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"People of the Shining Path": Old Dispatches Television Documentary (1992)

A month ago, I wrote a post about class morality that mentioned, in passing, certain assessments of the Communist Party of Peru (PCP-SL, also known as the Sendero Luminoso or "Shining Path") as an example of how revolutions are morally conceived by bourgeois ideology.  Although the post was not intended to defend the Sendero Luminoso (and in fact noted that, in my opinion, the organization theoretically and practically degenerated on certain points), someone in the comments string took issue with my use of the Shining Path as an example and failed to understand my overall points about bourgeois ideology.

The comments condemning the Sendero Luminoso demonstrated a typical over-reliance on the very dubious Truth and Reconciliation Committee of Peru––an organization staffed by conservatives and state officials and thus far from "independent"––which blamed many of the brutal policies of Alberto Fujimori's Grupo Colina death squad on the PCP-SL.  Moreover, these comments made unfounded pronouncements about the lack of popular support for the Shining Path.  While I agree that the Sendero had significant problems, and that we cannot ignore how and where it degenerated in theory and practice, I have always maintained it is better to critique these organizations from the left rather than from the right.

In any case, I recently encountered an old Dispatches television documentary from 1992 entitled "People of the Shining Path".  (Although Abimael Guzman ("Gonzalo") was captured along with most of the PCP-SL leadership in 1992, this documentary was made in the months preceding the capture.)  This documentary is not made by pro-communists but by liberal journalists who are interested only in encountering SL guerrillas.  (For those who don't know, Dispatches is an award-winning BBC investigative journalist program––kind of like the British 60 Minutes––and not even close to being a communist/anti-capitalist institution.)  Existing before the emergence of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee's narrative gained hegemony, however, it is important to note that the Dispatches journalists are not yet a priori conditioned by a counter-revolutionary discourse:

Whether or not we agree with the ideology behind this documentary (Dispatches has always been, at best, a liberal humanitarian) or the ideology of the Sendero Luminoso, there are some important things to note:

a) The policies of Fujimori are clearly understood as fascist and even, at one point, deemed "genocidal" by the journalists––this is something most bourgeois critics of the PPW now, following the emergence of the counter-revolutionary discourse, have disappeared.

b) The PCP-SL is clearly depicted as having massive public support in 1992, very close to the moment it was beheaded, despite the Truth and Reconciliation Committee's arguments that its violent activities had already led to its alienation.  The Dispatches journalists even indicate that Peru is on the brink of a revolutionary seizure of state power and that the Shining Path is the largest leftwing movement in Latin America.

c) The party cadres interviewed are not raving maniacs.  Although they do occasionally demonstrate a cultish devotion to Gonzalo, they are clearly guided by a principled desire to end the poverty produced by the ruling class government.  They understand that the duty of the movement is to end this poverty and provide the people with a better world––they even make these arguments.  Moreover, there is a significant female guerrilla population: these are not masculinist guerrillas obsessed with how macho they are.  At around the 23 minute mark, there is coverage of the hundreds of Sendero Luminoso guerrillas in prison: they are depicted as principled, intelligent, and disciplined––so much so that the other prisoners hold them in high regard––and there is even a depiction of the execution of these prisoners of war.

d) The Dispatches journalists make it clear that the discourse that portrays the PCP-SL as "a bunch of vicious terrorists" is state propaganda.  This is significant because it demonstrates that the discourse of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission [which again, I emphasize, was comprised of ruling class officials and intellectuals––including former military officials] was already in existence.  If anything the Truth and Reconciliation began on the ad hoc principle that the PCP-SL were "vicious terrorists" and, as those of us who are familiar with ad hoc fallacies know, simply chose to assemble its data according to a presupposed conclusion.

