Peru's growing social activism

Groups that champion women, human rights, and other causes find a new voice in post-Fujimori era.

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 political leaders."

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 office.

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.

Fujimori developed extensive rural-development programs, taking roads, schools, electricity, and water to remote communities for the first time. Locals were encouraged to participate in construction and to take responsibility for maintaining those services.

Campesinos, or rural inhabitants, also developed community watch groups, first to defeat Sendero, and then to care for the new amenities coming in.

The Roman Catholic Church might normally have played a determining role in developing the needed social network, but in Ayacucho the church is "very traditional" and "closed to new forms of organization," says Benjamin Flores, an Ayacucho anthropologist and consultant to citizens' groups. At the same time, Ayacucho was profoundly changed by Sendero's violence. Many men were either killed or forced to abandon the region for safer cities or to find work. Women found themselves alone with families to support.

Both factors left the door open to "new social actors," Mr. Flores says. such as women's groups, new churches, the campesino watch groups, small political organizations, and human rights organizations. With the gradual strengthening of these new actors, a latent rebellion against the Fujimori model began building. People felt they were being used politically in exchange for services they were entitled to.

"You could feel a growing discomfort with what many Fujimori supporters felt was the blackmail of his social assistance system, but it wasn't until the end of 1999 that it burst open," says Ponciano del Pino, a historian at San Cristobal University. Fujimori's inability to reverse a stagnant economy also caused public outcry, he says.

Vilma Ortega stands out as an example of this evolution. A feisty organizer of self-help groups in Ayacucho that involve more than 100,000 women, Ms. Ortega was a fervent Fujimori supporter.

But that changed.

"We gradually realized we were being manipulated with a kilo of lentils," says the activist. "We weren't satisfied with this idea that we were in one politician's pocket because he gave us food.... Our priority has to be strengthening families and developing our community, not serving any politician."

She now sees education as women's No. 1 need. She and other activists here worry that if people's reawakened involvement doesn't begin translating into concrete results, poor rural areas could see a return of the violence they suffered a decade ago.

The challenge for Peru's new social actors will be developing their abilities beyond what has largely been an anti-Fujimori experience, Mr. del Pino says.

"The focus of organization, whether community groups or new political parties, remains too much in personalties," he says. "There's still too little knowledge of how to bring disparate groups - women, students, campesinos - together." That's why del Pino is encouraged by the recent rally led by students, mothers of Ayacucho's disappeared, and human rights groups.

That, he says, "can bring different people together and get them working on broader issues for the future."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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