Peru: Interview with Political Prisoner Lori Berenson

Lori Berenson

American activist Lori Berenson was pulled off a bus in Peru in November of 1995, detained by anti-terrorist police, and tried for treason against the Peruvian state by a hooded military tribunal. A gun was held to her head as she received her sentence: life in prison. 

Lori Berenson

American activist Lori Berenson was pulled off a bus in Peru in November of 1995, detained by anti-terrorist police, and tried for treason against the Peruvian state by a hooded military tribunal. A gun was held to her head as she received her sentence: life in prison. Accused of being a leader of the MRTA (Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement), Lori was one of thousands of people kidnapped, tortured, disappeared, and/or imprisoned during then-president Alberto Fujimori’s campaign to defeat rebel groups.

At the time of Lori’s first "trial," Peru was emerging from over a decade of bloody civil war, fought between leftist guerillas and the Peruvian military. Two major armed movements fought the Peruvian government, the MRTA and Sendero Luminoso, the Maoist Shining Path. Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has estimated that approximately 70,000 people were killed between 1980 and 2000. Seventy-five percent of the victims were indigenous people, mostly Quechua, a number vastly out of proportion to their 16% share of the national population. The Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission holds the government (through its military, police and intelligence apparatus along with paramilitary units) responsible for at least 45% of those deaths-compared to the MRTA who caused less than 2% of mortalities during the civil war. The Shining Path was deemed responsible for the majority – 53%.

This interview with Lori Berenson took place shortly before the first of a series of trials of Alberto Fujimori began in Lima. Last December, the former president was sentenced to six years in prison for abuse of authority, the first of three charges. His second trial, for human rights abuses including homicide and kidnapping, resumed July 14th, 2008. Ironically, if he is found guilty on all counts, Fujimori could serve up to 30 years in prison-just ten years more than Lori Berenson is currently serving. However, since Fujimori turns seventy this year, he is eligible under Peruvian law for a reduced sentence served under house arrest.

In this interview, Lori discusses how she maintains her hope while in prison, what she believes it takes to effect real and lasting social change, the emerging ‘New Left’ in Latin America, and why women political prisoners are perceived as a threat to social stability.

What’s the hardest thing for you about being in prison?

Frustration! You don’t have control of your own life. People don’t treat you like an adult. People are afraid to tell you that someone’s sick. You are unable to deal with your own problems, either economic or otherwise. You feel sort of – in Spanish it would be impotencia – you can’t do anything. The prison authorities beat someone up, you can’t do anything. Someone’s sick, you can’t do anything. You need to write a letter to someone and you can’t mail it. Frustration.

How do you maintain your hope and political conviction in a place as oppressive and confining and limiting as prison? What can you say about the prison system?

Each of the prisons I’ve lived in has provided a direct experience of why I think this prison system needs to change. Certainly, the first years I was in jail were very repressive years. Even in the last few years, you can still see the mistreatment of poor people. You can see it when they are presented before the judges, and you can see it in daily treatment. It’s money: those who don’t have money are not equal citizens. It’s a very defined class differentiation.

What advice do you have for young people who want real and lasting change?

I think that today’s young people have a really strong responsibility upon them. I’m no expert in any topic, but what I’ve heard about the environment is that there won’t be much water in Peru in 20 years. Unless people start changing the way they live day to day, and unless people dedicate themselves to making superpowers change their environmentally destructive habits, then things will be hell on earth in 5 to 10 years. And that’s just about the environment! Every war that superpowers like the U.S. wage mainly for economic interest is harmful on many levels – including mass killing of people. We’re seeing a drastic situation, basically,

What do you think are the major components of a successful political movement?

At this point, I think there are two things. One is that you have to decide what "star" you are looking to follow. I think most of the left (i.e., "progressive people") have a lot of confusion as to where they are going right now. And that is not helpful. What I find very negative, and what I’ve certainly seen here and in El Salvador, is that when you have a very divided left and progressive circle you go nowhere. You just wind up with everyone in their own little cube doing nothing. At least for me, if you want to be in your little cube, just fight your own struggle, don’t fight your struggle on the basis of saying, "Oh, so and so is worse." In the presidential campaign here in Peru, the most pathetic thing I’ve seen was one segment of the left criticizing other segments.

