Abimael Guzmán: death of a great revolutionary leader

Comrade Guzman may be dead, but so long as the conditions that gave rise to his movement remain, Peru’s rulers will continue to fear his name.

Not for nothing does the name of Abimael Guzmán stir fear and loathing in the hearts of Peru’s comprador bourgeois and their imperialist backers. His Shining Path guerrilla movement came very close to ending their blood-soaked and kleptocratic rule for good.

On 11 September 2021, the death was announced of 86-year-old Comrade Abimael Guzmán, otherwise known as Chairman Gonzalo, in a Peruvian prison. He had been incarcerated for nearly 30 years, his crime being to have led a major insurgency in Peru, which had come close to overthrowing the puppet Peruvian government that took its orders from US imperialism, as indeed have all Peruvian governments within living memory.

Peru is yet another Latin American country that is extremely rich in natural resources but whose population for the most part lives in abject poverty. The overwhelming majority of the population are of indigenous descent, and find themselves facing unrelenting systematic discrimination at every turn.

For very many years they were denied even the right to vote because of a rule, not abrogated until the 1970s, that only those people who could read Spanish were eligible to do so. Most of the country’s indigenous population do not know Spanish but speak a variety of indigenous languages, foremost among which is Quechua.

Although Gonzalo was himself of European descent, he wholeheartedly aligned himself with the plight of the oppressed and exploited indigenous peasantry, and devoted his life to organising them to free not only themselves but the whole of Peru from the unjust exploitative system under which they all lived.

Obituaries of Abimael Guzmán have appeared in all the bourgeois media, only to condemn him and the revolutionary organisation he founded, the Communist Party of Peru (otherwise known as Sendero Luminoso, or the Shining Path) as violent, murderous terrorists responsible for the deaths of upwards of 70,000 people, mostly – it is alleged – the very downtrodden peasants on whose behalf they claimed to be fighting.

However, even the anticommunist opponents of the Shining Path who bandy about these ‘statistics’ are forced, since everybody in Peru knows it to be the case, to admit that the forces mobilised by the Peruvian state to put down the Shining Path were themselves officially responsible for a high proportion of these deaths.

Unofficially they are also known to have been responsible for the slaughter of an untold number of innocent civilians – slaughter that would be blamed on the Shining Path as a means of trying to undermine its mass support.

In a war, people die, and the Shining Path insurgency of the 1980s and early 1990s was a guerrilla war of the masses of the people, especially the peasantry, against the oppressor classes. The counter-revolutionaries who compile these ‘statistics’, needless to say, leave out of account the thousands of innocent lives lost to malnutrition and lack of medical care – the innocent babies who die unnecessarily in their impoverished mothers’ arms because the exploitative system denies so many of the population any opportunity to earn a decent living.

These are the conditions that provided, and continue to provide, fertile ground for the rise of revolutionary movements, and sooner or later these revolutionary movements are bound to win.

Chairman Gonzalo’s history

Abimael Guzmán was born on 3 December 1934 He was illegitimate and his mother died when he was only five. His father did at least ensure that he received a good education, and his aptitude for study meant that he continued on to university, to study law and philosophy at the National University of San Agustín, at a time when the campuses in Peru were alive with anti-imperialist sentiment, and whose student bodies were made up to the extent of over 65 percent of Quechua speakers – the first generation in their family to go to university.

Guzmán participated in a census of the population that was commissioned after a bad earthquake, which brought him face to face with the appalling conditions suffered by the Peruvian poor. He met a painter, Carlos de la Riva, who was an ardent admirer of Josef Stalin, and soon joined the Peruvian Communist Party, burning with a desire to alleviate the suffering of the masses.

The young Abimael rejected electoral politics, certainly in the conditions prevailing in Peru at that time: he expressed the view that “the bourgeoisie’s lyrical affirmations of liberty and equality … are useless to the trapped and downtrodden masses … elections are controlled by the manipulation of electoral law and by the economic forces behind the press and media”. (Simon Strong, Shining Path, 1992, p26)

After obtaining his doctorate, Guzmán went to work as a lecturer in philosophy at San Cristóbal de Huamanga University in Ayacucho, where he became very popular with his students. He mobilised them to do philanthropic work among the peasants, and he set up a school in the countryside to which he could send his students for ‘teaching practice’.

In the rural areas around the city, he found that feudalism was still very much in place, with the going rate for a peasant to acquire the right to farm half an acre of land being that he should provide three days labour every week for the landlord plus a house servant for a couple of months a year.

If the landlord sold the land, the peasant was evicted, and life expectancy for the peasantry was 45 years. In these circumstances, the political lessons that Gonzalo and his students were able to disseminate among the peasants could not fail to strike home.

