Beyond Enigma: An Agenda for Interpreting Shining Path
and Peru, 1980-1995
Enigma, exoticism, surprise: These sensibilities have often
marked discussion of Peru during the profound political upheaval and vio-
lence that marked the 1980s and early 1990s. An aura of enigma has
often swirled around the theme ofSendero Luminoso ("Shining Path"), the
Maoist political party that proclaimed an insurrectionary war in May 1980.
Sendero launched its war conventionally enough by burning ballot boxes in
Chuschi, a pueblo in the Ayacucho region of Peru's center-south highlands.
But the symbols used later that year to announce the war in Lima, the capi-
tal city and national media center, seemed exotic expressions that invited
ridicule. Limenos awoke to the sight of dead dogs tied to lamp posts and
traffic lights. The accompanying signs proclaimed "Deng Xiaoping, Son of a
Bitch," as if mention of the architect of counterrevolution in China were a
sufficient and relevant political explanation.!
Given the distant preoccupations and arcane symbolism of Sendero, and
the participation of most of the Left in Peru's return to electoral politics
and civilian government after an extended period of military rule (1968-
1980), the Maoist sect's declaration of war seemed out of step with Peruvian
history. Given the snobbery, racism, and indifference that attended Limeno
perceptions of the highland Department of Ayacucho-the birthplace of
Sendero, noted mainly for the confluence of an extremely impoverished
indigenous peasantry in the countryside and a politically effervescent uni-
versity culture in the region's small capital city-Sendero also seemed an
expression of isolation and peculiarity. Odd political trajectories, proclama-
tions, and utopias might mark the political world of educated mestizos and
Andean Indians in faraway, backward highland provinces.
The surprises that lay in store added to the enigmatic aura. After all, in