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An Excerpt from “The Fate of Peruvian Democracy” by Tamara Feinstein

In The Fate of Peruvian Democracy: Political Violence, Human Rights, and the Legal Left, Tamara Feinstein chronicles the late-twentieth-century Shining Path conflict and argues that it significantly contributed to the rupture and disintegration of the noninsurgent legal Left in Peru by deepening preexisting divisions and eradicating an entire generation of leaders. Using a combination of oral histories, archival documents, contemporary media accounts, and participant observation of commemorations, Feinstein maps the trajectory of the Peruvian Left’s rise and fall by analyzing two emblematic human rights cases that occurred at the Left’s zenith and nadir: the state-based violence of the 1986 Lima prison massacres and the 1992 Shining Path assassination of leftist shantytown leader María Elena Moyano.

The first and last national Izquierda Unida congress began on the 18th of January 1989. It was convened not only to organize for the presidential elections, for which IU was ahead in the polls, but also to address rising pressure from the base to broaden and democratize the front. Planning and organizing the congress began 14 months earlier, in September 1987, with the formation of base committees and commissions to formulate the front’s program, political theses, political plan and new statutes. The meeting was the largest of its kind, with 3,142 delegates from across the country in attendance. Each major party was allotted around 120 delegates (for a total of 880) at the congress. The rest (almost 70 percent) were chosen by secret ballot, in elections that drew from the rank and file, which had swelled to over 130,000 members. This was significant because it gave IU supporters a mechanism to elect delegates outside the traditional CDN parties. It also allowed those aligned with parties to pick regional delegates based on their qualities as individuals rather than party patronage.

The delegates converged on Huampaní, located to the east of Lima along the old, winding, and dangerous carretera central (central highway). The mood was charged with a sense of violence, overshadowed by the Shining Path’s increasing presence in the greater Lima metropolitan area. In a 2009 interview, PUM leader Javier Diez Canseco recalled that the Shining Path had decided to call for a paro armado (armed strike) at the exact time as the IU congress. Anyone found outside their homes on such days could become a target of Shining Path violence, and the carretera central that led to Huampaní was a center of Shining Path activity. He remembered that the whole PUM delegation had walked the entire 15-kilometers to the Huampaní complex, with banners and flags held high, challenging the Shining Path’s armed strike. Thus, even the journey to attend the congress highlighted the highly confrontational environment in Peru at that moment, which, according to Diez Canseco, led to a “highly subjective atmosphere” at the congress.

Lourdes Chávez, from the Barrantes-aligned PCR party, similarly recalled a violently charged atmosphere. She was a rank-and-file organizer who had focused on mobilizing women’s neighborhood organizations for the PCR in an outlying Lima district called Independencia. She had witnessed increased Shining Path attacks against organizers in the women’s groups with which she worked. Fear of Shining Path violence permeated the city. Elected as one of Independencia’s delegates to the congress, Chávez traveled with her husband and child to the event in Huampaní. While at the congress, there was such fear that the Shining Path would attack, that she decided to take her child home the second day to stay with family, and she returned to the congress by herself.

Nicolás Lynch, an independent aligned with Convergencia Socialista, also recollected that a sense of violence and aggression saturated the congress. He remembered getting into physical altercations twice in the three-day period, during which individuals from opposing factions pulled guns on his colleagues to prevent them from speaking. Chávez noted that the delegates shaped their identities at the congress around party allegiances; even those technically elected to represent districts rallied around party, not district, flags. Media observers commented on the ever-present chants hurled by opposing moderate and radical factions. The moderates shouted “Fall, Fall, Fall, Vanguardistas, Fall!” at the radical bloc, and the radicals shouted, “Fall, Fall, Fall, Reformistas, Fall!” at the moderates. When describing the need for a democratic solution to the current crisis, a section at the end of the Political Plan offered a critique of both extremes: “This democratic solution is in contrast with the passive attitudes, impossible searches for consensus, or unilateral truces with the government, as much as with the adventurist positions of moving towards a political-military confrontation or of proposing the renunciation of the government or of the moving up of elections caused by a supposedly indefinite public strike.”

Despite the internal tensions, one of the congress’s main purposes was to debate political programs and positions that the delegates were to vote on in order to present a unified political platform in the upcoming elections. This type of democratic consultation had rarely been tried inside the front, and never to that extent. Many of the issues had been long overdue for debate, including the front’s position on the nearly decade-long conflict with the Shining Path. In documents produced by the congress there was no single section or heading dedicated solely to the war but concerns over political violence permeated all documents created for and at the congress. Indeed, the second page of the Political Theses document identified the Shining Path as a major enemy alongside traditional rivals like the Right. It described Shining Path actions as “provocative and terrorist.” This was a significant shift from previous IU documents, where the Right had stood as the undisputed enemy, dwarfing all other threats to the Left.

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