Against the Current, No. 34, September/October 1991
interviews Javier Diez Caseco Cisneros
Javier Diez Canseeo Cisneros is a longtime activist in the Peruvian student, workers’ and human rights’ movements. He was a founder in 1980 of the United Left—the coalition of Peru’s legal flit Left organizations–and general secretary of the United Mariateguista Party (PUM) from its formation in 1984 until 1987. Since 1985 he has been a member of the Peruvian Senate; he is spoken of as a future presidential candidate. Peter Drucker interviewed him for Against the Current in New York on March 23, 1991.
Against the Current: From everything one hears, the social crisis in Peru is horrific—seventy percent unemployment or underemployment, twelve million people in extreme poverty, living standards down to what they were thirty years ago, the recent cholera epidemic that has hit 60,000 people. Does the United Left or the PLIM see a way out of this crisis?
Diez Canseco: The basic question now is whether or not the Peruvian nation is possible. We have a choice between building up an independent nation or further developing a neocolonial structure subject to the whims of U.S. policy. For PUM and most of the left-wing organizations, the struggle involves trying to construct a national project that would unite several social and political forces with the basic objective of making Peru a possible nation.
This is a problem for several Latin American countries. But the Peruvian crisis is probably the worst of all: a very profound economic crisis and a very generalized crisis of the political structure.
ATC: The issue of Peru’s sovereignty reminds me of what the Sandinistas tried to do in Nicaragua. They accepted Nicaragua’s existence within the world capitalist economy and the U.S. sphere of influence while trying to carve out some degree of autonomy. Just the same, they were fiercely punished by the United States. What sort of lessons do the PUM and the United Left draw from that experience?
DO: All Latin American struggles for sovereignty have met very intense U.S. opposition. This reality compounds the problems we already have, but it is impossible to avoid.
In Nicaragua, the idea of working from a pluralist economic structure recognized the problems that a centralized, planned economy has. This is something we have to learn from what happened in Eastern Europe. This was also the basis [in Nicaragua] for a very broad political front, which did not just include peasants, proletarians, and the urban poor, but also part of the Nicaraguan bourgeoisie. This program strengthened the possibility of resisting the foreign offensive, allowing the Sandinistas to last as many years as they did.
But they have also acknowledged that they need a more democratic party structure and more participation. In the current world situation, only a national project based on a very broad popular hegemony can succeed. This is one of the basic guarantees, for example, for Cuba.
A sovereign nation and a national project cannot exist as an island. We once thought that we could satisfy all our basic needs, develop our own technology, meet our own food requirements, build up our own basic industry. But we are not continent-nations. We must work inside the world system, which is not of our choosing, and have an economic and political relationship with it So the basic idea is to isolate the central enemy, to build up relationships with others.
ATC: You’ve talked about building a broad ‘national popular unity- in Peru, including–but also braider than—the United Left. It sounds like you’re saying it should include at least a segment of the Peruvian bourgeoisie. But my reading of the Nicaraguan experience was that whenever the popular organizations were strong they posed threats to the alliances the Sandinistas wanted to build with some sectors of the bourgeoisie.
DC: We see a need for a broad social front in the country, including sectors of the Peruvian bourgeoisie. What sectors? Peru has a very broad informal economy based largely on individual labor, very small industry, and what you could call a medium bourgeoisie working for the internal market They are interested in widening their markets, and exporting if they can.
We think these groups should be supported. They have a different ethnic and cultural composition than the big bourgeoisie. They generally favor decentralization and regionalism, giving them several points of contact with grassroots organizations.
We will obviously have contradictions with big capitalist firms. A lot of these companies are already prepared to leave whenever they think it’s necessary, and they invest nothing. They simply take out what they can. We also have very big ecological problems with some of these companies, like Southern Peru Copper Corporation—owned by Asarco—which has destroyed a great amount of land and sea life through mining.
ATC: You’ve criticized the United Left, in hindsight, for having called for a vote for [A!berto] Fujimori [the current Peruvian president] against fMario] Vargas Llosa, [a novelist who was backed by the traditional right and the Catholic Church] in the second round of the last presidential elections [in 1990], and for having authorized members of the United Left to take ministerial positions under Fujimori. Does this alter the conception of “national popular unity” that you’ve been developing?
