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1000 Points of Luminoso : SHINING PATH: Terror and Revolution in Peru By Simon Strong (Times Books: $23; 256 pp.)

April 11, 1993|Amy Wilentz

Peru is a hard-luck case. In the 1500s, European adventurers and colonizers added their je ne sais quoi to what was already a head-spinning indigenous cultural mix, and the result is, today, a place of magical, frightening dissonance. Up in the Indian heights, or altiplano, farmers' improvised shacks squat not far from arrogant terraced ruins of the Incan empire, gutted by European vandals. Up here, the air is thin and so are the peasants. In village squares, Indians in braids and bowler hats, people who believe in vampires and snake gods, attend whitewashed colonial Catholic churches--that is, in those villages that have not been wiped out by starvation, earthquake, mudslide, flood or massacre. Down in the cities, the very rich, very white elite builds walls around its mansions as the migration from altiplano to the city continues.

In Peru, up until 1979, you had to pass a Spanish literacy test in order to vote; the Indian majority, however, was illiterate and Quechua- or Aymara-speaking. In Peru, a left-leaning president managed to disappear people at a rate faster than that of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the hemisphere's acclaimed master of disappearances. Armed columns patrol Peru's fabulous countryside. Along mountain roads, a stroller taking in cataracts, gorges and cliff-hanging vineyards may end up besieged by drug traffickers, robbers, cattle rustlers, rebels--or dogs.

This is the country that spawned Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, one of the century's most impressively brutal revolutionary armies. "If you find yourself in the street during curfew," the 1989 South American Handbook warns offhandedly, "walk in the middle of the road waving a white object above your head, until you can report to a policeman or soldier."


Ah, for the days when the Sandinistas took over Managua and Tomas Borge was the most ascetic, fanatical leftist one supposedly had to fear. Ah, for Daniel Ortega's $200 spectacles, a sure sign of what followers of Shining Path would call "bourgeois revisionism." And poor old Castro. Cuba still hasn't had a revolution, according to "Pensamiento Gonzalo," the teachings of Abimael Guzman, Shining Path's fearless leader (nom de guerre: Chairman Gonzalo). For Guzman, Castro is a "revisionist," and Che, that romantic figure, a "chorus girl." Guzman doesn't kid around.

Guzman, shirtless and bearded, was spectacularly arrested in Lima during the night of Sept. 12, 1992, after leading a guerrilla war that has so far cost Peru as much as $20 billion in damages and taken, conservatively, 20,000 lives; some victims of Shining Path, others victims of Peru's forces of order. According to police sources, Guzman's safehouse was located when secret police, combing through refuse cans in the street, came upon discarded medication for psoriasis, from which the former philosophy professor suffers, and cigarette butts of the brand the chairman is known to smoke. With Guzman locked in solitary in an island prison, it was thought that Shining Path would at least retreat for a breather. But by Oct. 27, the U.S. State Department already had reissued a warning against all travel to Peru because of "increased terrorist violence." On March 1, a car bomb exploded in downtown Lima.

Upon his arrest, Guzman, like Bogart or some hero from Camus, was rumored to have said laconically: "You win some, you lose some. This time, I lose." As British journalist Simon Strong reports in "Shining Path," however, Guzman's lines at the time were less punchy, aimed as they were at posterity and a future audience of Sendero militants, as well as the international community.At his arrest, reports Strong, "the bespectacled 'Red Sun' (another of Guzman's mythic nicknames) . . . looked around him a little quizzically, like a mole emerging from the ground and blinking in the sunlight while silently and rapidly assessing his new surroundings. . . . (He) appeared perfectly relaxed."

Strong is a committed debunker. He never portrays Red Sun as the mad, reclusive hermit other journalists have given us. Strong sketches Guzman as completely as one can, given the paucity of information: the illegitimate son of a prosperous wholesaler of rice and sugar, someone who drinks beer and dances, is attractive to women, has friends, is often called Tio, or Uncle, by his followers, likes to talk, admires Dostoevsky, loves ice cream, cares about scholarship, knows his Bible, and happens to be a brilliant military strategist and the world's latest banner-carrier for a certain bloody kind of communist revolution.

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