Lessons from Latin America

Peru’s Shining Example

Peru’s Supreme Court sentenced former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori to twenty-five years in prison last week for creating death squads during his presidency – from 1990 to 2000 – which murdered dozens of people. More than seventy thousand people died during Fujimori’s reign in the war between his iron-fisted administration and Maoist guerilla groups, the “Shining Path,” and the “Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement.”

After a fifteen-month trial, the presiding judge, Cesar San Martin, said, “The charges have been proved beyond all reasonable doubt.” The court found that Fujimori targeted various political opponents for kidnapping and assassination. Fujimori was also found guilty of killing fifteen people, including an 8-year-old boy, at a suburban Lima barbecue.

Earlier, Fujimori received a six-year prison term for ordering an illegal search. He still faces two corruption trials. He resigned from office while in Japan, which granted him political asylum because of his Japanese ancestry. In 2005 he left Japan for Chile, apparently to re-launch his Peruvian political career. He was detained there and extradited to Lima to face trial in 2007. Why did Fujimori abandon his Japanese safe haven? Was he deluded by a messianic belief that he could get away with anything, as he had for a decade as president?

The Lima judicial proceeding represents a major milestone, the first trial of a democratically elected head of state in his own country. It was also courageous, considering Peru’s violent past and Fujimori’s continuing popularity. His daughter is a member of the legislature and intends to run for the presidency in 2011. She has vowed to pardon her father if elected.

Equally courageous are the recent trials of Argentina’s former military leaders, who presided over the disappearances of up to thirty thousand Argentine citizens in the 1970s and 80s. In 2005 the government of President Nestor Kirchner removed legal protections that had shielded abusers of power from prosecution, allowing their cases to proceed.

Trials of former Argentine government officials accused of state-sponsored terror (kidnapping, torture and murder) have not simply stirred up painful memories. Trial witnesses have disappeared. Judges and prosecutors have been threatened with death unless the trials are stopped.

Apologists say the brutal tactics of the military regime were necessary to combat terrorist threats. That defense should chill the hearts of U.S. citizens, since that is precisely Dick Cheney’s rationale for the illegal kidnappings, torture and detentions without charge – our very own “dirty war” – that became U.S. policy in the Bush years.

Peru and Argentina understand that unless they identify and condemn the abuses of power committed by their own governments, their current and future regimes will lack legitimacy. “The past is not dead. It’s not even past,” as William Faulkner said. To pretend otherwise is to implicate current and future governments – of Peru, Argentina or the United States – in those crimes and abuses.

It took an outsider – a Spanish judge named Baltasar Garzon – to indict the notorious Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Enabled by Henry Kissinger and the CIA, Pinochet took power in a bloody coup on September 11, 1973, murdering the democratically elected President Salvador Allende. The Chilean justice system was too cowed and compromised by Pinochet’s bloody reign of torture and murder to act against him, even after he left office.

Garzon’s indictment caused Pinochet’s brief detention in England in 1998. He was finally indicted in his own country in 2000, but died of natural causes at 91 in 2006 before he went to trial. Accused of assassinations, kidnappings, tortures, murders and drug trafficking, Pinochet told investigating judges: “I don’t remember, but it’s not true. And if it were true, I don’t remember.” (His words are reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s testimony during his Iran-Contra deposition.)

Garzon lamented that “justice was too slow,” in Pinochet’s case. Now he has written a 98-page complaint accusing former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and five other ex-Bush officials (John Yoo, William Haynes, David Addington, Jay Bybee and Douglas Feith) of constructing a system that allowed torture in violation of international law. Garzon accepted jurisdiction because several Spanish citizens at Guantanamo allegedly suffered torture. Will justice be too slow in this case too? Will Americans be content to let Spanish courts do their legal dirty work?

Congressman John Conyers recently released a report entitled: “Reining in the Imperial Presidency,” detailing a long list of possible Bush executive branch violations of the Constitution, human rights and the public trust. The Conyers report says: “The Attorney General should appoint a Special Counsel… to determine whether there were criminal violations committed pursuant to Bush Administration policies that were undertaken under unreviewable war powers, including enhanced interrogation, extraordinary rendition, and warrantless domestic surveillance.” Conyers is very late with this, but better late than never.

As Mark Danner wrote recently in The New York Review of Books: “There is a sense in which our society is finally posing that ‘what should we do’ question. That it is doing so only now, after the fact is a tragedy for the country…” How big a tragedy? Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, noted earlier this month, that “the U.S. leadership became aware… very early on…that many of the [Guantanamo] detainees were innocent of any substantial wrongdoing, had little intelligence value and should be released.”

But Wilkerson says that – after the incompetence the administration displayed during 9/11 and the Iraq invasion – Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney were adamant that no more mistakes be admitted. “Moreover,” writes Wilkerson, “the fact that among the detainees was a 13 year-old boy and a man over 90, did not seem to faze either man…” Wilkerson waited seven years to reveal these realities, a shameful injustice. But it would be a far greater injustice never to reveal them at all. Does anyone doubt that a serious investigation of human rights violations by Gonzalez, Woo, Feith, Bybee, Addington and Haynes will lead to Rumsfeld and Cheney?

As Danner says, “…even as the practice of torture by Americans has withered and died, its potency as a political issue has grown. The issue could not be more important, for it cuts to the basic question of who we are as Americans, and whether our laws and ideals truly guide us in our actions or serve, instead, as a kind of national decoration to be discarded in times of danger. The only way to confront the political power of the issue, and prevent the reappearance of the practice itself, is to take a hard look at the true ‘empirical evidence of the last five years, hard years,’ and speak out clearly and credibly, about what that story really tells.”

On her April 7 blog post, the estimable Digby spells out the stakes: “It’s not just about ending these practices. By refusing to investigate them, and even actively invoking claims like the “state secrets privilege” to shield and avoid any possibility of a reckoning, the Administration implicates itself. Because they must use the same extreme claims of executive power, in some cases more so, to facilitate the cover-up… In failing to wrestle with this, or letting Spain do it for us, we lose ourselves.”

Concepts such as “respect for human rights” and the “moral responsibility” of the United States have not been heard in Washington since the Carter years. Their re-emergence in our national discourse is long overdue. Nixon-era cynicism and abuse of power multiplied in the smiley-faced Reagan years, then exploded under Bush and Cheney.

We must redeem our national soul before it is too late. Peru and Argentina have shown that, with sufficient political will, despite great risks, it is possible to face the truth. Without facing the truth, and all its implications, we can have no self-respect as a nation, nor can we hope to regain respect and credibility within the world community.

We cannot count on our spineless, complicit Congress to drive this issue. They could and should have done so years ago. Demanding accountability is a job for us, we, the people. Not just in Peru. Here too.

James is the author of Shooting the Truth: the Rise of American Documentaries (Praeger 2006), and Acting Like It Matters: John Malpede and the Los Angeles Poverty Department, (2015). He lives in Quito, Ecuador. Read other articles by James.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. lichen said on April 13th, 2009 at 1:38pm #

    “Apologists say the brutal tactics of the military regime were necessary to combat terrorist threats. ”

    But why do you refuse to say why they were actually carried out? To violently strike down the left consensus among the people and introduce radical freidmanite, anti-democratic capitalism to these Latin American countries, just as the Bush regime’s crimes allowed them to create a privatized ‘security’ bubble and create instant wealth here and for the contractors hired to (not) rebuild Iraq. The economic motivation for these crimes has to be included.

  2. Brian said on April 13th, 2009 at 3:22pm #

    Yeah, and when Fuji was president his government framed Lori Berenson on a trumped up terrorism charge.

    So my question is, when are they letting her out?