DC: First of all, I must say that the PUM also called for a vote for Fujimori, and that it has also criticized the decision it made. We thought that we should oppose Vargas Llcsa, who represented the most openly pro-imperialist options and the country’s big bourgeoisie.
For the PUM, the vote for Fujimori was not only a vote for an alternative to Vargas Liosa. Fujimori also said that he would have a non-“shock” economic program and that he would respect human rights. As a candidate without an organized political structure, Fujomori was potentially more receptive to popular demands and popular pressure.
We hoped that if he was not going to have a “shock’ economic program, he would have to look to the center-left and the popular grassroots structures for his support.
We did not realize that Fujimori would simply shift sides and get support from the military and the imperialist forces. And that’s what he did—as previous historical examples concerning leaders like him should have indicated he would. This is the criticism that we feel we must make of our own choice.
But the United Left had even greater illusions. They felt that a vote for Fujimori was not only a vote against Vargas Llosa, but also a chance for programmatic contacts between Fujimori and the United Left, something PUM never said. It was obvious that Fujimori didn’t have the program of the United Left, and that he had a very vague conception of national problems.
This basic error weakened the national coalition. The PUM consequently left the National Committee of the United Left, and we are staying only in the committees in the departments and the base structures.
We must work now for a broader front—one in which the forces of the organized Left would participate. But our coalition should also try to attract leaders of the popular movement who are not necessarily identified with any one party.
ATC: So do you think that a broader front might actually be further to the left than the current United Left, or less inclined to make concessions to the Fujimori government?
DC: Yes. Given the national crisis, the state has abandoned a lot of its responsibilities—for health programs, educational programs, housing programs, even for public order. There’s a lot of space—politically and even geographically.—in which you could speak of a “state vacuum” People can fill this vacant space, making their own decisions and imposing their own alternatives. This, we feel, is the seed of a new power, the beginning of a new sort of democracy.
ATC: Building direct democracy from below raises the question of human rights. In defending the rights of these organizations and protesting abuses, the front of your house was blown away, and your legal assistant had his arm blown off by a letter bomb. As you build this alternative power, how do you deal with the armed forces and police forces of the existing state, which have had a major share in the anti-popular violence and repression?
DC: We have a lot of problems with the state—and with Shining Path [a strong Maoist guerilla group, officially called Communist Party of Peru—Shining Path of Jose Luis Mariategui], because it is authoritarian, sectarian and terrorist in its political actions. We’re trying to build up the self-defense structures of the grassroots organizations and the parties so that people can resist the violence imposed on them. When we speak of self-defense, we also speak of people organizing intelligence activities, so as to be permanently on guard. We speak of counter-intelligence activities to prevent penetration by agents provocateurs.
Peru has a very interesting experience with “rondas campesinas”—a sort of peasant guard—which has grown quite intensely in the north Sierra to fight cattle rustlers because the state is not present there. People there have learned that when they catch a cattle rustler and take him to the police, he will often be released and come back So now if they catch a cattle rustler, they will try him and then open a re-educations process inside the community.
In several cases, cattle rustlers have been obliged to participate in the peasant guard under observation. In other cases they have been harshly punished. Internal conflicts inside the peasant communities are beginning to be solved inside. They are slowly building up new forms of authority.
ATC: In the long run, could you foresee popular self-defense groups evolving into a centralized popular armed force that would replace the armed force of the state?
DC: We are not talking about replacing the armed forces. We want to replace their ideology and strategic conception. But self-defense structures have a great responsibility in dealing with public order problems in a broader and more participatory way.
ATC: Let’s turn for a moment to Shining Path. You and I would agree in rejecting the kind of project that Shining Path represents: the sectarianism, the authoritarianism, the violence against the rest of the Left. And yet your project and the project of the United Left is weaker today than it was when it was formed [in 19801, whereas Shining Path has gathered strength. Would you agree with this assessment? Do you draw any conclusions from it?
