A Proxy War in Peru

A rumble in the Amazonian jungle turns into a referendum on colonialism, genocide, and the role of foreign infiltrators in Peruvian policy.

AMAZONAS REGION -- Last Easter, as the rains subsided in the Peruvian Amazon, the rivers and roads opened up and campaign season began. "There are two groups fighting for control of our land," one aspirant told a crowded plaza halfway through Good Friday celebrations in Imacita, a river port deep in the northern jungle. "One represents big business and industry. The other protects the environment and stands up for the poor."

The speaker was Joel Shimpukat, a 44 year-old Awajun Indian schoolteacher. This was his first speech in the run up to October's regional elections, in which Shimpukat hopes to capture the district mayor's seat. He alternated between Spanish and his native Awajun for the benefit of a mixed audience, echoing in form and content the bipolar politics that resonate across Peru and most of Latin America. Lambasting the gold mining and oil exploration underway nearby, he finished with a fist in the air: "We must never forget June 5!"

There was little chance of that. Many of those standing in the plaza that night were, like Shimpukat, survivors of the bloody confrontation between natives and police that took place 150 miles upstream the year before. June 5, 2009 marked the 55th and final day of a native uprising that shut down highways, river ports and oil facilities across the breadth of the Peruvian Amazon, staunching the flow of people and goods in over half the country -- an impressive strike even by Latin American standards, and one that ended disastrously following a government crackdown.

The blockades were a response to the rapid encroachment of industry into the Amazon, which in recent years has blown up local disputes into regional arguments over environmental preservation and economic development -- which in turn have become a sort of proxy war between Latin America's increasingly polarized left and right. Three quarters of Peru's Amazon has been leased to foreign oil corporations in the last 10 years, with mining and logging interests close behind. Just across the border in Ecuador, the native Achuar nation is prosecuting the world's biggest-ever lawsuit against an oil company, Chevron, with the vocal support of President Rafael Correa. Billions of dollars of investment hang in the balance in the Amazon, and both sides consider the stakes to be even bigger than that.

"We are now living a cold war in which foreign governments are participating," Peruvian President Alan García wrote a few weeks after the uprising. "Let's remember that Peru is a vital center for continental matters. It was necessary [for Spain] to conquer Peru in order to dominate South America ... and now the same is necessary for the regressive and dictatorial model that wants to dominate Peru." His strongest critics would say the same thing.

Peru's problems began in 2008, when García issued a number of land reforms that were widely seen as weakening both native title and environmental regulations. Outraged at not even being consulted -- Congress had fast-tracked the reforms, arguing they were necessary to keep Peru in compliance with its new U.S. free trade agreement -- native groups eventually coordinated the biggest paro in the country's history, demanding that Garcia repeal 10 of the most troublesome decrees. But the government refused to negotiate while the protesters remained in place, and so a weeks-long stalemate ended as everyone feared it would: with the deaths of 33 people and 200 more sent to hospital -- 82 of them with bullet wounds -- following a botched attempt to clear a blockade outside the northern town of Bagua.

The "Baguazo," as local press dubbed it, was an iconic FUBAR that fit neatly into the regional narrative and provoked exaggerations on all sides. First a stunned-looking Alberto Pizango, president of Peru's Amazon Indian Association (AIDESEP by its Spanish acronym) called a press conference that afternoon to declare that a "genocide" had taken place; he was soon echoed by García's main ideological rivals.  "What is happening in Peru," said Bolivia's Evo Morales, "is the genocide of the indigenous people." In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez left it to his minister of indigenous people, Nicia Maldonado, to agree. "We absolutely and categorically condemn this genocide against our brothers," she said.

Then the story took an unexpected turn, when it emerged that 23 of the dead were police. Another high-ranking officer was missing and also presumed dead. "A genocide of police is what it was," concluded García.

Pizango and dozens of AIDESEP leaders were formally charged with sedition and inciting violence; they all went into hiding, and Pizango eventually fled to Nicaragua. Peru's ambassador to Bolivia was called back to Lima (the one in Caracas had already been recalled over a previous spat two months earlier). "International communism is trying to create chaos in Peru," García insisted -- a loaded reference in a country where the communist-inspired Shining Path guerrilla rebellion claimed 70,000 lives in the 1980s and 1990s. "Who does it suit for Peru not to use its gas, not to find more oil, to be unable to better exploit its minerals?" he asked, claiming the protesters had been funded and manipulated by "foreign agents." 

Yet there was no question that García's administration had suffered a PR disaster. Yehude Simon, the prime minister, was shamed into resigning, while Congress repealed two of the 10 laws that provoked the strike, promising to reconsider the rest. Petroperu, the state-owned enterprise in charge of handing out oil concessions, suspended auctions on all remaining Amazon blocks. It seemed Peru's natives had scored a historic victory.

