[Pnews] Lori Berenson After Being Held 20 Years in Peru: "My Objectives Were to Achieve a More Just Society"
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Jan 4 12:07:51 EST 2016
Lori Berenson After Being Held 20 Years in Peru: "My Objectives Were
to Achieve a More Just Society"
January 4, 2016
Lori Berenson <http://www.democracynow.org/appearances/lori_berenson>
once-imprisoned U.S. activist who has returned home from Peru after
serving 20 years in prison and on parole for collaborating with the
Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement.
The once-imprisoned U.S. activist Lori Berenson has returned home nearly
two decades after being tried and convicted of collaborating with the
Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement in Peru. Berenson is a former student
at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who left school to become
an activist in the 1980s in El Salvador during the Reagan years and then
moved on to Peru. In 1996, she was tried by a hooded military judge
while prosecutors used secret evidence against her, and was ultimately
convicted to a 20-year sentence. For three years, she was held in the
frigid Yanamayo prison in the Andes mountains in an unheated, open-air
cell without running water. After a major outcry, she was later
transferred to the Socabaya prison in Arequipa, Peru. Berenson was
released on parole in 2010 but was barred from leaving Peru for good
until her sentence expired a few weeks ago. Democracy Now! was the first
to interview Berenson in the Socabaya prison and broadcast her voice to
the U.S. public after she was sentenced, and has long covered her case.
She now joins us for her first television interview as a free woman back
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
*AMY GOODMAN:* We end today’s show with Lori Berenson, the
once-imprisoned U.S. activist who has returned home from Peru after
nearly two decades. Berenson is a former student at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology who left school to become an activist in the
’80s in El Salvador during the Reagan years, then moved on to Peru. In
’96, she was convicted of collaborating with the Túpac Amaru
Revolutionary Movement in Peru. She was tried by a hooded military
judge. Prosecutors used secret evidence against her. For three years,
she was held at the frigid Yanamayo prison in the Andes mountains in an
unheated, open-air cell without running water. After a major outcry, she
was transferred to the Socabaya prison in Arequipa, Peru. Lori Berenson
was released on parole in 2010 but barred from leaving Peru for good
until her sentence expired a few weeks ago. We are the first to
interview Lori in the Socabaya prison when she was there in 1999 and now
the first to have an extended interview with her when she came home. I
talked to her last week and asked how it feels to be free.
*LORI BERENSON:* It’s wonderful to be here. I’ve been on parole for
many years, which was similar to being free, but it’s nice to be
*AMY GOODMAN:* And to be back home in the United States for good.
*LORI BERENSON:* It’s nice to be with my family. It’s nice to see
old friends. It’s nice to have the possibility of doing those things.
*AMY GOODMAN:* What brought a young woman who was a freshman at MIT
first to Salvador and then to Peru?
*LORI BERENSON:* I decided that I was not in agreement with the type
of academia work I’d be able—you know, you could, yeah, get a
degree, and then you become part of the system. And I thought that
becoming part of the system somehow—you know, I mean, other people
are able to use that to—and to use it very well to the benefit of
social justice, but others tend to be absorbed by the system. And I
didn’t want to be part of—absorbed by the system. I also, you know,
had a very different—at the time, I sort of started seeing that the
world has a lot less to do with what you learn in school than what
you learn in life, and that the meaning of degrees is—shouldn’t be
that. So it was—in part, it was my way of saying, you know, I don’t
believe in this type of system. On the other hand, I wanted to
support processes that sought to change what at the time of
this—this was when the U.S. was supporting death squads and
supporting—you know, sending millions of dollars in military aid to
bomb the civilian population in El Salvador. So that was the context
in which I decided to get involved. It was a very different context
than when I go to Peru, but it’s certainly in the case of El
Salvador, that was a fundamental reason that brought me to that,
was: How could my government, that talks about democracy, be doing this?
*AMY GOODMAN:* And so, you went to Peru. And how soon after you were
in Peru that you were arrested?
*LORI BERENSON:* I was arrested a year later.
*AMY GOODMAN:* Explain what the MRTA was.
*LORI BERENSON:* The MRTA is an organization that basically followed
the example of the guerrilla movements of the 1960s in Peru and the
rest of the continent, really, the national liberation struggles. It
forms out of different leftist organizations that actually were
participating in the efforts to return to democracy in the early—the
late '70s and early ’80s. And they form an alternative guerrilla
movement to what is the better known, the Shining Path, which had
emerged publicly in 1980. And it was a small organization, very
similar to the organizations I am more familiar with in Central
America. And when I got to Peru, I understood, in the case of the
MRTA, they were also—it's an organization—at the time that I got
there, there was nothing—no armed activities going on. And it was
also an organization that seemed to be looking for a way out.
