by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
January 3, 2002
NOTHING GOOD EVER SEEMS TO HAPPEN TO PERU
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Shocking and saddening news came from downtown Lima, Peru, last weekend. Over 260 people died in a devastating fire, and the number will probably rise to above 300. Blackened bodies lined the streets, 30 percent of them children. More than 180 people were injured. Medical burn teams were flown in from abroad. The massive blaze was sparked by an exploding chain reaction of fireworks, which the Peruvians use to celebrate Christmas and New Year's.
Peru is one of the most beautiful countries on earth, and in the 1970s, when I was exporting handicrafts from the Andes to New York, I spent a considerable amount of time there and made many friends. Peruvians, especially the Indian weavers, have an incomparable artistic ability. In Pre-Columbian times, people living in the desert were creating beautiful ceramics, weaving lace and working with tie-dye. The Incas built stone roadways with runoffs that still carry rainwater five hundred years later.
Yet the fireworks story seemed to prove, once again, a theory I developed during my time down there: nothing good ever seems to happen to Peru. Bad luck seems to plague Peruvians. For example, when I first went to Peru, the country had beautiful money -- the sole, or sun. Coins were especially lovely -- heavy with copper and decorated with bas-relief llamas.
The country went into a massive depression on one of my first visits, and the copper in the coins suddenly became more valuable than the coins themselves. People shipped them up to Ecuador to be melted down. Almost overnight, there were no coins in Lima. If you wanted to take a 50-centavo bus ride and you gave the driver a 10-sole bill, he would give you Chiclets or hard candies for change.
Nature doesn't help Peru, either. I went through one terrifying earthquake in Ayacucho; soon after that, another set off an avalanche of mud that moved an entire village from the mountains almost to the sea. More than once, my bus stopped in the middle of nowhere because a road had just washed out.
On a continent known for bloody dictators and failed democracies -- Argentina has just had five presidents in two weeks -- bad government has always been one of Peru's greatest problems. It is probably a hangover from the misplaced machismo-envy that was in effect on the continent even before the Spanish conquered the country in 1532.
Think about that conquest for a moment. While the greedy, bloodthirsty and Catholic Pizarro was sailing down the Peruvian coast with visions of unlimited gold flickering behind his eyelids, the Incas were engaged in a massive civil war.
A great king had just died. Two brothers, Huascar and Atahualpa, were fighting each other for a kingdom that stretched from the emerald fields of Colombia all the way south to central Chile and east to the Amazon basin.
Just before Pizarro approached Peru, Ataualpa won. His generals dressed Huascar in women's clothing, fed him human excrement and made him watch as they exterminated his harem.
Atahualpa then united the armies, which meant that thousands upon thousands of seasoned soldiers were massed outside Cuzco under his control when those 168 Spaniards started trekking up the mountains.
In a feat of arrogance unduplicated in history - even in modern American history - Atahualpa invited the Spanish into the city as his guests. Contrary to the old myth, he didn't think they were gods. Even his father would have known about the white-skinned strangers who settled in Panama with beards, sticks that spoke thunder, and houses that floated on the ocean.
No, Atahualpa thought he himself was a god, and therefore invincible. When the Spanish captured him - in the middle of the plaza - his watching soldiers did nothing to save him. Why? Most people say that Atahualpa was like the head of the Incan nation, and once he was captured, the body became paralyzed. The Spanish then slaughtered between 2,000 and 7,000 people in under two hours, and the rest is history.
I've always thought of Atahualpa's sad history as a clear warning about the dangers of fascism.
Bad government seems to lead to bad luck. Once, in a demonstration against a sole devaluation, I was chased across the main square of Lima by a tank. In that riot, I remember downtown shopkeepers fleeing after they pulled down heavy metal gratings to keep potential looters out of their stores. They pulled those metal gratings down during the fire, too. The metal warped from the intense heat, and the people hiding inside the stores were killed.
Poverty was always rampant in Peru. But when opposition to the establishment government finally sprang up, it turned out to be the demented Shining Path, a bunch of Mao-inspired thugs who terrorized and killed as many of the Indians they were ostensibly trying to help as they did the people who were trying to stop them.
The dictator Alberto Fujimori was the end result of the Shinning Path debacle. Now indicted on charges of embezzlement -- $372 million inpublic funds are missing -- he is hiding in Japan. Some of that money -- $260 million -- ended up in bank accounts linked to Fujimori's strongman collaborator, the murderous Vladimiro Montesinos, and his cronies. Montesinos is now in jail in Venezuela, on charges of drug trafficking, extortion and homicide.
I've always loved Peru, and the idea of a deadly fire racing fromo ne fireworks stand to another in downtown Lima, incinerating everyone in its path, makes me very sad.
It still seems like nothing good seems to happen to Peru.
Joyce Marcel is a freelance journalist who writes aboutculture, politics, economics and travel.