The Sino-Soviet split that took place in the 1960s was reflected in the Peruvian Communist Party, which split into pro-Moscow and pro-Beijing factions. Guzmán joined the Red Flag faction that favoured China and supported unrevised Marxist positions on the questions of the state, the need for the overthrow of bourgeois rule, the impossibility under present conditions of the proletariat gaining state power through parliamentary means, etc.

Guzmán was extremely active in university politics as well as in the peasant movement. He organised student protests against the activities of the US ‘Peace Corps’, for example, which ended in the expulsion of a lecturer sent from the US. He built up Red Flag party cells and formed a military committee.

Naturally, he made a point of visiting China and was greatly impressed by Mao Zedong’s teachings on guerrilla war. There were many parallels between the class composition of pre-revolutionary China and that of Peru, and therefore a great deal of value to learn from Mao’s writings.

Guzmán embarked on a campaign of research into conditions in the countryside and of organising the peasants. When the Peruvian government (a supposedly ‘left-wing’ military dictatorship led by General Juan Velasco) in 1969 sought to restrict access to secondary education, he participated in a massive campaign that mobilised the enormous value peasants put on education as a way out of a life of drudgery.

A huge riot took place in Ayacucho in which 14 people were killed and 55 injured, and which was quelled only by moving in the army. Guzmán was jailed for inciting the riot, but the new education law was repealed.

Successes of the Shining Path

In 1969, the Red Flag faction of the Peruvian Communist Party (PCP) split formally away from the latter and its comrades set it up as an independent, Maoist, party under the name Communist Party of Peru by the Shining Path of Jose Carlos Mariátegui (the latter being a pioneer of the communist movement in Peru and an early advocate of mobilising the peasant masses in the fight for socialism). It was to become much better known as simply the Shining Path, although it always preferred to be called the CPP.

The new party began to prepare for the armed struggle. Gonzalo and his comrades resigned from the university in preparation for going underground and the armed struggle was officially launched about a year later on 17 May 1980.

The CPP was able to mobilise staff and students at several universities to go to the countryside and join the armed struggle. Liberated areas began to be set up from which government agencies were forcibly expelled. Army conscripts deserted in substantial numbers to join the armed struggle, and the guerrillas armed themselves principally by appropriating explosives and armaments from the enemy. Young Quechua-speaking peasants also flocked to join.

The Times tells us that “At its peak the organisation’s military wing, the People’s Guerrilla Army (EGP), had at least 10,000 fighters, a large proportion of them young women.

“The guerrillas took a tight grip on the settlements of indigenous subsistence farmers and herdsmen that dotted the highlands. They recruited among the poorest campesinos, encouraging them to denounce the ‘exploiters’ in their midst, usually landowners, shopkeepers or government bureaucrats, who would be executed after a ‘people’s trial’.

“Any villagers suspected of collaborating with the military were also eliminated. The security forces responded in kind, with a counter-terror that often involved arming and training village militias to identify and kill suspected guerrilla sympathisers.” (Obituary, 23 September 2021)

In 1980, Peru’s debt servicing ratio (the proportion of GDP that went on servicing foreign debt) stood at 44.82 percent, and by 1981 it had risen to 59.40 percent. This left the government with little means to improve the living standards of the population and deflect their rage.

The result was that “A widening and deepening economic crisis – including rampant inflation, substantial decline in the production of goods and services, loss of jobs, and a virtual paralysis of government services by the end of the decade [1980s] – reflected a succession of failed central government policies.

“The high cost of these failures in human terms, from growing unemployment, declining living standards, rising crime rates, malnutrition, infant mortality, and susceptibility to disease, such as the 1991 cholera epidemic, gave the Shining Path new opportunities to gain at the government’s expense.” (History, politics and Shining Path in Peru by David Scott Palmer in The Shining Path of Peru, 1994)

These were opportunities that the Shining Path was able to seize, with the result that by 1990 it had expanded to such a degree that it was threatening the survival of the Peruvian bourgeois comprador state.

Drug cultivation

Part of the reason that Shining Path was so solidly supported by the Peruvian peasantry was that it made a point of protecting those who cultivated coca for a living, not only from the government that was being forced by US imperialism to try to eliminate coca growing, and by government officials who insisted on being bribed to close their eyes to the practice, but also by the drug traffickers who were always trying to pay the minimum for the crop.

Coca growing had proliferated in Peru quite simply because most peasants could not make a living from growing any other crop. According to Simon Strong, in 1988 the coca trade accounted for 70 percent of Peru’s total export earnings, but it is a trade “which contributes to the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, pollutes it with the processing chemicals and, because of the trade’s illicit nature, generates violence and corruption.” (p108)

Shining Path, like the Farc in Colombia, did not itself engage in the trade, which it quite rightly considered to be an excrescence but only protected the peasants concerned because there was no alternative way at that time for them to make a living.