A year later, however, their mood is far from victorious; grim determination is more like it. Shimpukat's campaign is shrouded by the arrest warrant still out on him for his role in organizing the Bagua blockade. (When I asked the chief of Bagua's police why he hadn't arrested Shimpukat or others like him, he said the situation was "too delicate" for police to enter the jungle communities.)  "For a while," Shimpukat recalled, "the government was circulating pictures of me as one of the so-called foreign agents," a conclusion authorities had apparently arrived at because of Shimpukat's thick moustache. Most natives don't have facial hair, but thanks to sporadic intermarriage with Spanish descendants, exceptions do crop up. "Of course there are foreign agents at work here -- they are the countries Garcia signs free trade agreements with; they are the mining and oil companies who help themselves to our Amazon."

The government has indeed kept the door open to one of the world's richest collections of natural resources, and is expecting more than $20 billion in foreign direct investment over the next two years. Petroperu recently announced it would start auctioning the remaining Amazon oil blocks, adding to the 82 foreign companies who already hold concessions here. Peru's production of gold, silver, copper, zinc and lead already rank in the world's top six. Upcoming hydroelectric projects in partnership with an energy-hungry Brazil are now set to rival the recent oil and gas boom.

As García likes to point out, this is what fed Peru's legendary growth spurt over the past decade, climaxing at 9.8 percent in 2008. Peru weathered both its own and Wall Street's crises with the best-performing stock market on earth in 2009, and the IMF forecasts this year's growth will top Latin American charts at 6.3 percent.

But aside from Lima's construction boom, signs of prosperity are hard to find. Corruption certainly swallows its share of the profits, but that isn't the only reason wages have failed to rise with the GDP. One thing that has risen in tandem with the scale of resource extraction, however, is the number of protests. Five years ago, the national ombudsman's office in Lima recorded eight "socio-environmental" conflicts in the country; as of March this year there were 126. In 60 percent of them, the government refused to negotiate until violence broke out. Bagua was exceptional in scale, but not in kind.

"The problem," says Ivan Lanegra, an officer at the ombudsman's office, "is there's no overall development plan. No one is managing the big picture. The state needs to play a bigger role in regulating these projects and guiding the profits into proper institutions. Until that happens, local communities will continue to feel there's no one looking out for them."

After Bagua, the government did agree to negotiate with AIDESEP, but halfway through talks, the Ministry of Justice filed a motion to dissolve the group, labeling it a criminal organization. (AIDESEP's lawyers successfully fought off the charges.) The inquiry into what exactly happened at Bagua has been similarly acrimonious: The special commission appointed to investigate the incident wound up breaking apart and producing two conflicting reports; one, produced by government representatives, blamed the protesters for the outbreak of violence, and the other, produced by the commission's native members, blamed authorities in Lima.

Both investigations, however, concluded that there was no evidence of foreign intervention having influenced the crisis -- an inconvenient finding, given that a conviction that foreign agitators are at work in Peru may be the only point of agreement between the two sides of the dispute in the Amazon.

AFP/Getty Images


The Russian Game

Why is the Kremlin meddling in international chess elections?

Former world chess champion Anatoly Karpov has never been much of a rabble-rouser. During the Cold War he was a loyal Soviet subject whose chess anthologies featured pictures of him harvesting wheat with a scythe -- for fun. He flirted with elected office in the 1990s, but has confined his public activism in the Vladimir Putin era largely to ecological and children's causes. He speaks in a gentle, nasal voice. He collects stamps.

But Karpov, whose battles with Garry Kasparov in the 1980s defined the game of kings for an era, is now at the epicenter of an escalating political imbroglio spreading through the already fractious world of international chess.

With the backing of his former nemesis Kasparov and national federations from the United States and Western Europe, Karpov is bidding to unseat Kirsan Ilyumzhinov as the president of the International Chess Federation, known by its French acronym, FIDE. Ilyumzhinov is also the mercurial president of the southern Russian republic of Kalmykia, which he runs as his own fiefdom. His tumultuous 15-year reign over world chess has seen a precipitous decline in the prestige of the title of World Chess Champion.

More than chess is at stake. Winning re-election could be crucial for Ilyumzhinov, whose fate as the president of Kalmykia is up in the air. Ilyumzhinov has run his quasi-autonomous, mostly Buddhist republic since shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, but is facing increasing criticism from the local opposition over persistent poverty in the region. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will have to decide whether to nominate him for another term this fall. "Even if he's not nominated for a new term, [the FIDE presidency] would allow him to remain a flashy, notable person of status," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert on regional Russian politics at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Karpov, meanwhile, is promising to restore some of the international attention chess enjoyed for most of the last century. "The value of the title of world champion has been degraded, and the popularity isn't there," Karpov said in an interview last week. "No one knows who the world champion is anymore." (That would be Indian grandmaster Viswanathan Anand, for those keeping score at home.)

But a funny thing happened on Karpov's road to the FIDE presidential election: The Kremlin's point man for chess snubbed him, declaring instead that Ilyumzhinov will be Russia's candidate for the post. The decision puts the government in the peculiar position of supporting a deeply eccentric, autocratic regional leader -- Ilyumzhinov claims to have once been briefly abducted by aliens and counts Muammar al-Qaddafi and Chuck Norris among his friends -- over one of Russia's greatest, and most politically loyal, sporting icons.

