As a long-time environmental activist, I am intimately acquainted with the landscape of loss, and with the heartbreaking experience of seeing unassailable moral, legal, and scientific arguments fall before naked political, economic, and physical power. I have a deep interest in the relationship between pacifistic and armed resistance to that power. When does pacifistic resistance work, and when does it not? When is armed resistance acceptable, and when not? Looking for answers, I interviewed Isaac Velazco, an MRTA member since 1984. In 1988, Velazco was arrested and beaten. He escaped. Exiled in Germany, he is the MRTA’s European Representative.
I asked why the MRTA formed. He said, “Peru has traditionally been–since independence from Spain–dominated by military dictatorships. When in the late 1970s it seemed these were coming to an end, there was in place nothing to defend Peru’s population, especially the poor, from the devastating effects of neo-liberalism. Tupac Amaru formed because there was, and is, nothing resembling democracy for the majority of Peru’s citizens. For the perhaps 3 million privileged Peruvians there is a democracy; but their democracy is our dictatorship, a continuation of the often irrational destruction that’s been going on in Peru for 500 years.
“Prior to the arrival of Europeans, Peru was home to one of the most advanced cultures of America, where, with collective ownership of the means of production, the problem of hunger was solved. Yes, the Incas subjugated other peoples, sometimes violently, and they were sometimes met with violent resistance. But better scholars than I have shown that even the ruling classes showed respect for the land, and for children. They made sure everyone was fed through a sophisticated network of storehouses. Contrast that to today, when 180 of every 1000 children in Peru die of curable diseases before they’re five, and adults die as slave laborers washing gold in the jungles of Madre de Dios. An FAO report suggests poverty will be eliminated in Peru before 2025, not because of improving conditions, but because we’ll all be dead of starvation. Our country is turning into a huge concentration camp.”
I asked what the MRTA wants for Peru. He replied, “I am not sure what you mean. We are Peru. We want nothing from Peru. There are others who want plenty from Peru: our oil, wood, fish, gold. Our lives. Capitalism is taking away what is elemental to our lives: our land, rivers, forests are being violated by institutions and individuals who ignore the meanings they have for us. The majority in Peru have traditionally lived by hunting and fishing, and small-scale agriculture, by growing bananas, manioc, and fruits. These people are not reaping the benefits–whatever they may be–of neoliberal “development.” They–we–are being killed. We want to stop this annihilation of our people, and we want our people–the vast majority who are denied a voice in our so-called democracy–to be heard.”
I asked how he became politicized: “Because each of us is born into already-extant political systems, we are born politicized: we each must either accept (sometimes by default) or reject the political system into which we’ve been born. Those born and raised farther from the centers of political power are less likely to be influenced by the entire politics of servitude and slavery.
“I have long opposed capitalism and its effects on my people. I tried unarmed resistance, but soon grew to see that as useless. To witness the murder of one’s comrades, without a weapon to defend temselves, is a quick way to be convinced of that approach’s futility. Almost all MRTA members have had that experience, through the disappearance of their parents, the torture of their brothers, the rape of their sisters; others have suffered the violence in their own flesh, directly.
“In our resistance we remain true to Peru’s constitution, which clearly states–as does the American Declaration of Independence–that citizens have the right to rebel against a government failing to defend their interests. Perhaps this clause was inserted as a legal frame for the military to execute coup d’etats when civilian governments didn’t conform. Nevertheless, we have abided by the constitution, and by international agreements regarding the conduct of war and treatment of prisoners. The same cannot be said of the government.”
If the government were to disappear, I asked, and the MRTA were to govern, what would they do? “Our goal is to build a society that respects the autonomy of each region. We’d continue our current program of respecting each village’s grassroots organizations, we’d assist them in electing their own representatives, and together we’d develop the production of food and other necessities.”
Given foreign debt and international pressure, how could these goals be achieved? “The loans serve mainly to militarize nations and increase the wealth of a very few. They aren’t useful for the generation of employment, food, education, or for bettering peoples’ health. Why should our country go deeper into debt–debt which provides legal basis for foreign companies to take resources we need to live–when these debts serve only to enrich the few? We need to produce and distribute our own food. We already know how to do that. We merely need to be allowed to do so.”