e) The guerrillas are consistently depicted as a peoples army, not some band of murderous thugs but a popular organization that has grown significantly due to state repression.  Indeed, Dispatches depicts the tactics used against the SL in a way that can possibly explain the later "findings" of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee: peasant counter-insurgents trained by the state (a popular tactic learned from USAmerica's many counter-insurgency campaigns in Latin America), though a minority compared to the PCP-SL's Peoples Army, appear very similar to the SL.  After the Truth and Reconciliation Committee published its report, after all, Shining Path sympathizers in Peru were known to argue that many atrocities blamed upon the PCP-SL were actually atrocities carried out by state-sponsored death squads "posing" as SL cadres as part of a strategy to alienate the guerrillas from the masses.  While this may sound conspiratorial, this has always been a counter-insurgency tactic and is in every CIA handbook about counter-insurgency tactics––we must remember that the Peruvian military was being trained by the US during this period.  (This CIA endorsed practice of posing as other organizations while carrying out violent activities is in fact part of a proud American settler tradition.  The Boston Teaparty, after all, was a massacre where secessionists dressed up as indigenous people when they massacred the British, thus causing the British to focus their return violence on native populations.)

f) The atrocities are blamed primarily on the Peruvian state, not the Shining Path.  Even peasants who are not guerrillas blame the violence on the army.  The violence attributed to the PCP-SL, though condemned by Dispatches, is violence that is directed at specific state and military targets, not civilian populations… Again it is interesting to note how, in around a decade, the Truth and Reconciliation Committee was able to produce a discourse that altered what was depicted in this documentary.  "The Shining Path has been blamed for a campaign of terror against Peruvians," the narrator says at one point, "But most deaths have been the work of the military."

g) The mass-scale demonstrations shaking the country are against the government, not the Shining Path, so if the Shining Path had "zero popular support" or was responsible for most of the violence, then why are there no mass-scale demonstrations against the PCP-SL?  Thus, if the Truth and Reconciliation Committee was correct, and the Sendero Luminoso was responsible for slaughtering civilians, then why are the majority of those peasants who lived through this violence not protesting the Shining Path?  Is it because they're ignorant indian peasants who are incapable of understanding their true enemies?  The discourse that blames all the atrocities on the guerrillas depends on a rejection of peasant agency and historical amnesia.  In fact, you can see a lot of PCP-SL flags in these massive demonstrations.

h) The US discourse that the Shining Path received its support from "the narco-trafficker", used as a pretext for its intervention during the Emergency, is said to be without evidence.  In fact, the documentary points out that the Shining Path declared drug traffickers "enemies of the people."  And yet, the argument that the Sendero Luminoso was an organization of cocaine smugglers is still part of a counter-revolutionary discourse.

i) The PCP-SL is at the stage of "strategic equilibrium" and has the power to overthrow the state.  So why did it eventually fail?  When Guzman was captured, and then appeared to deliver a statement that the PPW was over and had failed, it is most probably the case that the Sendero Luminoso's devotion to the Cult of Gonzalo allowed them to behead themselves.


  1. Hello comrade, nice post :)

    There is currently a discussion on the PCP on Kasama if you want to take a look. I know you're not necessarily a big fan of Kasama or Mike Ely but he did post some very excellent and informative stuff in the comments section:

    Do you really believe that Gonzalo called for peace talks? I think he might have turned opportunistic later on, but I think those tapes which were originally released were fake -- compare his speech from the cage to what he supposedly said in that tape a few months later. It's simply not realistic. But I do agree that this "cultish devotion" was a great problem, and probably hastened their downfall as an organization after the "peace talk" tape was released.

  2. Thanks, mf.

    Actually, I don't know what to believe about the peace talks: what matters is that the statement released from prison was immediately accepted by the majority of the PCP-SL as legitimate because the cult of personality was such that it was incapable of seeing their great leader as someone who could be coerced.

    Obviously, I'm more inclined to believe that the statement was the product of coercion. We should always regard any statement released from prison about these sorts of things as suspect. My point was always about the way it was seen by the PCP-SL outside of the prison.

  3. It wasn't actually accepted by the PCP. I've read that, basically, after these supposed peace-letters were released, opportunists and revisionists in the Party rallied under it, but that the PCP Central Committee denounced them as a fraud and called for a continuance of the PPW.

    Also take note that the year after Gonzalo's arrest saw some of the most intense fighting since the initiation of the PPW.

    I think that we should look at other reasons as well as to why the Peruvian PPW degenerated the way it did. Obviously it wasn't all Gonzalo getting arrested :)

    This issue of AWTW is an absolute gem concerning the stuff we're discussing:

  4. I read the AWTW article a while back, but I'll be sure to check it out again. Really, I never meant to suggest that the entire party immediately assumed that the peace-letters were correct. Rather, the position I'd take is that the cult of personality (that produces a discourse where someone is beyond reproach and beyond coercion) provides the opportunist line with the grounds necessary to push their position. Similarly, during the GPCR, the capitalist roaders used the cult of Mao to push their political line––a tactic which proved, as we know, rather successful.