Why, exactly, is unclear, but the decision has prompted a revolt in the Russian Chess Federation. When the federation's supervisory council convened Friday in the ornate main playing hall of Moscow's Central Chess Club, a majority voted to nominate Karpov. But the meeting was subsequently declared "illegitimate" by Arkady Dvorkovich, the senior Kremlin aide who oversees the federation. Should Dvorkovich's decision stand, Karpov might end up running as a nominee from a European or North American federation.

The geopolitical overtones of all this are a throwback, however faint, to chess's Cold War glory days, when the game was as inextricable from matters of national pride and identity as the Olympics. In the West, Bobby Fischer's victory over Boris Spassky in the 1972 World Chess Championship was portrayed as a triumph of American individualism and self-discipline over the collectivism and powerful state sponsorship of the Soviet chess machine. Millions of Americans followed televised analysis of the intricate on-board maneuvering between the two grandmasters, inspiring a brief national infatuation with chess. The 1984-1985 Kasparov-Karpov duels were eerily symbolic of the perestroika era, with the young, rebellious Kasparov surviving a grueling series of games to eventually trump Karpov and the fading Soviet hierarchy that supported him.

But the system that produced universally recognized world champions collapsed in 1993, when Kasparov and English grandmaster Nigel Short broke from FIDE to organize their own world championship and rival chess association after a falling out over money and bureaucratic matters. FIDE continued to organize its own world championships, while Kasparov, after defeating Short, arranged his own. Professional chess has never fully recovered from the schism. FIDE never relinquished its role as the world's dominant chess body, but it could not maintain a credible claim on the world championship title with the game's brightest star competing elsewhere. Kasparov eventually lost his own title and quit competitive chess in 2005 to take up politics and battle Putin, a fight that has yielded markedly fewer successes than his chess career.

Enter Ilyumzhinov, a chess fanatic who was elected president of Kalmykia in 1993 and of FIDE in 1995. Ilyumzhinov, a wealthy businessman, has kept FIDE afloat; he says financing for many of the organization's tournaments has come from his own pockets, though detractors allege that the money has been siphoned off the Kalmyk government. (In honor of the 1998 Chess Olympiad, Ilyumzhinov built a $50 million glorified theme park called Chess City in the republic's capital, Elista.) But he has largely failed in his promises to restore the prestige of the title of world champion and secure stable outside sponsorship for major chess events.

Karpov has unleashed heavy artillery to discredit Ilyumzhinov in the run-up to the election later this year, playing up the Kalmyk leader's claim of an interplanetary sojourn on an alien spaceship in 1997 as damaging to the reputation of chess, FIDE, and Russia. (A Russian parliamentarian with the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party this month asked Medvedev to look into whether Ilyumzhinov might have divulged sensitive state secrets to the extraterrestrials.) Karpov kicked off his campaign with a fund-raising event in New York on Monday, with Kasparov and 19-year-old Norwegian phenom Magnus Carlsen -- currently the world's top-rated player -- in attendance.

Ilyumzhinov, meanwhile, issued a statement over the weekend calling Karpov's nomination a clear violation of the federation's statutes and "reminiscent of the behavior which Karpov and his team, were so content to exploit, during Soviet times." (Karpov -- a Brezhnev favorite -- and his entourage were repeatedly accused by opponents of dirty tricks during his 10-year reign as world champion.)

Dvorkovich, a Western-educated economic advisor to Medvedev who is regarded as a liberal among Russia's ruling elite, says Karpov was acting in an "unethical manner" and that the former champion's prowess at the board does not qualify him to run FIDE. "Being a chess fighter and great chess player is not the same thing as being a good manager," he says. "Being the head of FIDE is about managerial skills." In the end, it will be the delegates from the 158 FIDE member federations that determine the outcome, and Ilyumzhinov might have already secured the votes of an overwhelming block of countries. "In many cases these votes may be swayed," says Mark Crowther, editor of the online chess magazine The Week in Chess. "Karpov may have to be prepared to play as dirty as his opponent to secure them. It is also possible that if Karpov is perceived as the likely winner, many delegates may switch horses. There is a degree of reluctance to oppose Ilyumzhinov for fear of repercussions."

Before the disputed Russian Chess Federation meeting was called to order Friday, Kasparov held court for several minutes at the Central Chess Club, where the lingering smell of lacquer, body odor, and cigarette smoke has never been adequately purged. It was a crusty crowd made up mainly of pensioners, the type of audience for whom Kasparov's liberal politics are largely anathema. But they applauded his short speech arguing for Karpov's nomination. Pro-Kremlin youth activists who harass him at other public appearances stayed away. "There are still plenty of differences between us, especially on the political front, but this isn't about politics," Kasparov said later. "It's about chess. It's about the success of the game that we played our entire lives, that we devoted our lives to."