*AMY GOODMAN:* It was deemed a terrorist organization by Peru?
*LORI BERENSON:* Well, everything was called terrorism in Peru.
*AMY GOODMAN:* As well as the Shining Path.
*LORI BERENSON:* Yes, it was. Yes.
*AMY GOODMAN:* And by the United States.
*LORI BERENSON:* At the time, I presume so. There wasn’t a terrorist
list. The terrorist list came out, I believe, in '98, if I'm not
mistaken. But at the time of my arrival in Peru, it was not on any
*AMY GOODMAN:* What was it about the MRTA that you were drawn to,
that got you involved?
*LORI BERENSON:* They were very similar to the organizations I had
been familiar with in Central America. But more than that, it was my
sense that they were in a very difficult situation, a lot of people
in prison, and they were looking for a way out.
*AMY GOODMAN:* What do you mean, "a way out"?
*LORI BERENSON:* A way out—you know, in El Salvador, there was a
peace process. In other countries, there—in Guatemala, there was a
peace process, that, you know, there are moments in which you say,
"OK, so how do we resolve the situation?" And it was a situation of
dictatorship. So what do you do when you have an autocratic—or you
want to call it dictator or autocratic government, that was not at
all democratic? So, it wasn’t as if you could say, "Hey, we want to
lay down our weapons and give ourselves in." I think they were
looking for a way to do that, to some—to some extent. I just—I
didn’t realize it until after the embassy takeover, analyzing that,
that that was how they were planning to find a way out, because when
they took over the embassy, one of the things they talked about was
national dialogue. You know, it was a way—I see it—you know, in
retrospect, I think they were—that was the way out they were looking at.
*AMY GOODMAN:* Explain the government at the time.
*LORI BERENSON:* So, in 1990—well, Alberto Fujimori wins the
elections of 1990 and applies shock—a shock program, you know, and
applies a lot of dirty war tactics. There was a lot of intelligence
used to carry out disappearances, in very selective disappearances,
but, you know, talking about thousands of people were killed,
and—during that period. And in 1992, he has a self-coup, where he
closes Congress, he closes—restrictions on the press. It’s a series
of, you know, lack of rights to protest. And that is the Peru I
knew. So by the time I had gotten there, they had opened what they
called—was it—the CCD. It was a—some form of congress. It was not
the form that had always existed, but it was whatever they—whatever
he’s invent—whatever he invented. And there were elections; however,
it was still within the framework of a constitution that was not—you
know, it was a neoliberalism, and it was not exactly democracy.
*AMY GOODMAN:* So let’s go back to November 30th, 1995. There are
many people who are watching right now who were not even born then.
So, talk about what happened, why you were arrested and what
happened to you.
*LORI BERENSON:* OK, well, on that day, I was actually—in that time,
I was doing some work in—as a journalist, and I was—I had gone to
Congress. I was following a series of debates, actually a very
important debate on narco houses or something, and I left—walking
down the street, took a bus, and I was pulled off the bus and shoved
into a car.
*AMY GOODMAN:* By?
*LORI BERENSON:* Un-uniformed policemen. And I was taken to a large
office, which I later learned was the intelligence police office in
*AMY GOODMAN:* The DINET?
*LORI BERENSON:* That was the DINCOTE. And I was—from there, I was
taken to the house which I had helped rent a time earlier. And the
shootout started. I was there all night when they were
shooting—during the shootout, but I was in the police car.
*AMY GOODMAN:* The police held you in the car as a shootout took place—
*LORI BERENSON:* Oh, yeah.
*AMY GOODMAN:* —between the police and the MRTA—
*LORI BERENSON:* Yes, I was there. Yes, uh-huh.
*AMY GOODMAN:* —at the house that you had rented.
*LORI BERENSON:* And then I was—after that, I was detained. I was
tried by a hooded military tribunal—that is, you know, not faced.
Very limited access to legal protection. Lawyers were allowed in.
They didn’t have access to the files. Statements were made under
duress. There was a wounded woman who was forced to declare in a
very difficult state. So, it was a difficult situation for all of
those who were detained at the time. We were about 20-some-odd
people at that time. And then I was sentenced to life in prison as a
leader of the MRTA, which the—basically, the figure in—to be tried
by a military tribunal was that if you weren’t detained in combat,
then in order—you had to be a leader to be tried by a military
tribunal. So they decided to call me a leader. So that was interesting.
*AMY GOODMAN:* When you were brought out to the press is this is the
image Peruvians have of you, and anyone in the rest of the world,
for the next few decades.
