Peruvian Civil War (1980-2000)

The nation of Peru has had a long succession of authoritarian and democratic governments despite its historical stability. An estimated 70,000 Peruvians have died in the relatively recent Civil War of 1980-2000, outnumbering the casualties of any other war in modern Peruvian history, and after the Guatemalan Civil War, it is the second longest civil war in Latin American history since the European colonization.

Ancient Peru is described as an Andean nation and was the seat of several Andean nations, most prominently the Incas as well as the Quechuan civilizations. A brutal civil war and the arrival of the Spanish conqueror Francisco Pizarro in 1532 led to the conquest and collapse of the Inca dynasty. By the twentieth century, many of the indigenous people of the Andes were reduced extreme levels of poverty and hardship.

Peru officially won independence from Spain in 1824, but until the early twentieth century did not achieve its relative political stability. Sporadic periods of democratic development were interrupted by absolutist military rule.  Until mass-party politics developed in the latter half of the 20th century, the majority of the country, including large numbers of indigenous peoples, suffered from political exclusion and economic marginalization.

In the 1960s, radical revolutionary leftist movements were on the rise throughout Latin America and sought to win power through means of guerilla warfare. In Peru, the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR) initiated an insurrection but was quelled by 1965. However the internal strife in Peru would only escalate and eventually culminate with the emergence of a Maoist-inspired guerilla movement, which had originally been founded in the late 1960s by philosophy professor Abimael Guzmán, called Sendero Luminoso: The Shining Path.

Economic turbulence during the 1980s only exacerbated the rising social tensions in Peru with the growth of the violent insurgency. The Shining Path grew from a small radical faction into a guerilla army of over 10,000 soldiers and employed terrorist threats and attacks as well as insurgency tactics against civilian and military targets. Guzmán endeavored to replace the Peruvian government with his centralized revolutionary regime and refused to work along side the second-most powerful leftist group in Peru, the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA).

Under the presidency of Fernando Belaúnde from 1975 to 1980, the rate of inflation in Peru rose to the triple and quadruple digits. During the presidency of Belaúnde’s successor, Alán García, unemployment soared and the national debt only worsened. Despite García’s promises to reign in the intemperate military in the early 1980s, attacks by the Shining Path were escalating, and he approved an uninhibited military counterinsurgency campaign against the group.

With the concerns of the economic instability and the increasing threats from these growing guerilla movements, the Peruvian people elected from obscurity a politician of Japanese descent named Alberto Fujimori as president in 1990. Fujimori’s presidency ushered in a decade which saw a dramatic economic turnaround as well as a significant attempt to repress any guerilla activity and human right’s abuses, and by 1992 the Shining Path suffered a series of military defeats. On April 5, 1992, Fujimori staged a self-coup which led to the closure of Peru’s Congress as well as the abolishment of the nation’s judicial system and constitution. Fujimori then implemented a covert counter-subversion strategy including an extensive campaign of surveillance against any and all political rivals as well as a crusade of illicit tortures and killings of suspected leftists. This campaign of human right’s abuses did little to overcome the Shining Path, and many of Fujimori’s death squad victims were innocent civilians. The escalating war between Fujimori’s government and the guerilla movements were marred by atrocities committed by both the insurgents and the Peruvian security movements.

The founder and leader of the Shining path, Abimael Guzmán, was eventually captured in september of 1992 which was a severe blow to the movement. However there was growing discontentment with ruling administration with Fujimori’s increasing reliance on tyrannical measures, bribery scandals and another economic slump in the late 1990s. Ironically, Fujimori’s net of domestic surveillance eventually exposed his own criminal practices of paying off members of Congress which was leaked to the press. To avoid prosecution for human rights violations and corruption charges, Fujimori fled to Japan and renounced his presidency in November, 2000.

In April, 2001, Alejandro Toledo became Peru’s first democratically elected president of Native American ethnicity. A state of emergency was declared by Toleo after national strikes in 2003, and gave the military power to enforce order in several regions, but was later reduces to the few areas of Peru in which the Shining Path was still operating.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR) was employed with the responsibility of managing an assessment of the two decades of extreme political violence during 1980 to 2000. The CVR produced a report of the casualties and results of the Civil War. The finding of the report claimed that the originally underestimated number of victims had to be dramatically revised to well over 69,000 killed and 6,000 “disappeared”. Over forty percent of the victims we from the impoverished area of South Western Ayachucho, and primarily from social classes and ethnic groups which had been marginalized in Peruvian society. The report also states that over half (54%) of the casualties were attributed to the Shining Path movement, thirty percent to the Peruvian police and military forces, and the rest to the actions or the rural or peasant self-defense militias.

In April of 2009 Alberto Fujimori was eventually extradited back to Peru and convicted on charges of crimes against humanity and sentenced to 25 years in prison. His main intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, was also imprisoned and charged with human rights violations committed during Fujimori’s regime. $800M were reserved by the government to compensate the guerilla war victims, mainly rural Peruvians of Indian ethnic descent. Peru is now poised to make a greater reckoning of the human rights abuses committed during the Civil War.

Peruvian art has always been shaped by the country’s rich cultural diversity and wide-ranging landscapes. Modern Peruvian artists are now redefining their creativity at a time of social and economic change.

Twentieth century Peruvian art  has defined itself in various directions. Many artists have focused on themes analogous to the contemporary Indian as well as the Peruvian landscape. Other artists have found inspiration in popular traditions, and European art. Though what has most defined  Peruvian art is its separation from all the traditions that have inspired it.

Born from a break with colonial traditions occurring in the mid-nineteenth century, the fine arts in modern Peru saw the decline of the Catholic church which lead to more secular concerns in subject matter. Artisans were beginning to emerge from the middle and upper classes whereas they had been previously been constricted to the lower spheres of society. However this society lacked the artistic and cultural structures of patronage, museums and exhibition stages required to perpetuate this new appreciation of artistic practice advancing in the country. This obstacle was originally overcome by the founding of the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes (ENBA) in 1919 which represented the end result of many years of endeavouring to institutionalize Peru’s modern artistic traditions.

Any outward-looking attempts at modernization however were brought to an end with the military dictatorship of Juan Velasco Alvarado from 1968 to 1975. The emergence of purely aesthetic art projects emerged under the populist fervour of the time, and also included several superficial revivals of Indigenist themes. However this period also saw a growing radical interest in engaging with an ever-growing mass audience. During the 1970s there was a renewed interest in figuration, followed by the development of Surrealism which was ultimately followed by a rise in Expressionism, which would consequently serve as an allusion to the brutality of the ensuing War.

The national attitude was still optimistic and hopeful with the new democracy in Peru at the beginning of the 1980s. There was a belief and expectation for the possibility of change, illusions which would be shattered by the violence which the Shining Path movement unleashed and the consequent military repression. Any artistic initiatives were crushed by the collapse of the art market along with the economic crisis and the push for self-censorship in the repressive political regime. Since the War, Peru has seen the dramatic growth of the commercial gallery circuit, but few programmatic artistic movements, with more individual rather than mutual or collective efforts in art.

Elizabeth Caston

Fall 2011


1 U.S. Dept. of State. Background Note: Peru, 2009. Iain S. MacLean (editor), Reconciliation, Nations and Churches in Latin America, Ashgate Publishing Co. 20063 Natalia Majluf. Peru. Latin American Art in the Twentieth Century. Edited by Edward J. Sullivan. Phaidon Press Inc: New York, NY, 1996.

This entry was posted in Alberto Fujimori, civil war, democracy, disappeared, Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes (ENBA), indigenismo, Peru, Shining Path, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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