Thursday, August 19, 2010

Fiestas Patrias

Soon after we met, Miguel Andrés and I discovered we have an interest in military history in common, so it made sense that we go into the city together to watch the military parade being conducted for Fiestas Patrias, the national holiday commemorating Peruvian independence from Spain. It was sure to be an interesting event, and I felt fortunate that in my travels I was in the right place at the right time to experience some unique local culture.

I knew basically what to expect. The streets would be cordoned off by traffic police and crowds of flag-waving people would show out to cheer, or jeer, at columns of marching military personnel as they made their way up the main street in Lima. It would start early, like all military events, and it would finish before lunch time, when everyone would knock off for the day and go to eat meat and drink beer.

I knew all this, of course, because of Anzac Day. On Anzac Day, Australians take the time to remember the sacrifice of those men and women of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps who have died in all the wars Australia has participated in. The emotional landscape is, generally speaking, one of quiet introspection, although there are always a few cranks who will denounce the parade event as a glorification of war. The Australian government, or at least a few journalists with nothing better to write about that week, typically make a reasonable effort to remind us that glorification is exactly what Anzac Day is not an example of. Especially when we are remembering battles like Gallipoli in which we got our butts kicked.

Here in Peru the vibe of a military parade is vastly different. Partially this is due to their attitude towards festivals in general. While we were in Lima they also had “roast chicken day” where everyone gets together on a Sunday and eats roast chicken. (How this is different from any other Sunday no one seemed to be able to explain to me, but I’m not one to quibble over such details when there are roasted chickens to be eaten.) If ‘roasting a chicken’ gets a look in as being worthy of an all-singing all-dancing festival event, then I figured that ‘winning independence from a colonial ruler’ was going to be an absolute cracker.

Independence is not the only military stoush that is being celebrated at this parade though, or you might reasonably expect everyone to be dressed up in 19th century gear. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, Peru fought border wars with both its northern and southern neighbours, and they have won a few and lost a few, ceding some territory to Chile in the South, annexing some from Ecuador in the North. At the same time as fighting border wars, Peru has had more than its fair share of domestic terrorism to deal with. Two of the world’s most notorious Maoist terror groups, the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and the MRTA (Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement) are Peruvian. After prevailing through these challenges, the Peruvian military of the 21st century generate their own nationalistic enthusiasm, and it rubs off on the crowds that gather to watch them pass by in parade.

Miguel and I went early, before the parade started, and it was fun to watch the guys getting ready before the parade began. In Peru the female traffic cops wear long black boots and tight tan coloured leggings reminiscent of feminine horse riding attire, an ensemble that looks kinda sexy. Machismo is alive and well in Peru and the army boys wolf-whistled and cheered the girls when they rode by, straddling their motorcycles and looking impassive. The ‘Policia Nacional’ chicks get to wear long grey capes with red lining, which makes them look fairly Twilight, really.

Women in uniform

Most of the soldiers in the Peruvian forces have rounder faces and darker skin. Most of the officers look whiter and more European, and their uniforms are elaborate and fancy. It is clear that the officers are typically drawn from the upper echelon of Peruvian society, the product of military school education from military families. Naval officers chatted to each other amiably. Here is an English translation of an actual overheard conversation:

Officer 1: Yes, I have three maids, actually. One for the cooking, and another for the cleaning…”

Officer 2: (interrupting) “And one just in case, hey?”

(all officers laugh)

Hanging out before the parade

Miguel and I soon went to the roadside where official organisers rented plastic chairs for a couple of bucks a pop. There were fancier, more expensive grandstand areas which could also be rented, closer to where the president, Alan García would soon sit after his official entrance. Miguel and I rented a couple of chairs and waited for the parade to start. Street vendors sold hot doughnuts and sweets and the official organisers kept people who hadn’t paid for a seat out of the roped off areas, generating loud whining from nearby democratically minded but penniless onlookers.

The festival of nationalism soon fired up as the marching began and there was a kind of football game enthusiasm in the air. The whole parade seemed to cry out, “Guns and bombs, hell yeah!” as the troops pulled out all the stops to put on a good show of it.