*LORI BERENSON:* Yes.
*AMY GOODMAN:* Explain what you were told as you were brought out to
*LORI BERENSON:* OK, I was told that there was no microphone and
that if I wanted to be heard, I had to raise my voice. And I guess
at the time I didn’t think of the consequences. I mean, I think if I
had said the same thing without looking angry saying it, they
wouldn’t have been able to use it. But, you know, it’s the use of
images. You take images from below, towards—above, people look very
big. And you can always catch an image when someone has their mouth
open. So, you know, having the mouth open is enough. Regardless of
even if I spoke silently, you know, very quietly, if I had my mouth
open, that would have been enough. But they were able to use that
image for—’til now.
*AMY GOODMAN:* And you were told you had a very small amount of
time, like a minute, to say whatever you needed to say?
*LORI BERENSON:* I believe so. I don’t remember that exactly.
*AMY GOODMAN:* What did you say?
*LORI BERENSON:* I said—
*AMY GOODMAN:* And you had to speak in Spanish, of course.
*LORI BERENSON:* OK. Well, I said that the MRTA wasn’t a—I didn’t
think it was a terrorist organization. And I said that it was—if
they existed, it was because there was a lot of injustice in the
country, and saying basically that if I was going to have to pay for
that, I would. And that’s what I did.
*AMY GOODMAN:* So, you were tried. Explain what this courtroom was
like. What does it mean to be tried before a hooded judge?
*LORI BERENSON:* I don’t know if ours was similar to—I know of other
cases that were actually rather different, but it was basically a
three-phase trial. The first phase was you were interrogated by the
police, and then at some point the military started intervening. It
was very difficult to tell which was the difference at the time. You
know, these are things that I might have seen differently if I had
known more. But after that—that was the first phase—we were
sentenced. We were all put in a room with hooded judges and
hooded—surrounded by soldiers. We were given the sentences. And then
we were given two—I believe two appeal trials in these rooms with
distorted—I think one was in front of a judge, but there was—they
tended to use these rooms with like distorted sound, so you’d be
looking at a mirror. It was just sort of unusual to have distorted
sound and images. And I think they filmed. And by the third, you
know, sentence, they confirmed the life sentence. They changed some
of the charges along the way, if I’m not mistaken. But it was—it was
all preposterous. It was based really on I’m not sure what—a lot of
*AMY GOODMAN:* And what did they charge you with, and what were you
*LORI BERENSON:* It was treason. I don’t really remember—as I said,
I was first convicted of being a leader of the MRTA, so I don’t
remember the exact charges. But they were—it was a long—it was a
*AMY GOODMAN:* I wanted to go back for one moment to the time that I
interviewed you in the Socabaya prison
This was back in 1999.
*AMY GOODMAN:* Did they present any evidence at the trial?
*LORI BERENSON:* No. In the actual trial? No, absolutely nothing.
*AMY GOODMAN:* Are you innocent of the charges?
*LORI BERENSON:* Yes, of the charges. Yes, I’m innocent of all
the charges they’ve made against me.
*AMY GOODMAN:* Which brings us to the U.S. and what the U.S. is
doing here around your case, the U.S. government. What is the
U.S. doing? Are they helping you?
*LORI BERENSON:* There has been some pressure at certain times,
but not heavy pressure. Not heavy enough pressure, at least,
because I’m still here.
*AMY GOODMAN:* Do you think if they did put pressure, you
wouldn’t be here? I mean, the U.S. administration?
*LORI BERENSON:* I mean, I think, in the sense of more than the
Congress in itself. I mean, all the military aid they give them
and that kind of support and the patting on the back of Fujimori
every time that he does anything. I think he feels like he’s fine.
*AMY GOODMAN:* That was 1999. Can you describe that time in the
Socabaya prison? You had been there—you had been imprisoned at that
point for like three years, first at Yanamayo and then at the
*LORI BERENSON:* The thing with Socabaya, I think, if I’m not
mistaken, the interview was when I was still in isolation, so I
think it was difficult because I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone.
It was—you know, in that sense, it was—you know, we weren’t allowed
access to the media. We weren’t allowed access to information. It
was a very isolating experience. That is what I most remember about
Socabaya, was that aspect.
*AMY GOODMAN:* And to people—of course, there have been millions of
people imprisoned in the United States. But you now were imprisoned
for about 15 years.
*LORI BERENSON:* Mm-hmm.
