29 January 2016

After 20 Years

Lori Berenson Finally Home

On December 3, 46-year-old Lori Berenson landed at Kennedy International Airport, having served a 20-year sentence in Peru (the last five years on parole). She was one of the thousands of victims of state terror carried out by paramilitary bands, cops and the military under President Alberto Fujimori in the 1990s. She arrived back in the U.S. with her six-year-old son, Salvador, who was born in prison. The Partisan Defense Committee and the Spartacist League, with which it is affiliated, congratulate Berenson on her release.

Berenson was grabbed off a Lima bus in November 1995, arrested along with more than 20 others in raids by the feared “anti-terrorist” police (Dincote). Only six weeks later, she was convicted by a frame-up military tribunal of treason and of being a leader of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), a Cuban-influenced guerrilla group formed in the early ’80s. Its name derived from a leader of an indigenous rebellion against Spanish colonial rule in the late 1700s. The MRTA mainly targeted military installations and foreign-owned businesses, in contrast to the Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) movement, which often launched murderous attacks on workers and peasants unions as well as armed clashes with the MRTA.

Sentenced to life, Berenson was locked up in the notorious Yanamayo prison located in the Andes at over 12,000 feet, her tiny unheated cell open to the elements. The isolation and unbearable conditions drove some of the political prisoners there to attempt suicide. After three years and suffering from illnesses brought on by the relentless cold and the poor food, Berenson was transferred to Socabaya prison near Arequipa a day before her case was to be brought before the Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. After an international outcry over her treatment, Peruvian officials in 2000 admitted Berenson was not an MRTA leader and ordered her retried before a special civilian court for those accused of terrorism. A three-judge panel convicted her in 2001 of “collaborating with terrorism” and sentenced her to 20 years.

Berenson had arrived in Peru in 1994 after working in Central America and seeing firsthand the endemic poverty, inequality and injustice. “I realized,” she said in a 2011 interview, “that behind suffering was politics.... There are interests behind that—political, economic—in having a social class be relegated to dying in misery, and being exploited, and being harmed, and suffering repression” (New York Times Magazine, 6 March 2011).

In the 1990s, Peru was in the grips of a brutal “anti-terrorism” campaign waged by President Fujimori. He is now disgraced, and has been imprisoned since 2007 for among other things, corruption, kidnapping and murder—but not, of course, for his myriad crimes against the urban and rural masses of Peru. Throughout the decade of his presidency, Fujimori was backed by both the Bush I and Clinton administrations. Peru received millions in U.S. military aid for the “war on drugs,” which the army and police prosecuted viciously in remote areas known to be guerrilla strongholds. Fujimori set up death squads that massacred indigenous peasants and disappeared leftists. At the behest of the IMF, he imposed austerity and privatized previously nationalized industries, which deepened the already desperate poverty in the cities and countryside. There were forced sterilization campaigns, which largely targeted the indigenous population. Any opposition to the regime was equated with terrorism; in an 18-month period alone, over 500,000 people had been detained.

The SL and PDC defended Berenson and all victims of this onslaught of right-wing repression. In December 1996, the MRTA spectacularly seized the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima, demanding freedom for 450 of their comrades (including Berenson) in exchange for the 72 high-ranking government officials, military officers and businessmen they held hostage. The siege lasted 126 days and ended in a bloodbath: government commandos stormed the villa and executed all 14 guerrillas. Understanding that this massacre would strengthen the hand of repressive regimes throughout the hemisphere, the SL and other sections of the International Communist League initiated or joined protests in major U.S. and Canadian cities as well as Mexico City, Tokyo and Berlin.

For her part, Berenson acquitted herself with honor under harsh and dangerous conditions. In 1996, with her conviction by hooded judges a foregone conclusion, she declared to the press: “In the MRTA there are no criminal terrorists. It is a revolutionary movement.” She used the publicity she received as an American to speak for the wounded and tortured prisoners who would never be heard. Over the years, Berenson continued to speak out on behalf of her fellow political prisoners and to denounce the horrific conditions under which they were held. She did not renounce her political views or the MRTA, even during her civil trial when hopes for her release were raised, despite widespread vilification of her in the Peruvian and American press.

The insufferable conditions that moved people like Lori Berenson to action still exist throughout South and Central America and indeed throughout the world. While Marxists understand the attraction of petty-bourgeois guerrillaism to radicalized students and intellectuals, we recognize that only the social power of the proletariat can root out the source of this social misery, the capitalist-imperialist system itself. While the peasantry is an amorphous class ranging from landless day laborers to well-to-do farmers who exploit the labor of others, the working class is concentrated and organized. It powers the capitalist engine and can lead all the oppressed—poor peasants, indigenous peoples, women—to achieve national liberation, agrarian revolution and modernization in countries plundered by imperialism.

Such historic gains can only be achieved through the conquest of power by the proletariat, that is, through socialist revolution—the expropriation of capitalist property and establishment of a planned collectivized economy. Ultimate victory for the toiling masses of Latin America requires international extension of the revolution to the bastion of U.S. imperialism and to other industrialized economies. This task requires a disciplined international organization of revolutionary working-class parties—a reforged Fourth International—that can link the struggles of the workers of the semicolonies to those in the imperialist centers.

* * *

(reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 1082, 29 January 2016)

Workers Vanguard is the newspaper of the Spartacist League with which the Partisan Defense Committee is affiliated.