You’ve been outlining your first point about a successful social movement. What is your second point about?

On certain issues, it is important that there be unity among progressives and leftists. For example, in the U.S., what might be a principal point is to stop the war in Iraq immediately and not permit that there be another war like that. From what I hear on the radio, that’s something that the left has in common with many from the Democratic Party. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. What issues are big enough? Protecting the environment! These are things that a lot of sectors can unite to do.

The other thing is that the left needs to look for where to go. I don’t think we need to look for a guide, someone who is going to say, "Do this." We need to sit down and think: What was good about what used to be regarded as the standards of the left before the falling of the Soviet block? What things were good, what things were not? What things need to be changed, what things shouldn’t exist? That kind of thing. We must learn from what was good and what was bad. But it’s time to do it, because I think we’re sitting around too long – myself included, by the way.

What lesson would you want to pass on to other activists, particularly young activists?

Go ahead with whatever you’re doing. I admire and I’m proud of the fact that there are still people who think that there are streets in which other people roam, and that things are not really what the press says, and that it is necessary to look out farther than what you can see from the windowsill. This is in spite of the fact that I think there is a proliferating move throughout the world to create individuals that live in their own little cubes. You go, and you see, that the world isn’t really what you think it is, and that it is that way maybe not for the reasons that the mainstream press says. It is necessary to think and to do – and not to sit and wait.

What is your hope for the future? Your future, and the future of movements you’ve been involved in?

I don’t think the future is going to be better in the short term. I’m not that hopeful about the governments in power. Even the trend in this region doesn’t give me much hope for solid structural change. You can have certain reforms that could be helpful, you can give spaces to the political or popular movement, allow them to do things they haven’t been able to under very repressive regimes, but it doesn’t mean there is a substantial change. The rules of the game haven’t changed. And unless those change, nothing will. It’s time to get back to discovering where we want to go, and while we’re discovering that, just start walking.

Do you have hope for the Chavez/Morales movement in Latin America, the threat of having a unified Latin American bloc that could potentially create solidarity among Latin American countries? What do you think about that?

I think it’s important that there be solidarity. But I don’t have enough information to know what they are really doing or not. What is clear to me is that it is still not possible to change the rules of the game. That’s the issue. You have to get to that place. It’s good that they feel this way. Certainly here in Peru the leaders seem to be afraid of something about the Chavez movement. What are they so afraid of? And the Peruvians are very afraid. And much of the U.S. is too. Actually, I think that they are giving us a hand on that. By making bigger deals out of things, they are actually unifying the left on certain things. Well, thank you!

What is your opinion of the war on Iraq, and do you see that fitting into the history of imperialism in Latin America?

I don’t know enough about history to give a historical background, but I think it’s more complicated in the sense that the economic interests are very big. It’s not only the interest in petroleum-it’s the interest in making a war and making peace-so that a lot of money is invested in destruction and the rest invested in reconstruction, which is disgusting. But then on social terms, I would say that they saw fighting as a way of uniting the U.S. after September 11th and making it feel strong. The heroes and Rambos-I’m not sure if that’s the correct name in today’s movies-but that kind of figure that’s going to go in there and kill all the bad guys. I also think the whole "hyping up" on nationalism is the other thing they intended to do.

You saw, because of your involvement with struggles in El Salvador, what happens when damaging policy is directed at a specific group of people. I’m curious if you see the war on Iraq as a parallel to that, as part of U.S. expansion and hegemony?

I think it is, but I wouldn’t make a parallel with Central America. I think Iraq is a much more powerful country, and I think there are other issues involved, like pride of the nations that are situated close to Iraq. I think it’s a much more complicated issue. And I don’t think the United States really took that into account. Vietnam, for example, was more isolated, whereas Iraq is not. And Vietnam didn’t have petroleum.

What is horrifying as well in Iraq is that so many historical relics and architecture have been destroyed-and no one seems to care. That’s never mentioned, ever, just as all the civilians killed are never mentioned. I think the U.S. has opened a big can of worms and they don’t know how to close it; at this point, they don’t know how to pull out.

