In my first post as part of the Foreign Policy Blog Network, I summarized Peruvian President Ollanta Humala’s efforts to appease the markets through pro-business Cabinet appointments. In two well-respected placements, Luis Miguel Castilla became Finance Minister, and Julio Velarde stayed on as Central Bank Head. Humala hoped to marry economic growth with increased social programs, and needed the business community alongside. However, since his inauguration, two visible crises have caused two rounds of sackings and resignations amongst Cabinet members. The latest crisis, a humiliating military defeat by remnant guerrillas from the Shining Path terrorist group, threatens to both re-make the Cabinet and force President Humala to put aside his social development agenda.
Humala’s first Cabinet reshuffling took place in December, 6 months after he was elected. Ten ministers were replaced, including Prime Minister Salomón Lerner, the former campaign manager who was an architect of Humala’s capitalism plus social progress vision. In Lerner’s place came retired Lieutenant-Coronel Oscar Valdés, who taught Humala at the military academy, leading some to accuse the government of “militarization.” The catalysts for this shakeup were local protests against the Minas Conga, a large gold and copper mine in the Northern province of Cajamarca. Minas Conga is one of Peru’s largest industrial projects, requiring $4.8 billion of investment, and is owned by two New-York Stock Exchange-listed miners: Newmont Mining of the US and Peru’s Compañia de Minas Buenaventura. This spring, the government issued a list of populistic demands of the owners, in response to the local protests. They include demands for guaranteed water supplies, social program funding, and hiring of additional workers. However, the appointment of Mr. Valdés fed the perception that President Humala was throwing off his promise to aid the underclasses, and was simply determined to defeat the protests. The mining sector feeds government tax coffers.
If the first Cabinet reshuffling was a medium turn in agenda, last week’s reshuffling may represent a true shock. In April, guerrillas from the terrorist sect Shining Path kidnapped 36 natural gas workers, and later released them. In a botched rescue attempt, 8 Peruvian soldiers and policemen were killed. A particularly harrowing incident occurred when a police helicopter fled, leaving 3 security officers behind. One of these, Luis Astuquillca, hiked to safety after 17 days alone in the jungle. The other two were murdered – the body of one, César Vilca, was found by his father, who personally went into the jungle with the help of local guides. Public outrage followed, and opposition lawmakers announced that they would vote “no confidence” against the Defense and Interior Ministers in Congress. These officials, Alberto Otárola and Daniel Lozada, then left on their own.
Though President Humala recently committed 1,500 soldiers and police to stopping Shining Path, his bureaucracy seems completely unprepared to combat the group within its home turf of the Apurímac and Ene river valleys, collectively called VRAE, on the eastern side of the Andes. Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) is today a shell of its former self. In the 80’s and 90’s, under the leadership of philosophy professor Abimael Guzmán, the Maoist group waged an insurgency via assassinations, invasions of Andean mountain towns, and car bombs in Lima’s San Isidro financial district. Sendero’s revolt and harsh army counter-strikes resulted in over 70,000 deaths.
I have read some firsthand accounts of Sendero, and what is most striking about the group is the coupling of a savage appetite for violence with a bereft and incoherent political ideology. The decorated Mexican journalist Alma Guillermoprieto calls the group “a frightening quirk in the annals of guerrilla struggle.” Guillermoprieto also recounts how captured followers stammered and struggled when asked to articulate the group’s positions or purpose. She describes the group as introverted and esoteric, and as a mesmerized cult of Guzmán, who went by the nickname “Presidente Gonzalo.” Guillermoprieto frames this for American readers by saying “that is as if in the United States a messianic movement of fundamentalists armed with guns were led by somebody named President Fred.” Fortunately, determined military action and Peru’s steady economic growth have weakened Sendero to a few hundred guerrillas (Guzmán is in prison). Today, they survive in the VRAE by taxing coca farmers who feed the drug trade.
The group’s small footprint magnifies the military’s recent failure all the more. Specters such as renewed Shining Path havoc and a father hiking into the jungle to find his dead policeman son, rather than the military launching a rescue, are highly visible public relations fiascos. Consequently, plenty of media pressure will be spent on a relatively small problem. The government, particularly the new Defense and Interior Ministers, will need to refocus on Sendero. This is a priority Humala is not prepared to face, and the state security apparatus may have become complacent, or worse, corrupt – there have been news stories of soldiers receiving rotten food rations and deficient flak jackets. President Humala has outlined a drug plan, endorsed by the US, which mixes coca destruction with greater investment in underdeveloped regions such as the VRAE. However, if he launches a successful and determined campaign against Sendero, Humala may not have the bandwidth to satisfy voters who want the welfare and social programs that he promised.
 Guillermoprieto, Alma. The Heart that Bleeds. Vintage Books, Random House Inc. New York, 1994. 73.