    I agree that after Guzman was arrested the PPW was still at its height and even closer to toppling the state. One of the things the party was successful at was internal education; it is pretty amazing that a second generation of leadership were immediately ready to step into the void left by the arrested leadership. At the same time, it is telling that the statements that supposedly came from Gonzalo were eventually used in the way they were: yes, there were other factors (I think particularly the failure of the organization to solve the national question) but I don't think we can underestimate this fact. Because it is rather telling that they were close to overthrowing the state and then suddenly, after the peace letters, the PPW began to decline.

  5. There's a small inaccuracy in your otherwise excellent post--thankfully, the Boston Tea Party massacred no people, only 90,000 pounds of tea.

  6. Excellent article, I agree with most of the points.
    Excepted maybe h and i; now, accusations of drug trafficking are pretty much realistic, according to interviews of different shining path leaders.
    And about strategic equilibrium, according to my informations from peruvian friends and comrades, the PCP didn't reach this stage in reality; they said they did, but they weren't as powerful as the military.
    Now their are two PCP, the "armed reformists" of Artemio, waiting for negociations (of course, the government just want to anihilate them) and the largest group, in the VRAE region, which adopted some years ago a "serve the people" line to build a strong popular support. But the road is long, the stae propaganda was terrible in the last decaddes...

    Sorry for my poor english.

    D. for Feu de Prairie

  7. DC: thanks for the correction. Need to get better with my Yankee history: I know there are numerous points where the "revolutionaries" masqueraded as indigenous people and committed acts of violence, but clearly I picked the wrong example of masquerading.

    feudeprairie: excellent points, though I was under the impression that the drug trafficking question was either a) something that developed a couple of years after the arrest of Gonzalo, and b) still debated by other shining path leaders. While they might not have reached the "strategic equilibrium" claimed by Guzman, it's pretty clear that even all of their critics at the time were under the impression that the PCP was close to seizing power (hence the reason for US intervention). Yeah, I know about the two PCP lines. The VRAE group is the one that goes by the name PCP-MLM, right, and asking that Gonzalo be handed over to be tried as a traitor? I heard the group in VRAE was pretty large, but it's hard to get much information on them aside from some obscure reports and websites.

  8. Yes you're right, drug trafficking it's maybe an opportunist line developped in the last decade, due to the peculiar situation of their regions.

    "Yeah, I know about the two PCP lines. The VRAE group is the one that goes by the name PCP-MLM, right, and asking that Gonzalo be handed over to be tried as a traitor? I heard the group in VRAE was pretty large, but it's hard to get much information on them aside from some obscure reports and websites. "

    => That's it; according to government informations, they have like 600 fighters, and well armed like we can see on the videos... Some with rocket launchers, heavy machine guns, helmets... That why peruvian army can't use ore helicos, I guess. On the other hand, I don't know why their is so much arrestation of important figures this year; maybe it's a good sign of their developement in urban areas (like for the ETA, I think that the governement call "dangerous leader" every single militant/sympathizer found... Hehe).

  9. Hello, I was looking in Google for this documentary and I found this post and i think there some inaccuracies in it (to say it least).
    What you call the "very dubious" Truth and Reconciliation Committee of Peru (known as "CVR" for its initials in spanish) was not "staffed by conservatives". In fact, many right wing politicians and media in Peru accuse the CVR for being left winged (the most extremist would even say "pro terrorist"). The only one that could fall under the category of state official was Luis Arias Grazziani, an ex Lieutenant from the National Air Force (FAP "Fuerza Aérea del Peru"). In the CVR there were left winged progressive politicians and intellectuals, like Carlos Ivan Degregori, an anthropologist who studied terrorism, author of the book "How Difficult it is to be God", or Carlos Tapia a well known left winged politician.
    Another point: Shinning Path never got popular support. The best demonstration of this is that they had to murder social leaders (they call it "selective murders"), like Maria Elena Moyano, left winged popular leader from one of the poorest districts of Lima. Not to metion the massacres, like the one in Lucanamarca, in the poorest zones of the country.
    And, last but not least, an update: a week ago comrade Artemio (leader of the Huallaga front) got captured alive, he was not killed nor "exterminated". According to the reports, he was seriously wounded by people of his own group who wanted to claim the reward for his capture. This wasn't the first time that an there's conflict inside the PCP-Shinning Path: on 2010, comrade Jose, who leads the VRAE front, send an "annihilation squad" to get rid of Artemio.

