Peru, the most populous Indian nation in South America, now under Quechua president Alejandro Toledo, just admitted that it forcefully sterilized over 200,000 Indian women between 1996 and 2000 during the regime of former President Alberto Fujimori.
This terrible news, in the form of an actual apology by the Peruvian Health Ministry, confirms occasional reports of the past few years. What is perhaps less expected is the huge number of women subjected to the practice. From all indications, the campaign was directed at Indian women from traditional villages in the Andean Mountains. It has caused a radical demographic drop.
Peru was seriously ransacked in the 1990s during the regime of Alberto Fujimori, a Japanese-Peruvian who ruled the country through military repression. During the Fujimori years, with the consistent backing of the U.S. government, Peruvians endured dozens of massacres and thousands of individual killings. A lot of it happened at the command of Fujimori’s secret police and military squads. Fujimori is now in exile in Japan.
The sterilizations of Indian women occurred under the worst of conditions. Illegal as a birth control method in this largely Catholic country of 26 million people, sterilization for contraceptive purposes was legalized by Fujimori’s government in 1995. With substantial assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID), teams of doctors and nurses scoured the highlands, targeting Quechua and Aymara communities. Officials threatened, bribed or misled women to submit to the operation. Health workers, trained by U.S. personnel, were under obligation to meet quotas. They “sometimes visited individual women several times as the hard sell for sterilization became steadily more aggressive,” according to an early report on the Peruvian sterilization controversy that appeared in Native Americas magazine (summer 2000).
The same report noted that sometimes 20 to 30 tubal ligations per day were performed by doctors and nurses who were paid bonuses of $10 to $30 per surgery. The use of force was reported in many cases. The program increased the number of tubal ligations in the country from 10,000 in 1996 to roughly 110,000 in 1997, with Peru becoming U.S. AID’s largest program of population control in Latin America. According to a UPI report, some 55 percent of the women, some 110,000, endured the operations without any anesthesia. Aftercare was not available. Infections and other complications are common among the women victims of this horrible crime. There are at least seven deaths to be fully investigated.
This imposed terror on Andean women and men (16,547 vasectomies were also performed) has caused a serious drop in population among highland Indian traditional communities. There is a shortage of young families and some communities are demographically disappearing. Peruvian traditional indigenous women have families with an average of seven children. Thus perhaps as many as 1.5 million Peruvian Indians were sterilized out of existence. These numbers are in line with results anticipated by a 1974 report prompted by Henry Kissinger for the National Security Council. That report argued the case for population control as a means to reduce smoldering unrest in Third World countries experiencing rapid increases among their rural populations.
Good thoughts are expressed at Peru’s beleaguered Indian President, Alejandro Toledo. His historic election gave Peru an Indian president for the first time ever and put an end to the Fujimori dictatorship, but it has turned to political quagmire within a year. The idealistic and highly trained Toledo went in with a free market approach to economic stimulation for Peru, but found out that the common people, certainly the Quechua and Aymara, who participate mostly in local and regional economies, largely have different ideas.
An attempt to privatize the electricity service in the country’s second largest provincial city resulted in major strikes, barricades, police and military attacks and two deaths. Peruvians are highly impatient, after so many years of dictatorship, to improve the widespread conditions of deep impoverishment. The globalization policies begun by Toledo, who graduated from Stanford University and worked at the World Bank, are largely not the stuff of Indian dreams in Peru. Toledo has tried to mediate and play the two sides of the argument, but it is backfiring and his popularity has dropped from 55 percent to a low of 18 percent. The fact that he is defending against a highly public out-of-wedlock paternity suit has not helped.
Toledo is dealing with long-entrenched problems and is caught between the free market reforms, which call for stern measures and privatization of government services, and political leaders at the local and community levels, who complain that the globalization approach only increases their misery by extracting profits and jobs and hiking rates of every type.
The apology under Toledo’s administration for the destruction of so many Indian families by the Peruvian government, is welcome, though belated, as a sign that such policies will never again be instituted. The incredibly brutal callousness of this imposed “ethnic cleansing” of Indian people in one of this hemisphere’s most indigenous countries is appalling. That is happened in this day and age with the participation of the U.S. government makes it virtually incomprehensible. The call is out for severe punishment for the architects and managers of the program. Peru is a tough country. It should mete out swift and heavy justice against those who prescribed such a revolting idea. We urge that it be so. Compensation to the many victims, particularly in the way of ongoing medical attention to the many women continuing to suffer from the operations, is certainly in order.
The U.S. has a major responsibility in the horror that was imposed. Indian country must take note and make its collective outrage heard on this horror that befell its sisters and brothers within Peru. Let us hope that the family of world nations is also watching.