  3. Andres Kargar said on April 13th, 2009 at 11:42pm #

    Terrorism is the excuse cited by all corrupt dictatorships to justify violent suppression of the left and popular movements from Pinochet to the Bush administration.

    The T-word has been so successfully implanted in the psyche of the Western, and in particular the American mind by corporate media that it makes even some liberal groups, like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch look the other way when these atrocities take place.

    Despite indicting the criminal Fujimori, by the way, I will be much happier to see the present neo-liberal government in Peru replaced by a Hugo-Chavez-style administration that would never give Fujimori’s daughter the opportunity to pardon this murderer.

    And by the way, it you need more information about Lori Berenson, please visit the website for the Committee to Free Lori Berenson at: http://www.freelori.org/

  4. Laser said on April 14th, 2009 at 1:17am #

    Here is another example from anothger region of the wrold — very recent: gunmen have burned down Khan Yunis child and family care center in Gaza.

    The Palestinian Center for Human Rights reports that masked ‘Palestinian ‘gunmen’ burned down a child and family care center in Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip on Sunday, 12 April 2009.

    Early that morning, unknown gunmen set alight the Child and Family Care Center in the al-Fukhari Village east of Khan Younis. The Center was established by the Canaan Institute of New Pedagogy in cooperation with the al-Fukhari Association for Rural Development.

    This is the second time in two days that the Center has been attacked. This incident is part of the security chaos currently plaguing the Gaza strip, from which Isreal withdrew in 2005.

    The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights’ (PCHR) investigations indicate that, at approximately 03:00am on 12 April 2009, a number of masked gunmen set fire to tents belonging to the Child and Family Care Center. During the attack, the gunmen detained the Center’s security guard in a nearby field. Mr. Al-Bahdari, director of the Center, stated that fire destroyed the six plastic tents which formed the Center, along with their contents and equipment.

    The Child and Family Care Center had been subject to a similar attack in the early morning of Saturday, 11 April 2009.

    The Child and Family Care Center is one of five established by the Canaan Institute of New Pedagogy in cooperation with several benevolent associations across the Gaza Strip. These centers aim to help and support children who live in areas affected by the recent Israeli operation.

    PCHR strongly condemns the attack on the Child and Family Care Center, noting that this attack constitutes part of the continuing security chaos plaguing the Palestinian territory.

    Of course, since this attack cannot be blamed on the Jews (except to the extent that the ‘continuing security chaos’ and the ‘recent Israeli offensive’ can be blamed on the Jews), it’s not going to be of much interest to the ‘international community.’ But perhaps it ought to be.

    The key to this story is “The Center was established by the Canaan Institute of New Pedagogy in cooperation with the al-Fukhari Association for Rural Development.”

    The Canaan Institute of New Pedagogy describes itself as a Palestinian non-profit organization [established] by “ the Palestinian Forum of Education for Development-PFED”, supported by the consortium of the French NGOs, member of the platform of the French NGOs for Palestine [ Members of the Consortium of French NGOs are: Refugee Children of the World (ERM), Active Methods Training Centers Association (CEMEA), Les FRANCAS, Leo- Lagrange League and Retired Educators Association (GREF) ].

    Canaan addresses the needs of professional training programs for the workers, and volunteers in the field of socio-cultural education, and promotes New Education based on the right to participation, freedom of choice, choice – responsibility and non-violence.

    Through its programs, Canaan meets the requests coming from other organizations for professional training and/or consultancy in designing, implementing and developing advanced educational activities and social programs.

    Why would ‘masked gunmen’ want to destroy this kind of center? Perhaps because it is competing with Hamas’ ‘charitable works,’ and Hamas views that as a danger.

    In any event, the story shows again how “Apologists say the brutal tactics of the military regime were necessary to combat terrorist threats.”

  5. Laser said on April 14th, 2009 at 1:59am #

    I apologize for several typos that crept into my recent post.