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The Independent Culture
Shortly after the capture of Abimael Guzman, the leader of the Peruvian terrorist group Shining Path, in August 1992, the Mayor of Lima, Alberto Andrade, had a strange, visionary idea. The city at the time was crippled by terrorism, with almost daily bombs and assassinations, a ravaged infrastructure and a 10pm curfew; but all this, Andrade resolved, would now change. Where there had been hate, he would build love; while his city, then so notorious for violence, would become a byword for romance.

It was a bold vision, but, extraordinarily, it has become reality. In the central park of Lima's fashionable Miraflores district, Andrade has created a "Park of Love", to which couples of every age and class flock to celebrate the Peruvian cult of romance. Every Saturday evening, 40 or 50 couples are married there (in batches of 10); in all, some 2,000 weddings a year. The park is also thronged with courting, kissing couples - at the busiest times, such as Valentine's Day, you find clinches every couple of yards. And then, of course, there are the entrepreneurs: flower- sellers and purveyors of Polaroid photographs.

It may all sound faintly tacky; certainly, the prevailing aesthetic is kitsch. A massive cement variation on Rodin's "The Kiss" dominates the central amphitheatre, where a band plays Latin rhythms to an audience seated on Gaudi-esque benches with mosaics of flowers, stars and quotes from love poems. There are heart-shaped signs saying things like "Love is not stepping on the seats". But the location is also romantic in the best sense. The park is on Lima's coastal promontory, and the lovers gaze out upon a 180-degree Pacific panorama, with 15 miles of spectacular coastline in view, bathed, most evenings, by lurid sunsets. For the lovers who have trekked up from Villa El Salvador, Lima's notorious shanty-town, it is a garden of unearthly delights.

When Andrade first had his idea, Lima was falling apart under the strain not only of terrorism but also of class division. For years, the wealthy sophisticates of Miraflores had been living as though Villa El Salvador, just under their noses, did not exist. But a succession of devastating bombs had begun to give the two communities something in common, and when Andrade organised a March for Peace shortly after Guzman's capture, wealthy whites and destitute Indians joined the crowd with equal enthusiasm. "That day," recalls Andrade, "Miraflores realised that it shared something with Villa El Salvador."

And so the central park of Lima's most exclusive suburb was given over to love. It is the shanty-dwellers who have benefited most: the free concerts, dance areas and the glorious gardens have offered them an escape from the tensions of their daily lives; and the multiple weddings are a highly efficient way of spreading the cost of matrimony.

There is advantage for Andrade in all this. He is already being talked of as a possible presidential candidate. But his achievement has been much more than a political gesture: it is a triumph of idealism.