Guzman’s Fist

He hadn’t appeared in public in 12 years, this former professor and university provost, Marxist philosopher specializing in the thought of Kant, and Chairman of the Communist Party of Peru (PCP, popularly known as Sendero Luminoso or “the Shining Path”). From 1980 he had led what became the most powerful communist insurgency in the Western Hemisphere. By the time of his capture in 1992, U.S. intelligence analysts estimated that up to one-half of Peru was more in the hands of the Senderistas, fighting their Maoist People’s War, than those of the Peruvian state. He was regarded by his followers as the “Fourth Sword” of Marxism, and by his foes and the mainstream press almost everywhere as a “terrorist” responsible for all 70,000 deaths in a long civil conflict. Abimael Guzman (aka Presidente Gonzalo) met the press and the people in a Lima courtroom November 5.

It was reminiscent of a scene in September 1992. The Peruvian security apparatus with assistance from the U.S. had nabbed Guzman and nine others in a safe house in Lima belonging to one of the country’s most talented ballerinas, a party supporter. Computer disks in the home quickly led to the seizure of half the members of the party’s Central Committee. Within days Guzman, dressed in prison stripes and confined in a small cage, was paraded before Peruvian and international journalists in an effort to humiliate him. He responded with a fiery spontaneous lecture urging Peruvians to open their eyes and understand their history of humiliations. “We are here in these circumstances,” declared, referring to the calculated spectacle even as he transformed it. “Some think this is a great defeat. They are dreaming and we tell them to keep on dreaming! It is simply a bend, nothing more, a bend in the road. The road is long and we shall arrive. We shall triumph. You shall see it. You shall see it.” That was the last time he spoke in public.

At this time, the Peruvian government was headed by President Alberto Fujimori and his top advisor, long-time CIA operative Vladimiro Montesinos. After contemplating an informal execution of Guzman, they placed him on trial before a secret military court. All the judges were masked. Found guilty of all charges, Guzman was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, removed to a specially-built prison on an island naval base, confined to a tiny concrete bunker, and denied any access to family members, physicians, lawyers and journalists. His defense attorney himself was convicted of “abetting terrorism” and imprisoned. In October 1993 Fujimori claimed that his captive had written letters calling for peace negotiations and was giving up the goal of acquiring power through People’s War. Some PCP supporters accepted this as fact; others condemned Fujimori’s allegations as lies. The reconstituted Central Committee of the party condemned the letters as “a sinister and perverse hoax.” Guzman himself, kept entirely from public view, has been unable to speak directly.

Fujimori was discredited by scandals in 2000, and forced to flee into exile in his ancestral homeland of Japan. (He is charged with various crimes in Peru, but escapes extradition, protected by Tokyo, which once took great pride in the first ethnic Japanese head of state of a foreign nation, through the technicality of his dual national status. Having lost any usefulness to the U.S. government, he is also barred from entry into this country.) Montesinos, brought down by a bribery scandal, is in prison in Peru, awaiting trial on charges ranging from drug-trafficking to murder. The government of Alejandro Toledo, who succeeded Fujimori as president, initially enjoying some popularity but now generally despised, tossed out much of the anti-terrorism legislation as unconstitutional. The PCP prisoners must now be retried under a new special tribunal.

Sixteen top leaders gradually arrived in the courtroom last Friday, taking their seats. Guzman was last, dressed in a dark jacket and open-necked white shirt, looking relaxed and fit at 69. Noting the presence of reporters, he smiled their way, briefly lifting his fist before taking his place among the others. Each defendant in turn was asked by the presiding judge to make a statement. Most asked for more time to meet with lawyers. Finally it was Guzman’s turn. His lawyer had already indicated that he would refuse to speak in order to challenge the illegality of “unconstitutional ‘anti-terror’ legislation,” the “draconian penalties,” and the “special tribunal” itself. After a whispered exchange with party leader Elena Iparraguirre, sitting next to him, he and she stood up, turned their backs on the judge, faced the cameras, and shouted “Long live the Communist Party of Peru! Glory to the party of Leninism, Maoism! Glory to Marxism!” The court was quickly adjourned and the press removed. Toledo went on television to denounce the “shameful spectacle,” and announced that a new judge would be appointed to the case. No cameras will be allowed when the trials resume this Friday.

The mainstream press has given relatively little attention to this episode, treating Guzman as an anomaly: a radical academic who inaugurated a “terrorist” guerrilla war in 1980, which soon fizzled out with his apprehension. The press treats the fate of the PCP since his capture as one of inexorable decline, although Senderistas in northern Peru were still able to briefly seize control of several villages in the north on the day of the court proceeding, and still in hundreds if not thousands pose a challenge to the state. The question is: how will this new trial, and the limited ability it might confer on Guzman to publicly express himself, affect the movement’s progress?

Arguably the movement has progressed in the interval halfway around the world: to Nepal, where the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and its People Liberation Army have now come further towards the seizure of state power than had the Senderistas in Peru as of 1992. “The real fruit of their battles lies,” wrote Marx, referring to the workers’ movement in 1848, “not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers.” These two movements, the one much diminished, the other ascendant, are united by a common assessment of the history of the communist movement and understanding of events in China in the 1960s and 70s. The Nepali Maoists acknowledge they have learned much from the Peruvian comrades; they speak of revolution “from the Andes to the Himalayas.” Both movements see Maoism as a stage in the evolution of Marxism as significant as Leninism became after the October Revolution in Russia; thus they describe their ideology as “Marxism-Leninism-Maoism.” So do quite a number of revolutionary movements throughout the world, most significantly, maybe, in Nepal, India, and the Philippines. In those countries more than most, Guzman’s fist in the air and his defiant courtroom voice may resonate.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

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Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: