Analysis : Honeymoon Comes to Halt for Peru’s Garcia as Crises Escalate
Like an off-balance surfer on a Lima beach, President Alan Garcia is being tossed by breakers that he once rode with ease. The extraordinary honeymoon of Peru’s popular, do-it-all president is over.
Garcia, 37, a strong-willed, impulsive, often abrasive idealist, came to power last July with new-broom exuberance and promises of sweeping reforms that won overwhelming popular support. Now, the cheers are threatened by swelling criticism, the taste of political crisis and a loss of moral authority at home and abroad.
There have been some victories, but many of Peru’s entrenched ills have repulsed the attacks by the hemisphere’s youngest president. Some have dramatically worsened.
A bizarre insurgency by the Maoist guerrillas of Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), which was a nuisance when Garcia took office confident he could defuse it, is now the principal national drama. There is broad concern that the insurgency will get worse.
The murder of guerrilla prisoners by troops and police suppressing a prison riot last week has damaged Garcia’s human rights credentials and aggravated tensions between him and a military that he seeks to accustom to civilian command.
International bankers fume at his unilateral decision to restrict debt repayments to 10% of exports. The Reagan Administration is chary of his fiery rhetoric, his support for Nicaragua, his debt policy, his pretensions to international leadership against “imperialism” and his nationalization of a New York-based oil company, Belco Petroleum Corp. An economic policy that has included wage increases, tax reductions and price freezes has controlled inflation and increased industrial production and government revenues, but failed to lure new investment. Amid recent strikes by teachers, prison employees and other government workers, labor is restive.
A Kafkaesque government bureaucracy has dug in against Garcia’s search for desperately needed decentralization. The survivors of his anti-corruption purges in Peru’s police forces have failed to make major inroads against the guerrillas.
Promised judicial reform has lagged. Thousands of prisoners in Peruvian jails, including most of the guerrillas killed in last week’s military assault, have never been tried.
Garcia ordered 159 of the guerrilla suspects freed last year. One of them turned up last week trying to fire a homemade mortar at a convention center about the time that Garcia was scheduled to arrive to address a congress of the Socialist International. The mortar misfired, exploded and killed her.
The Socialist Congress, which might have been a triumph for Garcia and the 60-year-old social democratic American Popular Revolutionary Alliance that he led to power for the first time, instead met under siege in a city contorted by extreme security and extremist violence.
The congress ended Monday with a declaration that noted the prison revolt and pointedly observed that “serious concerns have arisen over the methods employed and the number of deaths, a number which President Garcia himself considers excessive.” It expressed its “satisfaction” with Garcia’s promise to allow international human rights organizations to review the results of investigations.
The military recapture of three prisons seized by guerrillas in simultaneous uprisings last Wednesday killed at least 250 prisoners. In a dramatic nationwide address Tuesday night, Garcia announced that at least “30 or 40" prisoners had been murdered after they surrendered at Lurigancho Prison. He said “commanders, officers and troops” responsible for the murders will be jailed and tried.
The government, which urged the Peruvian press to minimize the incident and suppressed one small Marxist daily that refused, blacked out detailed reports of what its opponents now call “a massacre.” It has still not released final casualty figures.
Unofficial reports say 138 prisoners were killed at the island prison of El Fronton, where the guerrillas had captured weapons and dynamite. About 30 terrorists were recaptured alive.
At Lurigancho, however, the only survivor of a five-hour army-police assault was one hostage. All 126 prisoners were killed.
Mario Vargas Llosa, Peru’s leading novelist and an outspoken supporter of democratic government, said in an open letter to Garcia on Monday that “instead of consolidating our democratic system, this mountain of bodies will weaken it. Instead of being a mortal blow to terrorism and subversion, it will have the effect of pruning them, so that they will be reborn and multiply. . . . “
In a sharp editorial Monday, the independent news magazine Caretas scorned Garcia’s “lack of serenity,” saying he impulsively over-reacted to a prison revolt not greatly different from ones that past Peruvian governments had resolved through negotiation.
Said Caretas: “The atrocity deliberately committed at Lurigancho is undeniable and has no parallel for its primitive brutality in the history of our country or Latin America . . . not even in the most lethal clandestine jails in Argentina in the 1970s did everyone die.”
The prison excesses, now the subject of three parallel investigations, give a powerful club to the Marxist-dominated Peruvian left, which is Garcia’s largest opposition in Congress. With his rhetoric and his reformist promises, Garcia had systematically undercut the left, which had little choice but to bide its time in the face of his great popularity.
Sendero Luminoso has no allies anywhere in the Peruvian political spectrum, but in terms of the damage that it is doing to Garcia’s image, the prison tragedy is the most powerful blow the six-year-old rebellion has dealt to the Peruvian political system.
An avowed human rights advocate, Garcia fired two generals not long after taking office when an army patrol killed Sendero Luminoso suspects in an Andean hamlet. That incident diminished enthusiasm for fighting the outback guerrilla struggle among a military which ruled Peru from 1968 until 1980 and has historic antipathy to the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance.
Amid escalating guerrilla terror in Lima, Garcia imposed emergency rule in the capital last February, giving the armed forces responsibility for security and enforcement of a nightly curfew.
The emergency restrictions, and what the left charges have been large number of arrests during the curfew, do not appear to have hurt Sendero Luminoso. In March, Sendero Luminoso guerrillas assassinated a navy commander. On May 5, they murdered Rear Adm. Carlos Ponce Canessa as he drove to work. The navy, whose marines took El Fronton, has been seething ever since.
Despite a steady stream of low-level casualties, Sendero Luminoso has proved as resistant to the armed forces as it has to Garcia’s appeals for a dialogue. On Wednesday, a guerrilla bomb on a tourist train in the Andes killed seven tourists, including one American, and wounding at least 38, six of them Americans.
Garcia sees himself as a spokesman for Peru’s have-not majority in his role as leader of a party with popular and revolutionary roots. As far as Sendero Luminoso is concerned, though, he is no different from Fernando Belaunde Terry, the more conservative president he succeeded, and no more worthy of discussion than the revisionist Soviets, Chinese, Cubans, or those majority Peruvian Marxists who prefer electoral politics to violence.
There seems little doubt that the decision to quell the prison revolts immediately was Garcia’s. His critics now charge that it was an invitation to the armed forces to a bloodletting that they long sought.
Garcia’s equally quick promise to punish those responsible for the prison excesses can only further strain his relationship with the armed forces, Peruvian analysts believe.
After 11 months of a five-year term, Peru’s young reformer has been unable to slake the absolutist passions of either Peru’s guerrillas or of the armed forces fighting them. Now he must confront them simultaneously while their fury is greatest and his own stature is diminished.