There was a myriad of uniforms and materiel to keep the crowds interested. There were snipers in yowie suits,

anti-tank units,

machine gunners wearing bandanas on their heads,

even a tactical raider unit of dudes armed with crossbows

Even the kids got guns- the girls in military school were carrying Uzi’s, as if someone in charge of stage management decided that because they were only small, they should only have small machineguns.

Sometimes the ‘variety show’ aspect got a bit silly. At one point there was a unit of blokes wearing gas masks and riding horses. That’s right, the riders had gas masks, but the horses didn’t. I suppose they ride into the gas attack, then walk it from there onwards.

To top off all the fun there is this dude- Zachariah, the Peruvian army mascot- who elicited whoops of delight and frenzied photography from the crowd with his disco dancing and oversized novelty bazooka.

Zachariah was good, but the feature of the parade that elicited the most feverish response from the crowd was undoubtedly the goose-stepping. Although the formed units of soldiers marched normally for most of the parade distance, when they passed in front of President García the officers saluted and the troops goose-stepped, doubling the cheering volume of the surrounding crowd. I wonder how this made the democratically elected president feel, exactly. The Peruvian military are known for dissolving democratic governments that do not cater to their interests.

Everyone loves a good goose step

One identifiable army unit that is worth a special mention is the Chavín De Huántar, a Commando unit famous for storming the Japanese ambassador’s residence and freeing 72 hostages in 1996 after they were trapped in the building by 14 terrorists of the MRTA. In the assault, all 14 terrorists were killed, two soldiers and one hostage also died in the battle.

During the 1980’s, Peru struggled quite a bit to fight terrorism effectively. Terrorist organisations, operating mostly in the provinces, killed journalists, murdered farmers and intimidated populations. They forcibly recruited young men into their service and engaged in criminal activities like synthesising and trafficking cocaine, car-bombing civilians in downtown Lima, destroying infrastructure built by their capitalist enemy (you know, evil stuff like ‘plumbing’ and ‘electricity towers’) and otherwise made a nuisance of themselves. The Peruvian military either misunderstood the nature of their enemy or they didn’t really care too much, because they responded with blunt force, torturing and executing terrorists, arbitrarily arresting and imprisoning terrorism suspects (like ‘village leaders’ and ‘council elders’), raping female political prisoners and violently suppressing student activism and freedom of expression in Peruvian universities.

The Peruvian armed forces firmly established their own reputation for excessive use of force, and in the unstable political times in 1980’s Peru, it was eye-for-an-eye between the rebels and the military. A good example of the Peruvian approach occurred during the prison riots at the coastal El Fronton prison outside of Lima over June 18-19, 1986. At El Fronton, imprisoned Shining Path terrorists incited a riot and took 5 prison guards hostage, demanding the release of 500 people imprisoned for terrorism in exchange for the release of the prison guards. The Peruvian navy responded by levelling the prison, killing 140 people in the process-a heavy-handed tactic if ever there was one.

The Japanese embassy assault in 1996 was very different to the bad old days of El Fronton; it was a tactically sound, professionally executed hostage rescue mission. Aside from being a splendid tactical victory, the success of the rescue operation gave the presidency of Japanese-Peruvian President Fujimori a much needed boost. In 1992 Fujimori dissolved congress and since then he had ruled as a dictator. He autocratically changed many laws, including legalising summary execution for terrorists. There were reports from the embassy battle that terrorists attempted to surrender during the raid, but when Chavín de Huántar commandoes stormed the embassy they left no terrorists alive. Most Peruvians either approved, or shrugged and looked the other way.

Back at the military parade, the serious business of the armed forces plays second fiddle to the fun-and-games of the cool looking hardware the army puts out for show. They rolled both tracked and wheeled APC’s and fighting vehicles down the street and the occasional wave from a turret gunner greatly impressed the crowd. They had a missile launcher too, and some really cool flak tanks (ZSU-23-4 self-propelled anti-aircraft systems, for you technical types) that looked kind of like carnival rides when they spun their turrets around.

As the parade drew to a close and the street vendors began to pack up their stalls, my overall impression was one of amusement. It was a public holiday event, and it was fun. My favourite feature of all was these desert camo quad-bikes which look just like they rolled off the set of a Hollywood movie. Bust out the rocket launchers, folks!

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