    P.S. I'm sorry if i made any spelling or grammar error.

  10. Simply because the extreme right call other rightists "left wing" or "pro-terrorist" does not mean that the organization was not staffed by counter-revolutionaries. To be more accurate I should have said "liberals", "anti-communists", and "conservatives." (Note how Obama, who is an imperialist-capitalist, is called a "socialist" by the extreme right hard-liners.) The people in the CVR were not, in any way shape or form, progressive. At most some of them were liberals. Nor would I ever call Carlos Ivan Degrori a progressive "left wing" intellectual: his analysis of terrorism is barely critical and completely marred by a liberal (read "capitalist") human rights discourse.

    I disagree about their lack of popular support. The fact that they were close to strategic offensive means that they were a significant force, and you don't become a significant force without having a popular base of support. This does not mean, of course, that I condone their degeneration or their "selective murders"... In the comment debate connected to an entry preceding this one I pointed out that I did not accept in any way, shape, or form their degeneration––let alone Lucanamarca. Still, I do not trust the CVR's conclusions; nor do actual progressive left-wing theorists. (Again, this was argued by a commentator on the aforementioned article.)

    Also note that the VRAE front, that you mentioned, despite their "annihilation squads", are significant in that they have denounced Guzman, have openly admitted that Lucanamarca was a serious point of degeneration, and the reason they have attempted to get rid of Artemio's organization is because they hold him, along with Guzman, responsible for Lucanamarca and the deterioration of the organization.

  11. So, according to you, anyone who didn't support Shinning Path actions (thus, a "counter-revolutionary") can't be progressive nor left winged? I believe you're being a little bit extremist in that point. I don't think that a comparison with US politics could be done, Peru's context is way too different (not to mention US political spectrum is a joke, the difference between of what they call right and left is minimal compared to Peru's political spectrum).
    I agree that human rights are a liberal, bourgeois, whatever you wanna call it, discourse but (and this is a big but) what isn't a discourse? Isn't the revolutionary ideology a discourse also? A discourse which is used by a group to impose its power like every other political discourse? That being said, i found quite funny that now Abimael Guzman, former comrade Gonzalo, wants to reach what he calls a "general amnesty" with a new political party called MOVADEF (initials in spanish for "Amnesty and Fundamental Rights Movement").
    They never were a significant force. When they transitioned from the rural to the urban areas, in the period of the strategic equilibrium, their modus operandi changed: instead of ambushes, they started to use car bombs (the infamous "cochebombas" as they were know in Peru) in state and civil buildings and, of course, the "selective murders" of popular leaders, journalists and national police authorities. They were more close to a delinquential organization than a proper revolutionary guerrilla, that could be considered a significant force, and you need a significant support to be a delinquential organization. They may had some support from some peasants in the rural areas and committees in the urban areas (mainly brainwashed people, zealots) but they were a minority
    The prime reason why comrade Jose, VRAE front leader, renounced to follow "Gonzalo thought" was because they accuse him for treason, because he wanted to negotiate with the state, not because what you call "degeneration". I personally believe there wasn't such a thing, their methods always involved some kind of excessive brutality and cruelty (you can hear about it in the CVR public hearings, in which the survivors of Shining Path -and the military- massacres tell about their experiencies), until their alliance with drugs mafias in the mid-late 90s when they started to act more like bodyguards and drugs carriers for those organizations. Thus being said, some analysts think that the true reason of the dispute with Artemio was the zone control for drug trafficking. Btw, you should check PCP-MLM position about Guzman (check the videos, they are in spanish, I hope this isn't a problem).
    On regard to the entry you mentioned, are you talking about this one? Cause in this one you made a mistake (and I'm surprised that nobody in the comments mentioned it): the president of the CVR was Salomon Lerner Febres, a well known progressive intellectual, not Salomon Lerner Ghittis, former Prime Minister of the Humala Government.

