Deadly legacy of shabby guerrilla: Peru's euphoria at the fall of the 'people's war' leader may be premature. Colin Harding explains the potency of Abimael Guzman's ideas

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The Independent Online
HE was known as 'The Chairman', the all-knowing, all-powerful brains behind one of the most ferocious revolutionary organisations of the 20th century. But Abimael Guzman turned out to be a little, middle-aged fat man with a straggly beard and shabby clothes.

Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori had no doubts about the kind of enemy he had faced in Guzman. On television, he described the captured leader of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas as a criminal monster, on a par with the Nazi butchers of the Second World War.

To Peru's beleaguered middle classes, who had come to dread the bombings, blackouts and 'annihilation squads' of the past 12 years, this must have seemed like no exaggeration.

Peering through the bars of his cell, Abimael Guzman Reynoso appeared an unlikely cult figure. But he had never had anything in common with the romantic Latin American revolutionaries of the Che Guevara type: the badges, berets and brandished weapons. For all his unprepossessing appearance, Guzman's ambitions were on a world scale. His vision was no less than to turn Peru into the fount of a revolution that, from its source in a remote corner of the Andes, would eventually cover the world. It is for this reason that his followers regard him as the 'fourth sword' of Marxism, the worthy heir of Marx, Lenin and Mao Tse-tung.

Guzman's hold over his supporters has never been based on charisma or spell-binding oratory, but rather on his mastery of ideology. Above all, he showed how to translate political theory into a detailed prescription for political and military action. His route to power, he said, would be 'people's war'.

A mestizo of obscure origins in the small southern port of Mollendo, Guzman graduated in philosophy from the state university of Arequipa. He later secured a lecturing post in Ayacucho, a small town in the south-central Andes, at a time when its ancient and long-somnolent university was changing fast.

In Ayacucho, he seized the opportunity offered by the reverberations of the Sino-Soviet split of 1964 to gain control of the pro-Chinese tendency in the local communist party. Thereafter, through a complicated succession of splits and purges, he 'reconstituted' the local party and made it an instrument of his political will.

For a time in the early 1970s, Shining Path (a name taken from a party publication) dominated the staff and student bodies at Ayacucho's San Cristobal de Huamanga University, where Guzman was head of personnel. Opponents were impressed by the group's discipline and organisation, and by Guzman's powers of persuasion. But they were appalled by its rigid dogmatism and refusal to co-operate with anyone.

Ayacucho was - and is - at the centre of a poor, arid upland region of Indian farming communities and large decaying estates. As far as Shining Path was concerned, the conditions for revolution were already there. But where Guzman showed considerable political acumen was in identifying and harnessing to the cause of 'people's war' the social and political changes taking place in this apparently stagnating region.

Guzman saw the uprooted sons and daughters of illiterate Quechua-speaking campesinos as potential cadres for the revolutionary party and its guerrilla army. He suspected that the ambitious government plans for modern commercial agriculture and ranching in the bone-dry wastes of Ayacucho and neighbouring departments were doomed to failure. He also saw that the teachers and professionals turned out by the university were destined for estrangement from their own over-populated and tradition-bound communities, and discrimination and probable unemployment in the modern urban world outside.

He was right. The products of the university's teacher-training course formed the spearhead of Shining Path's political and military indoctrination drive in rural Ayacucho from the late 1970s onwards.

Shining Path and its People's Guerrilla Army (with perhaps 5,000 full-time members) claim to have reached 'strategic equilibrium' with government forces. More than half of Peruvian territory is under a state of emergency.

But, even before the capture of Guzman, there were signs that Shining Path might have been running out of steam. The party's determination to bring the rural economy to its knees, by closing markets and cutting off supplies to the towns, earned it the opposition of many peasant farmers, who have formed the basis of 'self-defence patrols' controlled by the military. And Shining Path's recent campaign of assassinations of left-wing mayors and town councillors all over Peru appeared to be a sign of frustration, even desperation, at its growing isolation.

Since the capture of Guzman, many second-rank leaders have been rounded up as President Fujimori drives home his advantage. The euphoria in government circles in Lima is palpable. Only time will tell if it is justified.


We are but fragments of time, mere flickers, but our works will last through the centuries.

The armed struggle gleams in our minds, beats in our hearts and leaps irresistibly from our wills.

The Whirlwind is coming, the invincible flames of the revolution will leap up and turn into lead and steel, from the din of battle with its unquenchable fire will come the light, from the dark a luminous glow and there will be another world.

The party cannot be an electoral machine but an organisation for the seizure of power.

The roar of the masses grows. We will make a new and final dawn.

(Photograph omitted)