*AMY GOODMAN:* Can you talk to an American audience about what that
*LORI BERENSON:* Well, I think it’s important, particularly in the
United States, but it’s also important in Peru, the issue of prisons
as a space of justice or as a space of punishment. I think we’d have
a much healthier society if we used imprisonment sparingly, just so
that people could learn from imprisonment and become—have an
opportunity to become—to do something else or to learn—to learn to
become productive—have the opportunity to be productive citizens.
Unfortunately, in the United States and elsewhere, prisons are
disproportionately—disproportionately with people of lower
socioeconomic status. There’s race and class involved. It’s an issue
in which you just see—it’s like social—it’s social struggle on
lines. You know, there are a lot of kids who get into gangs because
that’s the only option they see. And those kids could do other
things if they had other options. So prisons could be a space in
which that could happen. Or what usually happens is they just get
thrown in, they get tortured, they get beat up on, and
they—basically, if they’re not killed there, they’re not really—they
don’t really have a chance. So when they get out, they don’t have a
chance. So I don’t—what kind of world do we live in, in which we
exclude people instead of trying to find ways to include them? I
mean, you know, and so that happens—happens here, happens in Peru.
*AMY GOODMAN:* Dennis Jett is quoted as saying—he was the ambassador—
*LORI BERENSON:* Mm-hmm, yes.
*AMY GOODMAN:* —to Peru at the time—"What leverage do we have over
Peru?" he asked. "I think this is a colonial, somewhat-racist
mentality that these countries are always wrong, and all we have to
do is apply pressure on any underdeveloped country." He said, "There
is no way anyone can look at her story," referring to you, "and
conclude anything other than she knowingly, willingly and
enthusiastically worked for a terrorist organization." That quote
from just last week.
*LORI BERENSON:* Mm-hmm.
*AMY GOODMAN:* The ambassador at the time of your arrest in Peru.
*LORI BERENSON:* Mm-hmm.
*AMY GOODMAN:* Your response?
*LORI BERENSON:* Well, you know, he has been very consistent in his
responses on this. I do not agree with him. I do not think there was
overwhelming proof of anything that he says. But look, that’s his
political position. It was not the position—not everyone was patting
Fujimori on the back. He was. Not every—not all the ambassadors in
Peru were doing that.
*AMY GOODMAN:* Ambassador Jett also demanded I be fired for having
interviewed you in the prison. But your evaluation of Amnesty
International saying something like 53 percent of the violence in
the ’80s could be attributed to the Peruvian government, 46 percent
of the killing to Shining Path, 1 percent to the MRTA?
*LORI BERENSON:* That’s—the Truth Commission came up with similar
statistics. I think it’s really hard, because, first of all, I think
the Truth Commission was developed as to start a process of memory
and not to be the only thing that would come out, and it like closed
the book. So, you know, their conclusion was actually that the
Shining Path had committed 54 percent, and something like 35 percent
to the state and 10 percent unknown, 1.5 percent to the MRTA, which
seems a bit high, but that’s—it could be. I don’t know. I do think
that if—you know, the problems with understanding what happens also
depends on how and when you ask it. If you go to a community in
which the military is still there, it’s highly probable they will
not say the military did it. So, you know, those types of things, I
think, will always be a problem when looking for truth. But I’m
sure—you know, there have been horrific things have happened in
Peru. And I think that’s why I say take responsibility for having
collaborated with an organization that has committed crimes. I think
that is—and that’s why I was in prison. So I think, you know, yes,
it was secondary collaboration, I wasn’t involved in any specific
act, but, yes, I do—I do take my responsibility. And I think
those—at least in the case of the MRTA, all the leadership has taken
responsibility for their acts. They are—that’s because it’s
necessary. You know, that’s how—it’s like I said. It’s unfortunate
that that is not happening on all sides.
*AMY GOODMAN:* I want to play a clip of your mother, Rhoda Berenson,
and your father, Mark Berenson.
*RHODA BERENSON:* We’re asking everybody to remind President
Bush what he said in March and to remind him he’s under an
obligation: If a U.S. citizen is wrongfully held in another
country, there’s a U.S. statute that says he must do everything
in his power to release her. And the commission has essentially
said Lori Berenson is wrongfully held.
*MARK BERENSON:* And this commission consists of seven respected
internationally legal scholars and human rights scholars from
seven different countries. President Bush, Lori is wrongfully
held. It’s time now to show backbone and strength, and have the
moral courage to do the right thing. If Ambassador Negroponte
said a week ago that America takes care of its own, Lori
Berenson is one of your own. She has suffered. She has been
wronged. You know it. Secretary Powell knows it. Every person in
this country of goodwill and understanding knows Lori Berenson
has been wronged, and it’s time to bring her home.