This leads to an obvious question studiously avoided in the American corporate press. Are transnational corporations incompatible with democracy? “We think so, but since we don’t have the military force to expel them, we merely demand they comply with international norms of respect for people and the environment. Nor is it possible to have a democracy when these corporations control the press. That’s a primary reason we fight, in order for people to have a right to their voices. Truth, as someone once said, is revolutionary. This is one reason those in power routinely lie. The takeover of the Ambassador’s house, and the consequent attention focused on the appalling conditions in Peru’s prisons, conditions which up to then had been for the most part ignored, points out that when those in power lie, the only way to conduct a meaningful dialogue with them is to have in your hands a way to force them to be accountable. Even then you can only be sure they will remain true so long as you continue to hold them tightly in your hands.”
I often wonder whether writing helps bring about social change. How many social critics really want to stop the horrors, want to bring down this culture of death, and how many have merely found a niche for themselves, a way to make a comfortable living while they comfort their consciences with occasional outbursts of righteous indignation? “In our villages a high percentage of people do not read or write. But it’s important that ones like you, who know how to do it, write so sensitive persons of the middle and upper classes may understand it’s possible to live in a world where the lives–and the ways of living–of all human beings are respected. This in no way implies it is incompatible to write and take up the rifle. Many poets and sensitive or conscientious intellectuals have done exactly this in Peru and other places.
“People need to free themselves from the power of drugs, and from the other ways they are kept misinformed, distracted, and alienated from what is happening in the world. And just right now we need for people in the United States, Europe, and Japan to demand from their governments the freeing of political prisoners. You helped put an end to the genocide in Vietnam; you could do the same now in Peru. You can demand that your governments stop “helping” us, because every time you help us, we owe more. You can demand that your governments stop meddling in the matters of other countries, stop being the “policemen” of the world, stop interventionism entirely. That is the best way for you to help the people of Peru.”
As Peruvian soldiers burst into the Japanese Ambassador’s residence on April 22, one of the members of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) ran into the room where a number of the hostages were being held. He aimed his automatic rifle at them, stopped, stared, turned, and walked back out of the room. Moments later he was gunned down trying to surrender.
I can think of no single incident which better illustrates why the world is dying, or rather being killed, and why the best, most sincere, most heartfelt efforts of those of us struggling for justice and sanity so often end in betrayal, loss, and sometimes bloodshed–inevitably our own blood and the blood of those we are trying to protect. For while many of us enter into this struggle because we care about life and about living, the truth is that our enemies, those who are destroying life on this planet, have shown themselves time and again to be willing, in fact eager, to kill to increase their power.
Last December 17th, members of the MRTA took over the Ambassador’s house and seized some 500 hostages. They released women and children immediately, and for humanitarian reasons released all but seventy-two of the remaining hostages over the next several weeks. Their primary demand for the release of the final group, which included several Supreme Court members, a former chief of Peru’s secret police, and regional executive officers for many Japan-based transnational corporations, was that imprisoned MRTA members be freed.
The siege lasted a little over four months. In those four months the prisoners seized by the MRTA played chess, gave and received cooking and music lessons, sang happy birthday to each other, and compared their imprisonment to “a cocktail party without liquor.” On release, most of the prisoners the MRTA voluntarily let go shook the hand of Nestor Cerpa, head of the MRTA commando that undertook this action, and wished him well. Many asked for his autograph. After their release, some expressed solidarity with the MRTA.
In those same four months, members of the MRTA imprisoned by Peru continued their existence in “prison tombs,” as “President” Fujimori (“President” is in quotes because, as often goes unreported in the corporate press, Fujimori disbanded the legislature, overturned the constitution, and enacted a self-coup in 1992) has called them, where “they will rot and will only get out dead.” In those four months, Victor Polay–founder of the MRTA–and other prisoners at Callao Naval Base continued to be confined to their tiny cells twenty-five feet underground; they are allowed to walk outside, hooded and alone, for thirty minutes each day. In those four months, prisoners in Yanamayo (12,000 feet) and Chacapalca (more than 15,000 feet, and an eight-hour drive from the nearest village) suffered bitter cold, once again in solitary confinement, in rooms with open-air windows. In those four months, more MRTA members–or more likely peasants or Indians unfortunate enough to have caught the attention of secret police–were captured, tortured, and in at least one case, murdered. The survivors will probably be sentenced, by faceless military judges in trials lasting only minutes, to life imprisonment in these “prison tombs.”
In those four months, those responsible for the death squad killings of thousands of Peruvians continued to lead comfortable lives, their anxiety eased by a general amnesty issued June 16, 1995 by Fujimori, which quashed all investigations or indictments of human rights violations occurring after May, 1980. In those four months, hostages released by the MRTA who expressed solidarity received death threats from Peru’s secret police. At least one radio reporter who criticized the military was kidnapped and tortured.
In those four months, the Peruvian government, central to the region’s drug trade, continued to traffick in cocaine; last year, 169 kilos of cocaine were found in the presidential plane, 120 kilos were found in one Peruvian warship, and 62 in another. Also last year, Demetrio Chavez Petaherrera, one of the biggest drug kings in Latin America, testified in a public hearing that since 1991 he’s been personally paying Peru’s drug-czar Vladimiro Montesinos (an ex-CIA informant long linked to drugs, death squads, and the torture of civilians) $50,000 per month in exchange for information on U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency activities. A few days afterwards, Petaherrera was taken to Callao and tortured until he recanted. In the last four months, Fujimori’s brother, Santiago, his nephew, Isidro Kagami Fujimori, and other of his relatives have continued to traffick cocaine through any number of dummy corporations. Profits from this trafficking have in the past gone to purchase black-market helicopters used to kill civilians.
In those four months, the children of Peru continued to starve, the forests continued to fall, and the fisheries continued to be depleted. In other words, Fujimori continued his policy of committing genocide and ecocide to benefit transnational corporations. In other words, it was business as usual in the civilized, industrialized world.
In those four months, Fujimori and the military, while pretending to negotiate in good faith, dug five separate tunnels beneath the compound. Two of the miners hired to dig the tunnels died, and the rest disappeared: their families have no idea what happened to them. In those four months, members of the security forces–trained in the United States at taxpayer expense, and wearing taxpayer-purchased flak jackets (one of their American instructors called the assault and subsequent massacre “money well spent”)–prepared for an assault, and listened to the routine inside the compound through a pin-sized microphone smuggled in when a hostage requested a guitar (as well as microphones hidden in the chess set, and in other amenities brought in to help the hostages pass the time). CIA planes helped Fujimori prepare the slaughter.
During or after the assault, many if not all the MRTA members were summarily executed. Military microphones picked up the sounds of two of the guerrillas–sixteen year old girls–begging soldiers not to shoot. They were, of course, immediately murdered. Others of the rebels, including Nestor Cerpa, were executed, shot at point-blank range in the forehead. At least one of the rebels was led away to be tortured before his murder. One of the soldiers who participated in the slaughter said, “The order was to leave no one alive. For us, the instruction was to leave no prisoners.” The bodies of most of the rebels have been scattered in unmarked graves, and some relatives who have visited the marked graves of dead rebels have been arrested.
Those of us who care about stopping the genocide and ecocide that characterizes–and has always characterized–our culture must learn to fully internalize the implications of one very important fact: we and they–those who are destroying the world–are operating under two entirely different and utterly incompatible value systems. We value life, and the living, and they value control and power. On the largest scale it really is that simple (On an individual scale it is of course much more complex–environmental organizations are rife with petty power struggles, and I would imagine that even Fujimori cares on some level for his family). Time and again we show ourselves willing to die or to live to support ecological and economic justice and sanity, and time and again our enemies–for so long as they work to support the destructive ends of corporations over the needs of living beings we must recognize that is truly what they are, implacably, unalterably–show themselves willing to lie and to kill to maintain control. Throughout the entire siege, members of the MRTA treated their captives with humanity and grace. In response they were lied to and betrayed. I know of no long term activists who have not experienced repeatedly this same pattern of lies and betrayal, although for many of us in the more privileged sectors of the world, the full consequences of our opponents’ behavior are yet to be brought home with such force and finality as is normally reserved for the colonies.
