There was an interesting debate on television a couple weeks ago. Augusto Alvarez Rodrich had student representatives from MOVADEF and Patria Roja onto his show, and he basically gave them free rein to have at one another. MOVADEF, as we know, is an organization advocating for the release of all of the imprisoned Shining Path terrorists, while Patria Roja is a small communist party operating within the democratic system.
What was interesting, however, was how the representative from Patria Roja obliterated MOVADEF’s arguments more thoroughly than I had ever heard before. The coup de grace was when the young Patria Roja leader asked his counterpart, “For you, is the terrorist Abimael Guzman capable of being wrong?” The leader from MOVADEF could not answer. He stammered and tried to change the subject.
“Apparently, their leader cannot be wrong. That shows fundamentally how they are different. For us, politics starts with reality…” the leader from Patria Roja said.
Back in January, there was a different televised debate. Beto Ortiz hosted Alfredo Crespo, one of the leaders of MOVADEF and Abimael Guzman’s attorney. After sparring with Crespo for some minutes, Ortiz said, “You know what I would like? That you leave, Mr. Crespo. I don’t have more time for the defender of a murderer.” Ortiz won headlines and plaudits at the time for kicking Crespo off of his show, for taking a firm hand with MOVADEF.
Ortiz’s actions have emerged as something of a model for the government. What Ortiz did in his TV studio, the government is trying to do in the whole public sphere. It has proposed a terrorism denial bill that would outlaw the expression of MOVADEF’s ideological underpinning: that what happened in the 1980s and 1990s was a legitimate civil war, not terrorism. The government has also proposed laws that would empower universities to suspend or expel students who are advocates of MOVADEF.
That reaction, like Ortiz’s, is understandable. What MOVADEF says is abhorrent, and perhaps even dangerous. But the impulse to silence MOVADEF is not the right course of action.
It should not come as a surprise that the most coherent rebuttal of MOVADEF’s ideas came not from Peru’s larger politcal parties, but from Patria Roja. While it is a small party, Patria Roja has an outsized presence on Peru’s university campuses. It recruits on the same turf, so to speak, as MOVADEF does: the far left wing of Peru’s student population. That leads to frequent confrontation and debate. The representative of Patria Roja who appeared on TV knew MOVADEF’s ideology, slogans and arguments, and that’s why he could deconstruct them and highlight the group’s ridiculous, dogmatic cultishness.
This is what most journalists and politicians in Peru have failed to do, and it’s because MOVADEF’s argument that Abimael Guzman is a political prisoner, the losing general in some civil war, is so foreign, so unconscionable. Peru’s establishment politicians and journalists cannot effectively confront MOVADEF in debate because they are too busy being scandalized by what MOVADEF is saying. That’s why journalists like Ortiz are often left to grandstand and demagogue rather than actually take apart the arguments of MOVADEF’s leaders. That’s why they kick those leaders off their TV shows.
Kicking MOVADEF’s leaders off TV shows or criminalizing their ideas does not make them disappear, however. It forces them underground. They will keep on recruiting young people, but they will do it quietly. There will be no one to confront them, no one to show that they belong to a cult, no one to show that they are wrong. When no one is allowed to debate them, we will lose the capacity to rebut their arguments. We will become more like Beto Ortiz, and less like the young man from Patria Roja.
Such efforts also give MOVADEF more cachet than it would otherwise have. MOVADEF’s ideology will never gain widespread acceptance. However, there is something seductive about subversive, revolutionary ideas, especially among young people. Already, MOVADEF has bandied about the idea that there is political and media persecution directed against it. That argument will only be amplified if the new laws targeting MOVADEF are implemented.
What is more likely to capture the imagination of university students: an unpopular political organization mocked by the media and campus political groups as a cult, or an outlawed revolutionary movement? “The corrupt government and media won’t let us speak out” is a far more compelling rallying cry for young people than “Let’s free the terrorists.”
MOVADEF is waging an ideological war against Peru’s democracy, but its weapons are bad, unpopular ideas. To defeat MOVADEF, all that is necessary is to rebut the group’s ideas and present better ones. As long as Peru’s media and political parties can do that, MOVADEF’s ideology will lose. However, forcing MOVADEF underground, and hiding its ideas from the public, is not defeating it: it is doing the group a favor.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author alone.