David Palmer notes in his introduction to this volume that the many prominent Shining Path watchers represented herein do not exhaust the list of serious analysts of Peru’s 12-year violent insurgency. But the volume does provide, in Palmer’s words, multiple “windows” on the complex and contradictory phenomenon called Sendero Luminoso.
Though they develop quite different explanations for Sendero’s strength and endurance, Tom de Wit and Vera Gianotten, Carlos Degregori, Billie Jean Isbell, and Palmer himself share an initial perplexity about how an authoritarian, violent, ideologically extremist organization—one initially not taken very seriously, either by the Peruvian government or the rest of the Left—could have survived, even prospered, for so long. This bafflement is intensified by the personal experiences of these authors in Ayacucho, before Sendero declared the armed struggle or shortly thereafter. Palmer, for example, was one of the Peace Corps volunteers expelled from the University of Huamanga in an anti-imperialist campaign orchestrated by Sendero mastermind Abimael Guzmán. A photograph at the end of the volume portrays the university faculty in 1962, with Guzmán sitting in the front row and Palmer standing toward the back. Degregori, too, taught at Huamanga and faced daily the challenges and debates of Senderistas, while Isbell had conflicts with Senderista teachers during her field work in Chuschi. De Wit and Gianotten recount hearing the Sendero hymn sung at a party in Ayacucho.
There is a shared need, then, to go back and reinterpret: why were early clues missed? Why did peasant communities initially support Sendero? The authors do not reach consensus with their answers. De Wit, Gianotten, and Palmer emphasize the peripheral—read rural, Indian, Andean—origins of Sendero, and the failures of the center—urban, coastal, white, and mestizo—to take the movement, or for that matter the Andean peasantry, seriously. From this perspective, Sendero’s growth seems a negative phenomenon, the result not so much of the movement’s own policies as of the failures of the Peruvian state and other political parties. Isbell, on the other hand, emphasizes the careful, patient work Sendero did among the rural masses throughout the Ayacucho district in the 1970s. Popular schools, moralization campaigns, and the disciplining or murder of community enemies and gougers all won the original support of the peasantry. It was only later, when Senderistas attempted to push their own agenda of economic and agricultural reorganization and left the peasants to their own devices during the military repression, that support began to erode. Degregori examines the peculiarities of Sendero’s evolution as an organization—he calls it a “dwarf star,” with such a compression of ideological mass that its weight and density greatly overwhelm its size. The organization’s authoritarian practices, Degregori suggests, fit in well with the authoritarian legacy of Spanish colonialism.
Other authors take the reality of Sendero more for granted and provide specific explanations for the movement’s organizational efficiency and long-term success. Ronald Berg suggests that in Andahuaylas, Sendero continues to offer the peasants an alternative to military repression and agrarian exploitation. José Gonzáles examines factions and power relations in the Upper Huallaga Valley and demonstrates that antidrug policies have often conflicted with counterinsurgency initiatives. Tom Marks argues that Sendero uses violence selectively, to make apolitical point, and in this is not so different from other successful guerrilla movements. Gabriela Tarazona-Sevillano examines Sendero’s efficient hierarchical structure. Sandra Woy-Hazelton and William Hazelton suggest that the failures of the electoral left have contributed more to Sendero’s success than previously assumed. Cynthia McClintock surveys theories of revolution, and suggests that their focus on regime type as the main determinant of a revolutionary movement’s success may not apply to Peru.
One theme echoes through much of the book: Sendero could not have originated in Lima. As an ideologically marginal, politically anachronistic party, Sendero necessarily emerged in the highlands, the traditional home of authoritarianism, subordination, and poverty. Yet the dualism between Indian and white, highlands and coast implicit in such a construction disappears in Michael Smith’s essay on Ate Vitarte. Lima’s most important industrial corridor and the gateway from the capital city to the central highlands, Ate Vitarte was a pivotal point of trade union and community organization throughout the 1970s. Active there almost from the beginning of the decade, Sendero concentrated on the radicalization of strikes and, in later years, on prying discontented militants loose from other leftist parties. In essence, Sendero acted in Lima as a predator feeding on the efforts, breakthroughs, and failures of popular organizations and other political parties on the left.
As Palmer emphasizes in his conclusions, this volume raises more questions than it answers. The recent capture of Guzmán has further muddied the waters. But for this reviewer, the image of Sendero as a bird of prey in Ate Vitarte applies to the movement as a whole. If Sendero has survived and prospered, it may have little to do with the supposed marginality or authoritarianism of highland society. On the coast and in the sierra, the carcasses of the Velasquista military revolution of 1968, and the legal left parties and unions of the 1970s and early 1980s, may have provided juicy nourishment indeed.