Leading Article: Shining Path may yet wind on

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THE CAPTURE yesterday of Abimael Guzman, leader of the Shining Path insurgency movement in Peru, may not represent the breakthrough that the country's government hopes for. He is reported to have been betrayed by a rival for the leadership, who could prove just as effective. Divided though the movement is, its strength has shown no signs of waning. It controls substantial areas of the country by terror, and has had some success in penetrating the towns. It extracts substantial funds from drug traffickers, and has been able to feed off the desperation induced by the austerity measures of the government of President Alberto Fujimori.

Yet if the government plays its hand right, it may yet extract gains from the capture. Guzman's carefully cultivated myth of invincibility has been destroyed, and a number of important colleagues have been taken with him. His organisation certainly will have been jolted, and the police will have been encouraged. If people gain the impression that the tide is turning against him, his support will decline because it owes far more to terror and disillusion with the government than to the appeal of his absurdly anachronistic ideas. A former professor of philosophy, he claims intellectual descent from Stalin and Mao Tse-tung, although he is probably closer to Pol Pot, the butcher of Cambodia. His declared aim is to create chaos in the hope of provoking a military coup that will then provide the cue for revolution.

That this once fashionable nonsense purveyed by the pseudo-revolutionary students of the Sixties should still find adherents in Peru is a measure of the country's misery and isolation. Yet the number of genuine believers is probably small. In 1990, President Fujimori won a landslide victory on promises to clear up corruption and defeat the guerrillas. Even his bloodless coup on 5 April this year was accepted by about 70 per cent of the population. If there was little sympathy for the political establishment, there was less for the guerrillas, who have caused about 26,000 deaths since 1980.

Fujimori has been losing ground recently, largely because his successful attack on inflation included no attempt to cushion the social costs. He also lost international financial support by discarding democracy. This support, however, has been creeping back since he agreed to hold elections for a constitutional assembly in November. Foreign critics of his methods have also been hard put to suggest any better ways out of the crisis.

The politics of desperation are liable to make their own rules. Legitimate doubts about giving aid to a government that tramples on democracy while professing to save it, are easily swamped by the facts of life in Peru, and the appalling savagery of the guerrilla movement. Cutting off aid would increase the misery on which the guerrillas feed, weaken the police and the army, and provide easier conditions for coca growers, drug traffickers and corrupt politicians. Moreover, no one with close knowledge of the Peruvian Congress can easily lament the president's decision to close it down. Equally, the international community cannot abandon all concern for democratic rights procedures. A compromise must be built around maintaining the political pressure on President Fujimori while making aid conditional on progress towards democracy.