I Do Not Know the “O”

“Yo no conozco la O” (I do not know the “O”) is the beginning of a poem that Susana Baca sang to us at the home she shares with her partner Ricardo Pereira in Cañete, 90 miles south of Lima. This poem was not a coincidence. By reciting it, Susana and Ricardo wanted to convey a message to us about Afro-Peruvian history, which is rife with suffering, discrimination, and ignorance.

This poem is a reflection of the analphabetism and lack of education among Afro-Peruvians stemming from a long history of abuse and marginalization. Although Susana and Ricardo told us that the exact origin of Afro-Peruvians is not well-identified, what is known for sure is that they were brought to Perú as slaves to work in sugarcane and cotton fields, in construction, as housekeepers, and in other forms of basic labor. As they explained, this background is responsible to a large degree for the current reality of the Afro-Peruvian population, a reality they are committed to overcoming.

But let’s talk about some history first to understand the meaning of their work.

From what is possible to read about Afro-Peruvian history online as we’re traveling in the country, the first African slaves were brought to Peru by the Spaniards in 1502 to reverse decreasing indigenous labor. Between that year and 1700, about three million Africans were violently uprooted from their lands and brought to Perú in terrible conditions, from beginning to end. They were transported in special ships called “Coffins” or “Tumbeiros,” since only half of them arrived alive in Peru. Upon arrival, they were chained and sold to “hacendados” and city dwellers, who forced them to do hard labor. At the beginning of the 18th century, the “negros cimarrones” (rebel Afro-Peruvian slaves) formed the so called “rancherías,” which were hidden around Lima.  These rancherías grew in number, and became rural settlements. The end of slavery finally came in 1854 under the presidency of Ramón Castilla.

The end of slavery, however, didn’t mean the end of unequal conditions in Peruvian society. According to the Agency for Afro-Peruvian Population Policies of Perú’s Ministry of Culture, most of the Afro-Peruvian population still lives under poverty conditions. More than 30% receive an income lower than the minimum salary, and the portion that receives a salary twice the minimum is nonetheless 11% lower than the national average. The agency links this reality to a lack of access to higher education, in which the presence of young Afro-Peruvians is 6% lower than the national average.

This reality, according to Susana and Ricardo, is unknown not only to people outside Perú, but also to the same Afro-Peruvian population, since the Spaniards also fought hard to erase all trace of their roots and cultural heritage. Nevertheless, there is still a strong cultural heritage among the Afro-Peruvian population that is expressed through African sounds in beautiful lyrics, the sounds of Peruvian guitars, and Peruvian cajón rhythms.

It is in this field where Susana and Ricardo work diligently to change history. Through research, music, and social work, they are trying to translate and make the Afro-Peruvian culture visible.  One sign of their success was, of course, when Susana won a Grammy Award in 2001. But most important for them is the work that they’re doing in Cañete, where they are in the process of creating an Afro-Peruvian culture museum that acknowledges interethnic and cross-cultural influences over time, and also a school of Afro-Peruvian music for the youth.

The importance of making Peruvians and the world aware of Afro-Peruvian music and culture is a way of contributing to the perpetuation of their culture. If you don’t believe or don’t understand the impact of these kinds of initiatives, please try to go to Cañete, or to Don Porfirio in Lima where Afro-Peruvian dance and music thrive. You can even search songs on YouTube. I’m sure that you will understand what I’m talking about once you listen to this incredible music.

– Valentina Saavedra Gómez


The Peruvian Truth [and Reconciliation] Commission and Its Lessons for Southern Africa

On our final day in Lima, we had the great privilege of meeting with Félix Reátegui at the Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, based in La Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú. Reátegui is a sociologist and human rights activist who played a key role in the design and implementation of Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) initiated in 2001. The commission – initially dubbed the “truth commission” and later rebranded to include “reconciliation” in its title – was a response to the violent internal conflict that wracked Peru between 1980, just as the country had attempted to return to civilian rule and restore democracy, and 2000.  Reátegui coordinated the TRC’s final report, delivered to the Peruvian president in 2003. The report estimated that approximately 70,000 people died during this period of violence. Thousands more were ‘disappeared’ – never to be heard from again.

The atrocities committed in Peru were perpetrated by both terrorist insurgencies and government forces simultaneously. The notorious ‘Shining Path’ – a Maoist splinter group of Peru’s communist party – committed the majority of the atrocities (54%), but they were not alone in contributing to the high death toll. In an effort to crush the violent insurgencies of the ‘Shining Path’, the government unleashed its security forces to fight terror with terror. The commission reported that government forces were responsible for 38% of the total deaths. In addition, the terrorist group launched in the early 1980s, the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (commonly known as MRTA), was ultimately found to be responsible for 1.5% of lives lost. (1) The period of instability and violence came to an end in 2000 shortly before President Alberto Fujimori fled to Japan following a corruption scandal that abruptly ended his repressive rule.

