Reinterpreting the Treatment of the Rural Population by Peru's Shining Path
The Failing of Sendero’s Indigenismo and the Party’s Retreat
The Shining Path spent its formative years studying the works of Mariátegui, whose knowledge of indigenismo, the promotion of indigenous identity as a unifying agent among peoples, guided portions of his political theories. Yet, the senderistas’ lack of practically applying these studies resulted in multiple insurrections from the indigenous peoples who had supported them in the early years of the “People’s War.” On two separate occasions in January 1983, traditional indigenous communities in rural Peru assassinated a total of 15 members of the Shining Path.32 The Shining Path responded with violent retaliation, viewing these uprising communities as did the Peruvian state whose oppression began the Sendero’s formation. As written by historian Ponciano Del Pino, “peace in the countryside was irrevocably broken” as a self-perpetuating cycle of violent retaliation emerged involving the Peruvian military, the Shining Path, and the traditional communities.33
The creation of this violent cycle provides the context to understand the paradox between the Shining Path’s pro-indigenous and pro-peasant origin and dogma and its violent attacks against these groups. This violent cycle too is responsible for the ultimate retreat and weakening of the party. Senderistas sputtered on while further increasing this violent cycle, keeping their organization alive in part due to funds they gained from narcotráfico after advancing into the coca-producing Amazon basin until 1990.34 This year signaled the first significant military defeat against the Shining Path. After the 1990 defeat, Sendero began to distance itself from the rural peasantry, which at this point “overt[ly] rebelled[ed]” against the Shining Path.35 Two years later, Sendero leader Abimael Guzmán was arrested, soon followed by the rest of the party’s leadership.36
The paradoxes regarding the treatment of indigenous peoples and the rural peasantry by the Shining Path in Peru are inextricably linked to the broader failings of the party; these failures include unsuccessful Maoist revolutionary tactics and ideas of culture, apparent racial hierarchies constructed out of these Maoist ideas, and the underlying transactional nature of the initial support by rural populations of Peru.
Globally recognized Peruvian anthropologist Carlos Iván Degregori claims that the “Shining Path… had not employed violence” prior to its declaration of the “People’s War” in 1980 and that this violence “would have been difficult to predict.37” The introduction of Maoist tactics in the Peruvian Communist Party’s operations was the phenomenon which marked 1980 as a the beginning of a radically different year in the party; this was the year in which the Maoist ideas only studied by party members previously on college campuses were put into revolutionary practice. These conceptions of Maoist revolution by the Shining Path are the source of the organization’s widespread violence, evidenced in the absence of documented violent tactics earlier than 1980. Likewise, the Maoist notion that a “prolonged popular war” was the mechanism for revolution developed the distinctly senderista ideology that violence was an “absolute value…, a purifying force [that] extirpated the old (the bad) at its roots.38”
On these grounds the Sendero Luminoso would found its discomfort and ultimate contempt for indigenous culture in the organization’s later existence. The tension between the expansionist tactics of Sendero and traditional structures of the indigenous communities with which it interacted was in some regards a manifestation of the clash between the Shining Path and Andean culture at large. Senderistas “actively tried to suppress community rituals and fiestas,” as they were components of structures such as religion and customs constructing class consciousness.39 Moreover, the Maoist need to overturn “old” identity in order to achieve a successful revolution generated “disdain” for indigenous Andean culture which was viewed as a “cultural manifestation of the Quechua-speaking peasantry.40”
Yet, these factors were not enough to discourage the mutually beneficial interactions between the Shining Path and the rural peasantry in the party’s early years of war against the Peruvian state. Maoist perception of indigenous culture was indeed the motivation for scholars like Marisol de la Cadena to claim that the senderista elite “justified the racial hierarchies in which they silently believed.41” However, this happened within the prevailing cultural context which had historically established an “incompatibility between the city [from whence the Shining Path’s first members originated] and the [Peruvian] countryside” whose inhabitants were the party’s first targeted populations for recruitment.42
This Peruvian perception of the dichotomy between the countryside and urban centers demonstrates that the Maoist opposition to an everlasting, unchanging Andean culture was not a tremendously inflammatory idea. This cultural perception diminished the ability for the Shining Path to work with the indigenous populations of the rural highlands. However, this cultural idea was fairly inconsequential compared to the economic viability of the mutually beneficial exchange that could exist between the rural peasantry and members of Sendero. In the region of Andahuaylas alone, “30,000 indigenous peasants mobilized between July and September 1974 in an attempt to revindicate their ownership and autonomous control over nearly seventy haciendas” after the implementation of the Peruvian agrarian reform laws.43 The Shining Path offered political and militant knowledge and tactics to these communities which so desperately craved further, more egalitarian reforms. Meanwhile, the indigenous communities offered their numbers and man power to the Shining Path in its own efforts to achieve the organization’s goal of revolution in Peru.
In the later years of the party, senderistas grew impatient of the slow pace of the revolution they were pursuing and attempted to change the internal societal structure of the indigenous communities which allowed their party to mobilize against the state. In response, it is no wonder that these indigenous communities engaged in militant opposition to the Shining Path, as these rural populations viewed senderista actions against their traditional structures as no different from the political oppression they had endured since the country’s founding.
Two decades after the arrest of Shining Path President Abimael Gúzman, the Wall Street Journal published an article noting the recent deaths of nine police officers and soldiers in Peru by a “mutated” resurgence of the Shining Path. Due to pressures from the US to control exports of cocaine from Columbia, coca-leaf production has been pushed into Peru.44 Due to the organization’s previous experience in narcotrafficking, which partially funded its existence before its 20 year hiatus, the Sendero Luminoso has begun collecting revenues from taxing the growing Peruvian cocaine trade.
In the absence of its connection and support from the indigenous communities of Peru, the Shining Path has contemporarily leveraged itself using the burgeoning drug economy in Peru. This calls into question the organization’s motivation to overturn its existing government accused of being oppressive toward the indigenous and peasant populations. Without the support nor a mere relationship with Peruvian indigenous groups, it appears that the party continues forward in a base desire for power and control of Peruvian politics.