    1. I did not say that "anyone who didn't support the Shining Path's actions can't be progressive", I just said that the CVR was filled with counter-revolutionary forces. Nor did I say revolutionary ideology isn't another "discourse"... but then again, I distrust this talk of "discourse" which smacks of post-modernism. The term ideology is what I prefer, which is based on classed perspectives: so yes the revolutionary position is "just another IDEOLOGY" but it is the ideology I support as opposed to bourgeois ideology. Now, if you're going to talk about revolutionary discourse being another ideology/discourse then it seems to me you are taking a rather liberal position.

      The comparison had nothing to do with the US political spectrum but about the concept of right and left. I could use examples from any political context because it isn't to say that the US and Peru have similar politics (they don't) but to draw out the logical concept of what it means to be "right" or "left" or "progressive": the hardest right will always find other rightists, and especially liberals, "progressive" and "socialist", even when they aren't, because they're more left on the spectrum than a fascist.

      You can say they PCP was not a significant force but where does this opinion come from? Your class position and unwillingness to accept otherwise? A peoples army is significant, and if they gave the state such a problem, then it possessed a size that allowed it to exist and grow as a threat. The state itself, and the US government, was terrified by the supposed support it had. There are counter-insurgency manuals that speak of it being significant. And isn't it more significant that only after its degeneration and failure, and after Guzman's arrest, that the CVR and its public hearings can produce an ideological language and understanding of a supposed "lack" of support?

      Here is a historical fact that has been proved at every point of history: when people lose a revolution, or when a revolutionary state falls, bourgeois ideology works hard to claim that the people behind a revolutionary movement or revolutionary state were completely evil, lacked all the support of the people, etc. Look at what has been said about the failures of the Soviet Union and China pre-Deng. And yet now, despite the fact that we are told that the Soviet people before 1989 did not provide any mass support to the USSR, you have polls produced in Russia every year that demonstrate that the majority of people want to return to the days of the USSR––largest numbers amongst pensioners who can remember those days, the very people who supposedly *did not* support communism.


    2. Yes, VRAE wants Gonzalo turned over for treason for negotiating with the state, but they also sight the massacres and the drug trafficking. And they claim Artemio's group is in bed with the drug traffickers as well, not that they want to control the drug trade. Of course, the CIA was claiming the PCP was part of the drug trade in the days before degeneration when it was clear that they were opposed to pushing and even had quite brutal policies to the contrary.

      Thanks for the correction about Salomon Lerner.

      But also check out what that article regarding class morality is about because this is the essence of my argument here. Moral disputes are loaded and the state (and this even includes the CVR which was not autonomous but a decidedly liberal body) is a classed entity. Point being, we haven't passed beyond class morality and there are two perspectives: the one from above which says that capitalism is the end of history, liberal bourgeois human rights are the highest good, and all revolutions and revolutionaries are evil; or the one from below which says that capitalism has to fall and the rulers must be replaced by the slaves.

      Whatever the case, this argument is over. I usually do not permit comment arguments on strings older than a month because only I can tell that they're happening and no one else can participate. For example, I have commentators who know more about the PCP and who live in the region and they're more qualified to comment on this issue. But no one can really see the comments on an old string. Nor do I feel these debates get anywhere for the reasons of class morality that I listed above.

    3. I would really like to continue arguing but since this argument is finished by your one-sided decision (but it's okay cause it's your blog) I may post about this in my own blog ( in the next couple of days, you can check it if you want.


      A "liberal" peruvian.

    4. The decision is one-sided because, as you pointed out, this is my blog and these arguments are only useful, in my opinion, if they generate larger discussion rather than being back-and-forths (I also mention the limit of these arguments on my comment policy). Mainly because it doesn't seem if we're going to change each others' minds, mainly because of different ideological commitment, so what purpose does it serve? The only usefulness of such a discussion is if it takes place in a broader context, where other commenters can participate (and in this case the participation of a regular commenter is something of a "left senderologist"), but as mentioned, since this is an old post none of the usual suspects will pay attention. Generally I disable comments on posts that are more than a month old, but I haven't got around to doing that after my recent overhaul of the blog.

      In any case, look forward to reading your further thoughts on your blog.


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