I had a keen interest in Reátegui’s presentation about Peru’s truth-telling process for two main reasons. Firstly, as a South African citizen my tertiary education in my country of birth was overshadowed by the legacy of apartheid and swathed in references to South Africa’s own TRC. The South African TRC has gained international recognition as a precedent-setting attempt to build bridges in a highly polarized society with a history of human rights violations. Secondly, my work in Zimbabwe exposed me to the state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing of the early 1980s, leading me to believe that the country cannot forge a unified future until a truth-telling process is undertaken. I had high hopes that Reátegui’s presentation on the Peruvian TRC would provide me with a comparative angle on South Africa’s TRC, as well as with a framework in which a similar commission could be designed and implemented in the Zimbabwean context. I was not disappointed.

I was fascinated to learn that Peru’s truth-telling process began with the mothers of victims who demanded to know the whereabouts of their loved ones. Knocking on the doors of police stations and petitioning at the gates of military bases, these brave women sought answers that they would not receive for many years to come. The voices of these women fell on the deaf ears of a state that was concurrently ignoring the prolific Amnesty International reporting on the same concerns. When the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established in 2001, it was mandated to explore and expose the atrocities, while also being a tool for reconciliation. Amidst discussing the technical details of the TRC’s mandate, Reátegui highlighted the fact that the commission sought to enlighten Peruvian citizens of the socio-structural flaws that allowed the violence to occur in the first place. The commission engaged an ethnographic approach to shed light on this – and concluded that pervasive racism and systemic marginalization were key components in the formation of a context ripe for violence. This approach is particularly important for the prevention of future atrocities. If we do not understand the underlying societal fault lines that lead to outbreaks of violence and human rights abuses, we end up treating symptoms rather than root causes.

South Africa’s TRC could have benefitted tremendously from embracing the sociological approach adopted in Peru. The South African TRC did not sufficiently focus on the political economy of apartheid and contained very little interrogation of the societal circumstances that allowed a white minority government to oppress the nation. Colonialism and white minority rule were a common heritage for many Southern African countries, and in similar ways it would appear that the more pressing concerns of the TRC eclipsed the need to raise national consciousness concerning the broad lack of equality and inherent human dignity in South African society. In addition, the emphasis on securing confessions from perpetrators (many of whom were low-level officials and not powerful politicians) detracted from assigning any blame to bystanders who merely benefitted from apartheid but did not consider themselves complicit. These two elements of the TRC have contributed, I believe, to substantial social unrest twenty years into the ‘new’ South Africa. While truth-telling and perpetrator confessions did mark a significant moment in the country’s history, these aspects of the TRC were not enough to develop social cohesion moving forward. If South Africa’s TRC had embraced more of a victim-centered ethnographic approach as was done in Peru, perhaps this could have been avoided.

During Reátegui’s presentation, I noticed that he discussed the reconciliation portion of the commission’s mandate with great caution. At first I was disappointed because I was particularly interested to hear an in-depth analysis of the best practices and lessons learnt in this area to see if any of these could be applied to the Zimbabwe situation. In a society divided along both ethnic and political lines, I have long felt that reconciliation would be an essential component of any truth-telling process in the country. When pressed to provide more details in this area, Reátegui raised several fascinating points that made me deeply interrogate my presupposition that reconciliation is a necessary component of a truth-telling commission. He pointed out that “reconciliation is often a euphemism for establishing impunity pacts” where the burden is unduly placed on victims in disparate power relationships with both society and their perpetrators. Sometimes, victims’ experiences are seen merely as an “inconvenience” to the daily life of a community or an obstacle to restoring peace and social cohesion, rather than a personal lived experience that results in significant damage. Forgiveness is a personal matter, and forcing reconciliation in a truth-telling process could lead to unintended secondary victimization. Reátegui also pointed out that TRCs have recently become somewhat of a “fetish.” Sometimes a TRC is not the best choice for dealing with human rights violations, and other tools exist in which to document and memorialize – and in some cases seek justice for – the abuses suffered by victims. Perhaps reconciliation should never be included in a truth commission’s mandate? Perhaps reconciliation is never possible unless its impetus arises from the victims themselves?

This blog post cannot begin to do justice to the details of our three-hour conversation at the Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, but I hope it has provided a small window into the insights imparted to us during our meeting in Lima. I am inspired by the passion and commitment of Félix Reátegui and count myself privileged to have had the opportunity to learn from a man with such invaluable experience.

– Chloë McGrath

1. United States Institute of Peace (2001) Peru: Truth Commission, Truth Commissions Digital Collection [Accessed online: http://www.usip.org/publications/truth-commission-peru-01%5D