Peru: the struggle for memory

Kelly Phenicie Lisa Laplante
8 April 2009

The conviction of Peru's former president Alberto Fujimori on 7 April 2009 for ordering killings and kidnappings during his decade of rule (1990-2000) is a landmark event in the country's search for justice over the crimes and violations committed during the bitter internal conflicts of the past generation.

Lisa J Laplante is visiting assistant professor at Marquette University Law School. She is a human-rights lawyer who worked with Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and deputy director of Praxis: Institute for Social Justice

Kelly Phenicie served as a journalist for the human-rights news journal Latinamerica Press and as field researcher and project coordinator for Praxis: Institute for Social Justice

Also by Lisa J Laplante in openDemocracy:

"The cloud of fear: Peru's anti-terror lesson" (7 March 2006)

But Fujimori's fifteen-month trial, which has now ended in his sentence to twenty-five years' imprisonment, will not itself satisfy Peruvians' struggle for reconciliation (see Gaby Oré Aguilar, "Peru vs Fujimori: justice in the time of reason", 10 July 2008). Many wounds of the past remain, and they are made more painful by Peru's often politicised "memory wars". What exactly should be remembered of the period (roughly 1980-2000) when armed conflicts between the state and guerrilla groups (mainly Sendero Luminoso, but also the Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru [MRTA]) were at their height? How should they and their victims be memorialised? What kind of "truth and reconciliation" are Peruvians looking for?

A museum in dispute

Peru has never embraced what in post-Franco Spain became known as a "pact of forgetting". Rather, it established a Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación (Truth and Reconciliation Commission / CVR) in 2001 to investigate the conflict between insurgent groups and the state's armed forces. Its final report issued in 2003 estimated that almost 70,000 people had been killed; the typical victim was a member of the historically marginalised segment of society - an indigenous farmer with little or no education.  The CVR set an ambitious agenda for the country to address the past in order to build a more equitable, just and secure future. In particular it recommended both criminal trials as well as comprehensive reparations, including symbolic measures to preserve national memory of the political violence. 

Since the CVR concluded its work, many local artists, writers and academics have in their work addressed many themes relating to the violence. The products include the prize-winning film La Teta Asustada (The Milk of Sorrow), which personifies the mental-health issues many victims still suffer. But these imaginative and other explorations have not settled the debate about this still contested past.    

A pointed reminder of how sensitive the period still is came when it was suggested that a museum should be built to recount and display the history of the conflict, and to memorialise its impact on Peru. The idea for the museum had arisen from another acclaimed exhibit called Yuyanapaq, which displays images collected by the CVR. The government of Germany offered $2 million to its Peruvian counterpart to bring this new project to fruition. 

The Peruvian government's initial response to the museum proposal was sceptical; the president, Alan García, described it as "a tribute to the victims of terrorism that does not reflect a national vision of this period." He further argued that the nation is still "plagued with a spirit of vengeance", and urged Peruvians to reconcile among themselves. The money, he suggested, would be better redirected to social programmes.

Alan García's condemnation of the project provoked intense dispute. The country's defence minister Ántero Flores-Aráoz agreed, with curious logic, that a museum is simply not a priority: "If I have people who want to go to a museum, but don't eat, they will die of starvation." The archbishop of Lima, Juan Luis Cipriani - an apologist of the then government's excesses - also supported García's stance, arguing that a museum would not help toward reconciliation among Peruvians. In a more appeasing tone, prime minister Yehude Simón - one of the thousands of Peruvians unjustly imprisoned during Fujimori's presidency - said on behalf of the Peruvian government that the offer of payment had not been rejected, but rather "must go toward the victims of violence" in another form (such as the payment of reparations).

Meanwhile, advocates of the museum dismissed objections to it. The renowned novelist Mario Vargas Llosa asserted that the defence-minister's logic would have prevented the construction of the Prado (Madrid), the Louvre (Paris), or the Hermitage (St Petersburg). Peruvians need a museum of memory, he wrote, "in order to combat these intolerant, blind and obtuse attitudes that unleash political violence."   