*AMY GOODMAN:* What did that mean to you, the way your parents
rallied around not only you, but rallied support in the United
States, not only for your—around your imprisonment, but for the
condition of people in Peru?
*LORI BERENSON:* I mean, I was very surprised. I just wasn’t—you
know, I don’t come from a very political family. I didn’t expect
their dedication. And to some extent, it was—I felt—I felt very
badly for it. I still do, to a good extent. But I’m very grateful
for it. They did an amazing—had amazing effort, despite the fact we
didn’t have great communication. I think it was very difficult the
first years for them, because they didn’t have access to a lot of
information. They didn’t know what was really happening. And that
made it—so, some of the confusions perhaps in the way they
interpreted things has to do with the lack of communication. So I
think they—despite that, they did an amazing—an amazing thing.
*AMY GOODMAN:* It’s 20 years later. You have been in Peru,
basically—I don’t know if you call it under house arrest, but you
were—you were not allowed to leave Peru from 2010 until now. And now
you were just allowed to leave. Would you do things the same way, if
we went back 20 years, but you know what you know now?
*LORI BERENSON:* Yes and no. I mean, when I go back to thinking like
about education, if I had learned another skills, I might have been
able to do some of the work I—maybe different types of work directly
with populations, that would have made my life very different. In
that sense, I think I would have chosen to learn a little more
before going to do things, you know, learn a skill that would have
been more useful. But in terms of doing it, I can’t go—I can’t deny
my life. My life is what it was, or what it is. And I—I mean, yes,
there are things that when I reflect upon what happened and say, you
know, I—and that’s part of the reason why I take responsibility for
my actions, and I apologize, because it’s like I do acknowledge that
whether or not I am directly responsible for certain actions, there
was horrific bloodshed in Peru, and I am very sorry it happened. So,
in that sense, understanding how—if I had known I was going to come
and symbolize that, I might have thought twice before speaking,
because, you know, it’s hard to symbolize horror. But on the other
hands, it’s like, you know, I wasn’t—the objectives of—certainly my
own objectives and others’ objectives were not to create horrific
bloodshed, either. They were—you know, they were to achieve a more
just society. And like I said, I think it’s important that those who
have been involved on any side take responsibility for what they
have done. And most—you know, certainly on the side of the left,
people paid, been in prison for a long time, and some are still
there, whereas in the case of the government forces, they continue
to live in entire, total impunity.
*AMY GOODMAN:* Although, interestingly, Alberto Fujimori, the
president of Peru, is in jail. He used to wave your passport and say
*LORI BERENSON:* I didn’t know that.
*AMY GOODMAN:* He would carry it with him.
*LORI BERENSON:* Yeah.
*AMY GOODMAN:* But he ends up in jail.
*LORI BERENSON:* No, that is a bit ironic, yes.
*AMY GOODMAN:* So, let’s end with the issue of memory, something
you’re very interested in, as you move forward in this country. What
does it mean to you? And what does acknowledgment and understanding
the past—what do you think has to happen?
*LORI BERENSON:* Well, I think in any country, and this includes the
U.S., if we deny that things happened or try to paint it over as if
it wasn’t that way, then the problems are more likely to either
recur or at least just continue to be problems. If you start
acknowledging them and say, "Hey, let’s get a handle on this. We’ve
got to see where our—what the cause"—you know, the root cause of
violence in Peru, it has to do with structural violence. I mean, you
know, regardless of whoever started first—it’s not who started
first. It’s like why on Earth would something—would the violence
have been so extreme, had there not been the type of structural
violence that existed in Peru? It was semi-feudal, in many ways, its
production, but not just production. It has to do with the social
system or racism, of exclusion, that existed into the 20th century.
So, you know, that’s not unique to Peru, but I think in—I think what
is told for—you know, should be told in general in the world is
that, you know, it’s better if you look—if you look at things, you
know, try to sit back and take a look at them, I think you could do
much more than putting labels. When you put labels on people, you’re
saying it’s the us-them. And when you say us-them, it’s dangerous,
because it makes you think that you’re somehow superior to a them.
And I think that’s one of the things that I really think came out in
Peru, particularly in the case of my case and other people, is like
you want the "them" label, because you can sort of—all of your
guilt, you can sort of transfer to other people. And it’s like,
that’s not useful. And you wind up having—you know, violence can
escalate. It doesn’t—it’s not productive, doesn’t lead to anything.
*AMY GOODMAN:* That’s Lori Berenson, the once-imprisoned U.S. activist,
home now after spending nearly two decades in prison and on parole in
Peru. To see our coverage of Lori
<http://www.democracynow.org/topics/lori_berenson> over the years, go to
Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415
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