In the end, Abimael Guzman was a loser. He died in a Peruvian prison this past weekend, age 86, alone and powerless. Not that I want to celebrate anyone’s death, but there’s some powerful symbolism in those facts.
Mr. Guzman, for those of you who don’t remember or never knew, was the head of an extraordinarily bloody band of communists in the 1980s. His group was called Sendero Luminoso, or the “Shining Path.”
To get an idea of where he was coming from, he thought the Soviet Union and China weren’t ideologically pure enough. To announce the start of their violent insurgency, his followers hung dead dogs from lampposts around Lima. It’s he who is quoted in the Guns ‘N’ Roses song, “Civil War,” this way: “We practice selective annihilation of mayors and government officials, for example, to create a vacuum, then we fill that vacuum. As popular war advances, peace is closer.”
He wanted an even stricter form of communism, and he promised that “rivers of blood” would flow, and a million Peruvians would be killed, when he and his followers took power.
They nearly did.
I went to Peru in the summer of 1989 to study the way the political parties there responded to the presence of an active armed communist revolutionary movement. I was 21, writing a senior honors thesis, and of course I thought I was invincible. I stayed in a home in a nice Lima suburb, an arrangement orchestrated by some good Manhattan friends.
Fortunately for me (and them), the violence never reached us that summer. I remember not being able to know when you could take a shower or use the oven, since the Shining Path would blow up parts of the electrical grid, which would shut off the water pumps serving the area. It felt very much up-in-the-air which way the conflict would end at that time.
I was a blondish American wearing a button-down shirt, and so the hard-core leftist party leaders eyeballed me suspiciously, probably figuring I was the CIA. They were in a really awkward position, with their rhetoric supporting socialist revolution while they tried to work within a democratic system of elections rather than joining the Shining Path with AK-47s.
In the end, democracy won. Not quite the way the textbooks suggested — a quasi-dictator won election, quashed the guerillas with the help of right-wing death squads, and then was himself thrown in jail for corruption. Local note: The quasi-dictator’s son went to college at K-State.
But the system eventually righted itself, and in fact democracy survived. It absorbed the strain placed on it by a violent revolutionary group, and it responded (haltingly) to the grievances that the communist movements attempted to address.
About 70,000 Peruvians were killed in that conflict, which is a terrible tragedy. But at least there weren’t a million killed, and there were no rivers of blood. The system convicted Mr. Guzman for his crimes, and he died behind bars.
Democracy ain’t perfect. But it’s the best system anybody’s ever figured out.