Do you expect to be paroled in 2010, and what is your hope for your future?

I should be paroled but I’m not sure. I think many things can happen. The only thing that’s been constant over the last sixteen to twenty years is that the terrorists are the bad people. During the ten-year regime of Fujimori, Alan García was in exile for corruption – and now he is president again. Who knows how Fujimori’s trial will be, and how he will be regarded in about five years. But what has been a constant is that terrorists are terrorists, at least in the media. If it is really perceived as a danger, then political prisoners who are higher profile won’t be released, and I won’t be released on parole when I become eligible.

What tactics do you use to stay sane?

I was once asked a similar question: "How do people cope with prisons?" There are a variety of tactics. One is escaping from it in your mind – people get high, people do a whole bunch of things. In the case of myself, and most political prisoners I have known, the thing would be the confidence that whatever you believed in was right. So I think that has not changed. And you might have a good day or a bad day, I mean, when it rains everyone gets sort of gloomy, but even so, you don’t forget that you have that.

What messages do you have for Mumia?

My greatest respect to him and to all the political prisoners I’ve read so much about over these last several years. Keep struggling, because you’re right! This isn’t just a message for him, but to those who need to move on such issues so that his situation, and the situation of others like him, can change. There needs to be knowledge and consciousness of the need for these things to change. These are people who are victims of a state’s oppressive ways.

Do you think labeling people ‘terrorists’ will get old, like labeling people as ‘Communists’ did?

I still have the pieces that we wrote on this three or four years ago, saying ‘No, we’re subversives, we’re political prisoners, we are not terrorists. Terrorism means actions that cause terror, that try to create terror.’ I think I spent so much time trying to explain it to people, where it got to the point, after years of that, that I realized people still use the word terrorist and it doesn’t really change anything. Those who will feel deterred by the word might feel deterred by it anyway, and those who can see through the paint will do so as well. So this is a point on which I’ve definitely changed over the last three or four years, in the sense that it really doesn’t matter. You want to call me a terrorist? Call me a terrorist! It really doesn’t change anything. I know I am not a terrorist.

Yes! I remember growing up in a peak period of the Cold War, in an era when they would say the Russians are going to invade and whatnot, and all these communists, they are doing this and that. And you know? People became immune to that.

How do you see consumer culture affecting the types of crimes that are committed, and the aspirations that young people have?

Cajamarca, where this prison is located, used to be a small town, but since ’94 became a tremendous mining center. So it has grown but has not developed. All of the wonders of capitalist society have come here: the people now have giant shopping centers, filled with all sorts of junk that no one really needs, but they don’t have the education, the other side of development here. And that creates ‘created needs’. I would say, in general, in all of the societies that follow the model of the U.S. there are consumer cultures. Many people rob because they want what’s in style. They are taught since they are kids they need to consume; they need to be stylish; that these objects are a necessity. So what is a necessity is no longer food and water, but a whole bunch of junk. And those created needs are what drive people to different kinds of crimes, combined with the fact that there is no way of making enough money legally to get those kinds of things.

In that same vein, what has the mine brought here or not brought here? Has the promise of having industry in the town delivered or not delivered? What do people think of the mines?

Very mixed. Cajamarca doesn’t have industry related to the mine. What they have is a lot of services. The whole service sector in Cajamarca is related to the mine. Which means that most people, indirectly, might be providing for someone who works at the mine, or whatever. It’s very hard to do anything that is totally isolated from the mine. It’s everywhere. You hear it on the radio: they have paid ads talking about the environment. That’s what they do.

A woman in the line outside said that the only crime people in prison here have committed is de ser pobre, to be poor. What do you think of that?

I think that’s true on different levels. There are actually cases of police picking people up for stealing pañales [diapers]. In order for someone to give birth in a hospital they need to have their diapers, they need to have syringes, and surgical gloves. There have been people caught stealing diapers so that their wives can give birth. So that is an example of people stealing to meet their needs in a crude sense.