Simon Strong quotes a person whose family engaged in the coca boom of the 1970s. He said that the peasants’ attitude was: “Shining Path says we are going to support you if you support us, so it is simple. Nobody could give a damn if coca badly affects the United States. The imperialists are the drug addicts, not us. They repress us economically so it serves them right, they are paying the consequences. They just do not like it because they are not the ones in control of the business.” (p114)

Even today, remnants of the Shining Path organisation are alive and well in certain areas of the Peruvian hinterland, still performing their protective function.

Capture, renunciation and death

The successes of the people’s war in Peru naturally caused US imperialism and the Peruvian ruling elite to counter-attack. Not only were the police and military mobilised to launch major campaigns to try to dislodge them from the areas of the country that they controlled with a brazen shoot-to-kill policy, but local militias known as Rondas were formed with the aim of combating them.

The new president of Peru, Juan Castillo, was formerly a member of one of these, for all that he now has the support of the Communist Party of Peru and has a couple of Sendero sympathisers in his cabinet.

Finally, the government of Alberto Fujimori organised with the help of the FBI and the CIA a major special intelligence input network aimed at rounding up the revolutionary movement’s leaders and activists. The operation was headed by the National Directorate against Terrorism. An elite unit of NDAT arrested comrade Gonzalo and eight other leaders of the CPP on 12 September 1992 from a dance teacherʹs residence in Lima.

Over the following 18 months over 3,600 guerrillas were captured. In 1993, Gonzalo himself sued for peace negotiations in a letter he wrote to Alberto Fujimori from prison.

While Guzmán may have done this in the hope of gaining some respite for his revolutionary comrades, the effect was severely to weaken the remaining Sendero organisation by splitting it between those who thought they were being ordered to give up the armed struggle and those who thought it needed to be continued as the highest form of class struggle.

Nevertheless, remnants of the organisation continue to this day, causing such fear and dread among the ruling elite that it is still illegal to express support for the Shining Path (thus making a mockery of ‘opinion polls’ that seek to measure that support, all of which of course announce that support is now minimal).

The fate of the body

Such is the fear of Sendero, even to this day, that the fate of Chairman Gonzalo’s body became a matter of deep contention.

“Under Peruvian law, authorities are supposed to turn Guzmán’s body over to designated direct relatives … In this case, that’s Elena Iparraguirre, Guzmán’s widow and second-in-command in the Maoist movement, who is herself serving a life sentence in prison …

“Politicians and public officials feared that giving the remains to Iparraguirre would lead to a burial site that would become a shrine for the Shining Path, whose factions continue to inflict violence on the country.” (How to bury a terrorist? Peru debates what to do with the remains of Shining Path founder Abimael Guzmán by Samantha Schmidt, Washington Post, 16 September 2021)

Comrade Elena’s request for her husband’s remains was denied, and a new law was rushed through the legislature on 16 September allowing the Peruvian authorities to cremate and dispose of the ashes of those who die after being convicted of terrorism. This has now been done and the ashes have been scattered in an undisclosed location.

Nevertheless, as the Indian Express, by no means sympathetic to any revolutionary movement, pointed out:

“Movements such as the Shining Path can linger on in new forms in the absence of institutional interventions to address the social disparities that gave birth to the tide. For instance, the Movadef (Movement for Amnesty and Fundamental Rights), reportedly popular among the youth, has been inspired by the Shining Path, though it claims to shun violence.” (Editorial, 15 September 2021)

And conditions for the labouring masses of Peru, though it is said they have ‘significantly’ improved and have led, in particular, to a noticeable increase in life expectancy, remain dire.

The World Food Programme reported this year: “Over the past decade, hunger and poverty have significantly decreased in Peru, thanks to consistent economic growth, investments in infrastructure, education and health, and an expansion of social programmes.

“One of the country’s greatest achievements was the halving of chronic child malnutrition, currently at 13.1 percent [ie, even today, after all the ‘achievements’, one in six children is so undernourished that it affects their growth!]. However, rates still vary widely among regions, reaching peaks as high as 33.4 percent in remote rural areas in the Sierra and Amazon regions. Among indigenous people, especially in the Amazon, stunting rates have not decreased in the past ten years.

“Almost one quarter of the population (22 percent) still lives below the poverty line and in rural areas deep pockets of food insecurity remain. Limited access to nutritious food is at the root of widespread nutritional problems.”

It is not, therefore, surprising that Peru’s ruling elite and its imperialist backers still live in fear and dread of Sendero Luminoso and Abimael Guzmán, Chairman Gonzalo.

In conclusion, we reiterate the words of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines’ tribute: “Comrade Gonzalo … leaves a treasure-trove of ideas and experiences and an indomitable fighting spirit that the workers and peoples of the world, and their movements and parties, will continue to draw upon in continuing the struggle for national freedom, democracy and socialism.

“US imperialism and the reactionaries have again killed another great revolutionary, but they will never be able to kill the revolution.”