What are the implications of this? The first is that ultimately, negotiations are bound to fail. You cannot negotiate with someone who systematically lies to you. If you win your points during negotiation, the agreement will simply be broken. Indians have seen this time and again, as have forest activists, toxics activists, nuclear activists, anti-war activists, and so on. This is not to say we shouldn’t negotiate, but to expect to be dealt with fairly by those who have shown no scruples about either lying or using naked force to take what they want is to engage in magical thinking. It is to be delusional. It is, to speak of this as we would a dysfunctional family, to be the codependent partner in a parasitic and abusive relationship. It is to participate in our own victimization.
For the bitter truth that most of us are unwilling to face is that our opponents are institutionally and individually at the very least sociopathological and more realistically psychopathological. The lives of those they kill simply do not exist in the minds of the killers. This is true for victims who are humans and nonhumans alike, whether the Forest Service and the timber industry speak of board feet rather than living forests, agribusiness corporations speak of 10,000 “units” in confinement instead of living hogs, or the corporate media reports that in Iraq U.S. warplanes caused “collatoral damage”–the deaths of tens of thousands of men, women, and children in apartments, buses, and bomb shelters. Thus after the assault, Fujimori stated that he was “very sorry for the loss of three human lives,” meaning the two soldiers and one hostage who died (of a heart attack) in the assault. The MRTA lives he prematurely ended were, evidently, not human. Thus representatives of the various transnational corporations extracting Peru’s resources stated they will change none of their genocidal and ecocidal policies, except that they will now begin to “educate their employees about terrorism”–presumably neither the state-sponsored nor corporate kind. Thus most of these companies fully supported the decision to use force: a representative of Mitsubishi said there was “no other way” to end the crisis–not a surprising comment from one whose vision systematically precludes any form of social justice–and a representative of Mitsui Metal and Smelting said it was “very regrettable” that one Peruvian hostage died. He did not regret, of course, the killing of the MRTA members. Why should he?
We need to change our tactics. What we are doing is not working. Those of us in the United States, those of us who are at least somewhat privileged–probably white, perhaps male, possibly rich or at least not so hungry as the children of Peru–must recognize that in a world of shrinking resources it is only a matter of time until the guns turn our direction. Someone once asked John Stockwell, an ex-CIA agent whose conscience forced him to speak out against the agency, why he had not yet been killed. He said, “Because they are winning.” We who are relatively privileged need to ask ourselves what we are willing to give up, what amount of security we are willing to sacrifice to change the status quo. In the wake of this action by the MRTA, and the consequent murder of those involved, we–each of us–need to question our own seriousness. What will you do to shut down the machine?
In those four months, fourteen members of the MRTA held the attention of the world, and by themselves they held back, if only for a brief time, and if only in the so-very-tiny space of one house in one city in one country in South America, the grinding of the machine as it relentlessly destroys all life it encounters. For that brief time the world was shown an alternative of determined and fully human resistance, of people fighting the machine on their own terms. What if there were fourteen more, or fourteen more than that, or fourteen hundred more than that? What if we each individually began to organize, knowing full well the stakes and the potential consequences–both good and bad–of our actions? What if we each in our organizations at long last said to those who run the country, those who run the companies, those who run the machine, “You shall not pass. This is where I live, and this, if necessary, is where I shall die. I shall not go down easily.” And what if we meant it.
Waging a one-sided and defensive war, we are losing. If we learn nothing else from the bravery and the deaths of the fourteen tupacamaristas, it is that we must take the offensive, we must take the struggle–never for a moment losing sight of the values in which we believe–to their homes instead of ours. We must learn also that resistance is never futile, and that, armed or unarmed, we have no options as human beings but to struggle–as though our lives depend on it, which of course they do–to shut down the machine and to live the way we each know we can.
Published in “The Anderson Valley Advertiser” April 30, 1997.
Published in “The Earth First! Journal” June-July 1997.
Published in “The Earth Island Journal” Summer 1997.