People are in here because of poverty on many levels: they don’t have enough money to buy off a judge, or enough money for a decent defense, though a decent defense is almost irrelevant with this legal system. In a good number of cases people without knowledge – poor in the sense that they don’t have a good education because wherever they are from doesn’t have a good enough education system, or because they’ve worked since they were kids – say things wrong when they talk to the police. They don’t answer the questions right because they were never educated to answer those kinds of questions. They get surprised by the authorities, or physically brutalized by them, which is always helpful in having them sign whatever they [the police] want. And this happens because people don’t know.

It’s poverty in the sense that you can’t do anything with your case, you can’t help out in the moving of papers from one desk to the next. This is often the case in the judicial system and the prison system in terms of benefits, like parole. They can take forever if you don’t have money.

How does the prison climate shift and change as there are fewer political prisoners in here with you?

It’s interesting because the last year that there were a fair amount of political prisoners in here was probably 2004. There have been other types of changes. For example, in 2003 the government replaced the police in internal control of the prison system. At the end of 2003 other types of prisoners started to be brought here from coast jails. In the last two or three years, however, prisoners brought here are often people being caught in Cajamarca who are not from Cajamarca. This has to do with the accelerated growth in Cajamarca, unrelated to development; so the city doesn’t develop its own criminals, it imports people to rob! I’m totally serious! People plan to come and rob here because they know so few people are doing this here. And so there have been a whole lot of people detained here who are not from this region in the last two or three years. It’s a very new experience.

The Cajamarca mines have created new needs, like drugs and prostitution. They always mix prostitution in there. These things create other kinds of violence. Now there are people here for drugs because Cajamarca is part of a drug route.

The other point to make is that there have been some crime categories for which prison benefits such as parole and work equivalence have been removed. In the case of rape, the sentences have been made much more drastic, and prison benefits have been removed from most if not all cases. The same has occurred in the cases of kidnapping and extortion. So now there is a greater number of crime categories that don’t have the right to benefits. The prison population is growing just on the fact that there are people who would have gotten out in the past but are not anymore.

I assume that women are in the minority here. What is it like being one of the only women in this prison?

Here I would say it’s actually a privilege. In this prison, the women have been treated well. Generally, treatment of women is much harsher. But the difference here is that there are so few of us. For instance, we have a sewing workshop that none of us can use because we don’t know how to work the machines, but it was donated to the women because there are few of us, so we could benefit from it. So in that sense we actually benefit because we are only a few. Sometimes the doctor won’t attend the men because there are 500 of them, but they will attend the women because there are approximately thirty women here.

Why is treatment generally harsher in women’s wings, and how has that been your experience?

I am sure that if you speak to other women prisoners they will say the same things. I think it has to do with a lot of idiosyncrasies. One is the way the authorities see women: once you leave the roles that were given to you by society, then you have to accept what you get. With women, the treatment usually is very demeaning. I remember when I was in Arequipa they called us hijas (daughters). "I look at you as if you are my daughters." That is very offensive! It’s very demeaning. The worst thing in the treatment of women is that they don’t treat you like adults. Men can be roughened up a lot, mistreated, spoken too grotesquely, but they are never treated like children. And women always are. That’s the biggest difference.

The other thing is, in terms of political prisoners, I definitely think that female political prisoners are seen as a greater threat.

Why do you think that is?

One of the things they always say, and you can read this in cases, particularly in the case of the Shining Path, they always say, "Oh, the ones from the assassination squadrons are cold blooded, and they are always women." I remember hearing something similar when I lived in El Salvador. I think it’s this fear that a woman, when she is politically clear on things, is supposedly firmer in her beliefs. The torture of women has been horrendous- how many women have had kids in jail because of rape? It has to do with revenge. They committed the crime of leaving the roles that were given to them, and then on top of that being subversives, and on top of that, being firm in their beliefs.

I remember a woman who was recently sentenced to thirty years for something she didn’t do. I think it was largely because of the fact that when she was detained by the police she refused to speak, she refused to self-incriminate, and they said, "She’s too strong, she’s got to be a leader." She withstood the torture, withstood everything. And that was probably the reason she got a thirty-year sentence.

For more information, visit the Committee to Free Lori Berenson: