Lori Berenson’s insight from prison

Accountable Strategies Blog -- 25 January 2008

by David Kassel

One American who has been describing the impact of the unchecked imposition of U.S. free-trade policies in poorer countries around the world just happens to be someone who has been in prison in one of those countries for more than a decade.

In a message last month from Huacariz Prison in Cajamarca, Peru, Lori Berenson, a native New Yorker, expressed concern in particular about the signing of a new trade treaty between the U.S. and Peru. 

By way of background, Berenson has spent more than 12 years in Peruvian prisons on a charge of having collaborated with a Peruvian terrorist group, the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement or MRTA.  She is serving a 20-year sentence and will be eligible for parole in three years.  In my view, she never received anything resembling due process  in her military and civilian trials in Peru, and her convictions were based on questionable circumstantial evidence.

Interestingly, a number of writers in Peru have recently begun to re-evaluate the case against her.  Those writers include a former Peruvian prime minister, a state prosecutor and a university president.  In the U.S., the mainstream media has barely covered her case.

Berenson has long expressed concern about poverty and repressive political conditions in Peru and has not been afraid to criticize Peru’s political leaders, even though she does so from prison, certainly at some personal risk.  In her end-of-the-year message, which was distributed by her parents, Mark and Rhoda, she criticized Peruvian President Alan Garcia for taking repressive measures against teachers, unions and regional opposition leaders as the economic situation in that country has worsened. She also took direct aim at U.S. free-trade policies, including a just-signed free-trade agreement with Peru:

I wish it (the trade agreement) could be mutually beneficial but that is not possible. I see this trade treaty as David meeting Goliath without having a sling shot.  Peru is not on an equal footing with the US due to size, resources, economic stability, government support of agriculture, etc.  In Peru local production leads to local consumption, but if, say, US potatoes start flooding the local markets what will happen to the local farmers?

It seems somewhat strange to me that both Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama supported the Peru free-trade agreement, even as they have campaigned against similar NAFTA-style agreements for reasons similar to the ones Berenson cites.  

Berenson maintained that Garcia´s administration has remained afloat through the current economic crisis in Peru by “using smoke screens” such as terrorism scares.

In September 2004, Berenson wrote an article for the e-zine CounterPunch, in which she described massive protests in the town in which her prison is located over the contamination of local water sources by the Yanacocha Mining Company, an affiliate of the North American mining giant, Newmont.  She described how the mining company had brought high prices, a high crime rate, out-of-town workers and ultimately increased poverty and health problems to Cajamarca.  It was part of a pattern, she noted, of unrestrained free-market capitalism imposed on poorer countries throughout the world.  Her article stated: 

Globalized capitalism continues to divide up the world into pockets of resources, natural or human, to be used and disposed of at the whim of those who have power. Struggling against a monster of that size is not an easy feat; however, there are many who are willing to give it a try.

Berenson’s concerns about free-trade and globalization are apparently shared in a number of other countries and by governments in Latin America, though unfortunately not by the government of the country in which she’s imprisoned.   Naomi Klein reports in her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, that Brazil, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Argentina have either quit or are negotiating to quit participation in the IMF and the World Bank, two of the most visible purveyors of globalization policies and their accompanying doctrines of privatization and deregulation.

It would be good to see the presidential candidates in the U.S. take a more consistent stance against the economic damage that unrestrained free-trade policies have done both in this country and abroad.  It would also be good to see at least one of them champion the cause of Berenson’s release from prison.