DC: The Shining Path movement has grown—but as a military structure. There are a lot of terrible problems, and a lot of people are tired of the inefficiency and of the corrupt state structure. The Shining Path has based its growth on very authoritarian methods, in the face of a state that is withdrawing from several areas. Their growth is based on the fact that some young people, without any other opportunities, are attracted by the idea of force and power.
But they haven’t reached the level that the FMLN has reached in El Salvador, even though they’ve had military operations for almost the same amount of time. They have no regular forces. And they have evidently been prevented from making the leap from military development to political, mass development They have limited mass political support Their philosophy is to deal with contradictions by eliminating the other pole: In politics, that means terrorizing or shooting their opponent.
Shining Path is at one and the same time the party, the front, the state, and the class—it is everything. You can grow by this method, if you have the force to impose an authoritarian alternative. But you won’t grow politically.
The Left also shares responsibility for the growth of Shining Path, because it did not put forward effective alternatives or a project for taking power nationally when it should have The Left’s use of traditional methods has identified it in public opinion with the traditional political parties. We should criticize ourselves not only for our political message but also for our political methods. We have not been rigorous in finding new political methods.
ATC: My understanding is that Shining Path has gotten a lot of its financing by a kind of taxation on the drug trade. This raises a question for any democratic popular project in Peru, since the export of coca Is one of the few things that keeps Peru afloat in the world capitalist economy. What would you propose for the future for coca cultivation? What would you do about the trade?
DC: First of all, we don’t deal with coca as a drug problem. Coca is one thing, drug trafficking is another. Coca has a historical, cultural, popular basis in the country. Coca is linked to Qechua and Aymara culture, and it can be used to produce an anesthetic, kidney medicines, medicine for diabetes, diet aids, mouthwash, coca ‘wine, and coca tea (which maintains blood pressure at high altitudes). Coca can also be used as food. It is a natural resource of the country.
For Peru, coca represents not $700 million, but between $1 billion and $1.5 billion a year—between thirty and fifty percent of our national legal exports. You can’t explain national survival without those dollars. There are more than one million Peruvians who play some part in coca leaf production or the drug traffic.
The basis for drug traffic is under development in Third World countries. Terrible terms of world trade force us to pay more every year to buy less. This gives Third World countries no basis for competitive exports other than drugs.
Moreover, in the using countries, drug use is just a manifestation of even bigger problems. You can’t use a Marine Corps intervention to solve national frustrations and complex problems like these. These problems must be dealt with in alternative ways: through regional and national development programs, other kinds of production with coca, the alternative crops that we could grow if we had the electricity and roads to export them, and changes in the international economic order.
We’re opposed to linking the drug problem to the foreign debt, as the new agreement with the United States does. We’re also opposed to making political changes through an international agreement This is a form of neocolonialism.
ATC: In overcoming the neocolonialism afflicting all of Latin America, do you take social transformations in other countries into account? For example, ff1 were in Peru, I would be looking to the strength of the Brazilian Workers Party. Do you think that several Latin American countries together might be able to actually make a transition to sociaiism?
DC: Our international policy obviously must try to work toward Latin American unity. This is not easy. It is very hard to imagine that the political process in all of these countries will develop at the same rhythm and the same time toward a possibility of international unity. The U.S. government and other governments of the more developed capitalist countries have worked quite intensely to impose fragmentation on the Third World. They always try to impose a bilateral relationship; they don’t want a multilateral relationship to discuss the problems.
We are working quite intensely with other political parties of Latin America on the idea of a Latin American platform. The Latin American platform should deal with several basic problems: the foreign debt, the drug problem, national sovereignty, the international world order, and several other issues, which should permit united action. We have had several meetings: in Nicaragua, and last year in Brazil.
We’re working now on a new meeting in Mexico [this conference of parties of the Latin American Left has subsequently taken place–ed.], to discuss Mr. Bush’s “Initiative of the Americas” and a Latin American alternative for the unity of markets and technologies. We want to see united concrete actions, not only across Latin America but with people in the more developed capitalist countries. It’s obvious that Latin American countries will have true sovereignty only if they integrate themselves.
© 2020 Against the Current
September/October 1991, ATC 34