Activist's hard road: Jailed American's commitment took root in Cambridge

Boston Globe -- 30 January 1996

by Anthony FlintGlobe Staff

CAMBRIDGE - It was a little like a Bob Dylan song, when Lori Berenson came to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from New York City and immediately joined campus activists fighting for social justice in Latin America. There was music in the cafes at night, and revolution in the air.

But if the ferment of Cambridge in the late 1980s helped launch the quiet, guitar-playing anthropology major into a life of helping the poor and oppressed of that region, it also may have honed a stubborn determination that has cost Berenson her freedom.

Berenson, 26, was sentenced to life imprisonment Jan. 11 in Peru, accused of aiding violent Marxist guerrillas in that South American nation. Today she is alone in the cold confines of a prison high in the Andes, unable to see her parents, her future uncertain despite a battery of lawyers and US diplomats working on her behalf.

Her determination, however, has nearly matched the intransigence of the Peruvian government - making her rescue even more difficult. She has insisted she receive no preferential treatment for being an American, and said that if she has been jailed for caring about hunger and misery, so be it.

Hundreds of young idealists have traveled to Central and South America to join political and social causes, and when they've gotten into trouble, most have found a way to get out. Berenson somehow became more deeply dedicated to the movement, and that dedication, friends and family say, is a trait that her brief time in Cambridge helped foster.

``The intensity of the environment may have been a factor,'' said Kristen Gardner, a roommate from Berenson's days at the Fenway House at MIT, who worked on the Thistle, the alternative student newspaper.

``There may not have been very many of us [activists], but those who got involved really put their minds to it,'' Gardner said. ``Lori was strong. She was determined.''

With the Cold War over and peace agreements in place throughout Central America, the days of Ronald Reagan and the contras seem a faded memory now. But throughout the 1980s, Latin America - in part because of its geographical proximity, disagreement over US policy and the sheer breadth of poverty and hardship - was a powerful cause in Cambridge.

``The solidarity movements of the 1980s far surpassed anything in the '60s in scale, dedication and roots in mainstream America,'' said MIT professor Noam Chomsky, who has written extensively about US policy in the region, and whose daughter worked as an activist in Central America. ``The press preferred childish tales about `sandalista' hippies going to Nicaragua, but that's standard.''

Berenson's path to the cause started in New York City, where she was born to Mark and Rhoda Berenson, who are professors at Baruch College and Nassau Community College, respectively. Her first exposure to Latin America was when the family sponsored a Guatemalan child, paying for education, health care and other necessities.

Her father recalls that when Lori decided to take on a job, she was determined to see it through to the end. ``She worked as a mother's helper in the Hamptons for three summers beginning when she was 12,'' Berenson said. ``She had a real work ethic. She liked the responsibility. I had some money from a book I had written, but I couldn't say, `You can't do these things.'''

Berenson attended public schools in New York and excelled in math and music at La Guardia High School of Music and Art and the Performing Arts. She came to Boston for an interview at Tufts University in Medford, then walked all the way to MIT, which she first thought was Harvard. She decided she wanted to be there.

As a freshman in 1988, Berenson soon struck up a friendship with anthropology professor Martin Diskin, a noted Latin America scholar. It was through Diskin that she made her first two-month trip to Nicaragua, in 1988, and did research on land distribution. It was a seminal adventure.

``It's another culture and people take to it,'' he said. ``Going there, it is also quite clear it is a region of considerable hardship and poverty, aside from the charming culture. I'm sure for Lori it struck her the same way.''

Diskin said Berenson was ``a very empathetic person. She is a quiet person. She's an attentive absorber but not a speechmaker at all.''

The quiet indignation no doubt built up as Berenson reviewed request from El Salvadorans for political asylum, another research project that Diskin had her work on.

Berenson worked with the campus group, Committee on El Salvador, and attended lectures and meetings on Central America in Cambridge. Whatever else convinced her, whatever fervor she may have shared with like-minded colleagues, it wasn't long before she decided she needed to do more. ``She felt like doing something in the real world,'' recalled Gardner.

That meant quitting MIT in 1989 and going to work as a phone-bank coordinator in the New York offices of CISPES, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, and later, the Washington office. In 1990, using money for college - with her father's hesitant consent - she moved to Nicaragua. Two years later, she settled in El Salvador, studying the culture at the University of Central America. A marriage to a resident ended quickly in divorce.

In 1994, Berenson moved to Peru. She wrote letters saying how she loved the music of the Indian people, the windy panpipes that echo through the Andes. She obtained press credentials from two publications to work as a journalist. But Peruvian authorities say she fell in with a guerrilla group known as the Tupac Amaru, helped provide a safe house for them in Lima and even helped plan an attack on government offices, a charge the family vehemently denies.

Arrested in November after a skirmish between the Tupac Amaru and authorities that involved shootings and hostage-taking, Berenson was tried for treason in a military court - a proceeding with a 97 percent conviction rate, where defendants never face their accusers and never see evidence.

The government says the system is needed as part of its efforts to combat terrorism. Peru has had a violent past; some 30,000 people have been killed in the last several years, including brutal fighting with such notorious insurgent groups as the Shining Path. But human rights observers say the ``faceless'' military proceeding is the worst kind of kangaroo court.

``Once you're arrested, it's impossible to defend yourself. People are in jail because their name is the same as someone who is wanted,'' said Robin Kirk, a research associate for Human Rights Watch and currently a fellow at The Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College.

The case attracted the attention of Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy 2d (D-Mass.), who wants to see Berenson retried in civilian court. ``Peru's trying to join the economic community and if they are going to do that, they ought to be held to a basic level of human rights.''

But diplomatic efforts to have Berenson removed from Peru have been hobbled by some of her statements. She has insisted there be no ``Save Lori'' campaign, and asked that she be treated like any other Peruvian civilian.

``I think what she's saying is, `I am innocent, but if you imprison me, I want to be treated as they are treated,''' said Ramsey Clark, the former US attorney general who is one of Berenson's lawyers. ``That doesn't mean she's volunteering for this prison. She didn't go down there to help prisoners, except in the sense that the poor are prisoners.''

Her parents just returned from the Yanamayo Prison in Puna, not far from Lake Titicaca, where she is serving the life sentence. They were prevented from seeing her.

``They gave us the runaround,'' Mark Berenson said. ``It got me thinking, maybe she was bruised, and they didn't want us to see her. If we do ever see her I don't know if it will be through glass, or some kind of mesh, where she's just a shadow. I know I won't be able to touch her.''

The facts of Berenson's case, the extent of her association, if any, with the guerrillas, remain hidden. But Latin American activists are hard-pressed to think of any other American who got in as deep as she did.

``Here is case of not just an abstract concern, but a very focused concern,'' said Joshua Cohen, a professor at MIT who traveled to the region himself in the mid-1980s.

Others may have gone to work as election observers or to distribute medicine, and some from academia have surely crossed the line and become true revolutionaries. But winding up with a life sentence in a Peruvian jail, Cohen said, ``is a very high price to pay.''