Peruvian journalists, academics and activists also criticised the government's stance. The actress Magaly Solier, who comes from the Ayacucho region where the conflict was most intense, suggested in an interview that perhaps Alan García "is scared to remember what he did." Indeed, if the approach to history taken by the museum is fearless, it could revive aspects of the past that the current president would rather keep hidden. For during Alan García's first term, Peru had the highest rate of disappearances in the world as well as the highest inflation rates. Some of these cases were scrutinised by the CVR and now await judgment by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

A political twist

The museum is only one example of Peru's failure to meet one of the primary objectives of the truth-commission process: the creation of a shared collective memory. The same tension is visible in the starkly opposed views during the trial of Alberto Fujimori. The state had, in accordance with one of the CVR recommendations, been able to secure Fujimori's extradition in order to face charges of human-rights abuses during his period in office. But it has been a bumpy ride. An unexpected trend after the trial began in December 2007 was that Fujimori's popularity actually went up; a poll in June 2008, for example, found that while 53% of Peruvians believed Fujimori to be guilty of rights abuses, nearly 65% said they approved of his government since they credit him for conquering subversive groups and saving the country. More recently, a poll published in El Comercio finds that 38% of Peruvians say that Fujimori ordered assassinations and should be sent to jail, and only 14% think he is completely innocent.

Moreover, Alberto Fujimori's daughter Keiko is now ahead of Lima's current mayor in opinion-polls as the most facoured candidate for the presidential elections due in 2011. If elected, she claims she will pardon her father; a pledge she repeated after the judgment on 7 April. In many parts of Peru, Fujimori supporters are painting the same slogan: "Keiko the force of Peru, Fujimori innocent."  

But Fujimori's adversaries have also been active, pressing for a judgment that would recognise his role as the "intellectual author" of death-squad massacres. In one demonstration in Lima's famous Campo de Marte (where the memorial to victims of the violence is located), marchers carried placards with a cartoon figure of Fujimori in striped prison garb. A counter-demo was held later by the defendant's supporters. The war of politics and the war of memory are intertwined.

A long struggle

The persistent criticism of Peruvian civil society was capped by a private meeting between Alan García and Marío Vargas Llosa on 25 March. After this,  the president signed a "supreme resolution" to move forward with the museum project and assigned a special commission for its "coordination, design, implementation and management". Vargas Llosa is to head this commission, which he says will work for "maximum objectivity" and for the museum to represent "different versions" of the internal armed conflict. This proposition has received praise from various sectors, including the military. "If it is an effort that allows Peruvians to unite, it must be applauded", one Peruvian general affirmed. 

The agreement that the museum should after all be built is welcome. But the difficult process that led to the decision is itself evidence of the country's continued difficulty in engaging in dialogue about its contested past and reaching a shared national memory of the conflict - a problem that has persisted despite the work of the truth commission.

The renowned Peruvian sociologist Gonzalo Portocarrero wrote more than a decade ago that Peru has had trouble "developing a collective memory", something that throughout the country's history has been "a recurring, symptomatic reality with profound consequences." In this longer perspective, the relative success of the CVR may represent a change in how the country handles its past - which also opens up new opportunities to advance the hard process of reconciliation, of which the museum project could be one.

Peru is still - to use a phrase that defined the problem of Germany's post-1945 years - "coming to terms with the past". After almost a decade when the media was strictly controlled, it is encouraging that opposing opinions can be expressed so freely in Peru today - and this freedom includes, in the aftermath of Alberto Fujimori's conviction, renewed voicing of support for the "stability" he brought. But freedom and openness bring responsibilities and risks as well as great rewards. It will be essential for Peru to make their new civic circumstances a resource for deepening liberal democracy rather than allowing them to be used as an instrument for renewing conflict.


Among openDemocracy's articles on conflicts and politics in Peru:

Ricardo Uceda, "Fantasy Island" (20 September 2005)

Ricardo Uceda, "Peru's election: a second leap into the void" (9 January 2006)

John Crabtree, "Peruvians prepare to bite back" (4 April 2006)

Justin Vogler, "Ollanta Humala: a Peruvian gamble" (7 April 2006)

John Crabtree, "Peru's chessboard" (18 April 2006)

John Crabtree, "Peru: the institutional deficit" (23 May 2006)

John Crabtree, "The return of Alan García" (6 June 2006)

John Crabtree, "Alan García's second coming" (28 July 2006)

John Crabtree, "Peru: outing the NGOs" (22 November 2006)

John Crabtree, "Peru: dilemmas of power" (8 June 2007)

John Crabtree, "Alberto Fujimori's return: a political timebomb" (28 September 2007)

Gaby Oré Aguilar, "Peru vs Fujimori: justice in the time of reason" (10 July 2008)

John Crabtree, "Alan García and Peru: a tale of two eras" (29 July 2008)

John Crabtree, "Peru: the politics of social protest" (21 October 2008)

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