Peru’s Garcia does about-face on German donation to build memorial museum for victims of political violence

A month after he was harshly criticized for rejecting Germany’s $2 million donation to build a museum to honor the memory of the 70,000 people who died during Peru’s 1980-2000 dirty war with Maoist Shining Path Guerrillas, President Alan Garcia has changed his mind, and announced that he will move forward with the museum’s construction.

Garcia made the unexpected announcement last week, after meeting privately with Mario Vargas Llosa — Peru’s foremost literary figure.

“It was a private and personal reunion,” Llosa was quoted saying by Peru.com. “I wasn’t there to represent anyone. I told (Garcia) that rejecting (Germany’s) offer was a grave error… we need a memorial museum to fight these intolerant, blind and obtuse attitudes that were generated by the political violence.”

On Tuesday, a high-level commission – passed into law by Presidential Decree – was created to coordinate, promote, organize and manage all aspects related to the construction, design and fundraising for the museum.

The Commission will be headed by Llosa, and integrated by public figures such as the Bishop emeritus of Chimbote, Monsignor Luis Bambarén, the former President of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Salomón Lerner, artist Fernando de Szyszlo, architect Frederick Cooper, executive director of the Andean Commission of Jurists, Enrique Bernales and anthropologist Juan Ossio Acuña.

The commission’s duty is to make sure that “the museum will objectively depict the spirit of the tragedy which occurred in Peru because of the subversive actions of the Shining Path and MRTA over the course of two decades, at the end of the 20th century,” reads the Presidential Decree.

The objective is “to show Peruvians the tragic consequences that result from fanatic ideology, violating the law and violating human rights.”

Last month, García admitted that the successive governments in the 20-year struggle committed “terrible abuses” but questioned the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report and said that Germany’s proposal for a museum did not “reflect the national vision.”

The donation from Germany was offered after a visit made last year by the German minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, to the Yuyanapaq exhibition, a photographic history of the 20-year war that is housed temporarily in the Museum of the Nation.

Though Garcia’s government did not at first respond officially to Germany’s offer, it later clearly rejected the project – sparking criticism from a wide spectrum of civil society, including artists, human rights and labor groups as well as intellectuals, such as Peru’s leading literary figure, Mario Vargas Llosa, painter Fernando de Szyszlo, and Liberation Theology leader Gustavo Gutierrez.

Criticism further mounted when Premier Yehude Simon – who spent years in prison on charges of terrorism – suggested that the funds could go toward reparations for the victims of the political violence and military repression, and when Defense Minister Ántero Flores Aráoz told a press conference that the funds should be used to tackle poverty and health care issues.

“If such pragmatism had prevailed in the past, the Prado, the Louvre, the National Gallery, and the Hermitage wouldn’t exist, and Machu Picchu would have been auctioned off to buy pencils and shoes,” Llosa said in response to Aráoz’s suggestion.

Five years after Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its report on two decades of political violence that left nearly 70,000 people dead, the nation is far from reconciled.

The commission produced its nine-volume, 5,000-page final report in August 2003, after collecting 17,000 private and public testimonies, some aired in 14 public hearings. The report determined that 54 percent of all deaths in the conflict were caused by the Maoist Shining Path insurgency. Peru’s armed forces were blamed for 30 percent, and most of the remainder by government-backed peasant militias.

Eighty-five percent of the victims were poor, Quechua-speaking Indians from the Ayacucho region and five other departments in Peru’s Andean highlands, a fact that the CVR report noted was proof of the country’s continuing exclusion and rejection of Andean peasants and their communities and traditions.

The government has failed to follow through with reparations to the families of victims or to exhume bodies from mass graves identified in the CVR report — a job that has fallen in large part to the independent Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team, a non-profit NGO. Human rights groups estimate that approximately 14,000 disappeared persons are still unaccounted for, and that nearly 5,000 clandestine graves have yet to be excavated.

The work of Peru’s Truth Commission is similar to experiences since the 1980s in South Africa and in other Latin American countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Chile, and Argentina, which popularized the famous slogan Nunca Más or “never again.”

Peru’s Truth Commission was created in 2001 by interim President Valentin Paniagua, months after Fujimori fled to Japan and his 10-year authoritarian government collapsed under the weight of corruption scandals spawned by his shadowy intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos.

The Commission’s report has never been accepted by the military nor by the political parties who governed the country during the 20-year war, namely Accion Popular (the Belaunde government), APRA during President Garcia’s first administration, and supporters of President Fujimori, who is currently on trial for human rights abuses committed during the latter years of the war. And although priests and religious leaders at grassroots level were witnesses to many of the events, Cardinal Luis Cipriani, whose own position during his time as Bishop of Ayacucho was severely questioned by human rights groups, has rejected the report outright on numerous occasions.

Part of the CVR’s work included the production of an exceptional photographic exhibition documenting Peru’s civil war. Titled “Yuyanapaq, to Remember,” the photographs, audios, videos and timelines depict events and stories to explain – and remember – the evolution of the war, massacres such as those of Uchuraccay, Pucayacu, Socos, Accomarca, and Lucanamarca, as well as the murder of social activist Maria Elena Moyano by the Shining Path, the Barrios Altos killings by a paramilitary death squad, the attack against the Tarata building in upscale Miraflores, the Chavín de Huantar military rescue operation, and the impact of violence in universities across Peru, in the central jungle, Raucana, Huaycán and the department of San Martín. The photographs were selected from the archives of leading news photographers and journalists who covered the war. The exhibition was housed at the Catholic University’s facilities in Chorrillos for the first year, and moved to the Museum of the Nation.

Human rights memorial museums – such as the one to be built in Peru – exist in countries like Argentina, Britain, Chile, the Czech Republic, Germany, Israel, Italy, Paraguay, Russia, Senegal, South Africa and Uruguay.

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