Peruvian Tragedy Seems Misunderstood in the US

IT is sad and ironic that, with the end of the cold war, the United States government's cutoff of critical financial assistance to Peru in the name of democracy may well contribute to a communist victory by the Sendero Luminoso, the Shining Path. During the last few years, rapidly deteriorating economic conditions in Peru have provided rich opportunities for Sendero's efforts to increase social disorder and disintegration.

In response, the democratically elected president of Peru, Alberto Fujimori, dissolved the Congress and suspended elements of the judiciary in April 1992. President Fujimori claimed Congress was obstructing his efforts to fight terrorism and reactivate the economy. He termed the judiciary inefficient and corrupt. And he promised to hold elections for a new Congress before year's end.

Major newspapers in the US editorialized against Fujimori, calling him a dictator. American politicians decried his actions as undemocratic. And, in a punitive action, the US government suspended most of its economic assistance package to the country and pressured the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank to delay important financial credits to Peru.

But in Peru, Fujimori's actions were met with widespread support and his approval rating ran between 70 percent and 80 percent. In November, Fujimori made good on his earlier pledge to hold elections for a new constituent assembly and the coalition which supported him, Nueva Mayoria-Cambio 90, garnered a majority of the seats.

Many in the US foreign policy establishment haven't really understood or appreciated what has been happening in Peru for the past 12 years. The constitutional democracy has been viciously and brutally assaulted by Sendero's communist insurrection.

Sendero realized early on that a key component in the destruction of the Peruvian state would be to eliminate the population's willingness to participate in the democratic process. It has selectively targeted local officials, community organizers, religious workers and leaders, and anyone else who might represent a challenge to Sendero's authority or vision of Peru's future. Its cadres have repeatedly threatened to kill or punish citizens who exercise their right to vote.

The assassination of Maria Elena Moyano last February was characteristic of the tactics Sendero has used successfully for years. Ms. Moyano was the vice mayor of Villa El Salvador, a large, poor town on the periphery of the national capital, Lima. Impoverished towns like Villa El Salvador have been the target of much of Sendero's recent efforts, and democratically elected officials like Moyano stand in its way. Moyano was courageous and defiant in the face of Sendero's threats - denouncing its terrorist tactics and its violent message of hate and destruction.

On Feb. 15, 1992, in front of her 10-year-old son, Moyano and her bodyguard were shot. Data tabulated by the Peruvian Senate for 1990 indicate that seven provincial mayors and 17 district mayors were assassinated by Sendero death squads in 1990. And Sendero's assassinations of democratically elected officials have continued unabated.

During the municipal election campaign that ended last week, Sendero murdered some 20 candidates and political leaders in an effort to disrupt the electoral process. With each killing, Peruvian democracy dies a little more.

Today, perhaps as many as 30 percent of all Peruvian local governments simply do not function because of Sendero's war on local governments and the democratic process. Yet, most cleverly, Sendero did not target congressional representatives or senators.

Living relatively prosperous lives, generally untouched by the political violence in the urban shantytowns and rural areas, many Peruvian parliamentarians focused their attention on feathering their own nests, ignoring the social crisis and near civil war raging around them.

Lulled into a sense of security by its immunity from the political violence, Congress repeatedly blocked the Fujimori government's legislative efforts to address the economic, social, and military solutions to the crisis. In frustration, Fujimori, either backed by or forced by the military, suspended the Constitution and dissolved Congress. His public approval ratings soared. So why did the US government condemn Fujimori so soundly? Besides a failure to appreciate the information available to it, it appe ars as if the Bush administration used the Peruvian tragedy as an opportunity to highlight its commitment to democracy.

It is easy to condemn Peru, a small country of only marginal economic importance to the US. Suspending the Constitution and dissolving Congress are serious setbacks for democracy in Peru.

But, consider US foreign policy toward other countries. China, for instance, is a communist country with no semblance of democratic processes. The Bush administration refused to take even modest steps to indicate our country's displeasure with the brutal events at Tiananmen Square and other human rights abuses - repeatedly blocking efforts to rescind China's "most favored nation" trading status with the US.

Or consider Kuwait. The US was willing to go to war to save a country ruled by a monarch who had unceremoniously dissolved the Parliament some years before. But Peru has no oil nor anything else the US really needs, wants, or could not get elsewhere. And so, the US government postured and posed as democracy's great defender in Peru by condemning the democratically elected Fujimori, severely restricting foreign aid, and blocking aid packages by the major development banks.

Even after the establishment of a popularly elected constituent assembly in November and successful municipal elections at the end of last week, the US still has not released the $120 million in economic assistance it suspended last April.

This policy only serves to weaken further the democratically elected government and strengthen the hand of the Sendero Luminoso revolutionaries. The new administration in Washington has an opportunity to change this policy and to strengthen democracy in Peru.

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