyano and her social democratic allies have consciously and willingly moved to the side of Peruvian ‘democracy’ and the armed state.

Those who condemn Sendero for not seeking alliance with the social democratic left conceal the fact that it is this left which is collaborating with the state to destroy the Sendero. The social democratic left has supported the formation of government-funded urban patrols to hunt down the Sendero. Despite indiscriminate government attacks on Peru’s trade unions, Pablo Checa, leader of the General Confederation of Peruvian Workers admits that ‘We have resisted the Senderistas with our own lives’. He merely criticises the government’s ‘authoritarian manner’ because it leads people to ‘saying that democracy is not worth saving’. He even criticises Peru’s ‘business sector’ for not presenting ‘any proposals for beating Sendero’.


Sendero and imperialism’s war against the poor

Masquerading under ‘the war on drugs’, the US has begun its military intervention in Peru. They fear a Vietnam of the Andes. With Sendero’s ‘influence spreading to the rest of the continent’ (Financial Times 28.7.92), the USA will go to any lengths to crush revolution in what it regards as its own backyard. The left’s hysterical attacks on the Sendero serves to legitimise the US preparations for a bloody war on the poor of the whole continent.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, imperialism and its local allies feel less constrained in the use of barbarism to eliminate popular opposition. The Sendero success in resisting the ruling class and in organising and arming the working class and peasantry in Peru provides the possibility of hope and inspiration across Latin America. Communists internationally must support Sendero’s war against imperialism and the Peruvian ruling class.

This does not mean we endorse Sendero’s entire programme. Indeed we have fundamental differences with them. Sendero deny the socialist and anti-imperialist achievements of the Cuban revolution which they denounce in uncompromising terms. They thus isolate themselves from a bastion of anti-imperialism and socialism in Latin America and internationally. This could prove costly. Sendero also adopted the position that the Soviet Union was an imperialist state. The cult of personality surrounding Chairman Gonzalo betrays the pressure of a powerful peasant base. In addition, the mystification of Chairman Gonzalo’s theoretical contribution into a doctrine of Gonzalo-Thought is counter to Marxism.

These differences must be debated. But they do not disqualify Sendero from their place in the international working class movement. Nor should they blind socialists and communists to the fact that a new wave of revolution will sweep through the poorest and most dispossessed people on the earth. It will appear in forms both new and unrecognisable to the traditions of the past.


War Crimes Tribunal on Fujimori’s crimes against the Peruvian people

Sunday 27 September, Halkevi Hall, 92-100 Stoke Newington Road, N16

1pm Press Conference; 2pm Hearing; 6pm-midnight International Music