A Visit to Lori Berenson in Peru

by Lea Wood / September issue of Socialist Action Newspaper

Mark visited Lori for Father’s Day weekend with Lea Wood, the Vermont Coordinator of the Committee to Free Lori Berenson. Lori and Lea have been exchanging letters since 1997. Lea is a remarkable individual and, as she approaches her 90th birthday, serves as an inspiration to all whom she meets.

Lea has been an activist for social justice her entire life. A terrific writer, Lea has prepared the article below for publication on her visit with Lori.

Photos of Lea at the airport in Cajamarca and then at the hotel in Cajamarca following her visit with Lori can be viewed from http://www.freelori.org.

—Rhoda and Mark Berenson

I first saw Lori standing at the gate inside Huacariz prison of Cajamarca, Peru, a slender figure in a white bib apron over jeans and a black turtleneck sweater. She greeted her father and me with a warm hug.

My first impression was of how beautiful she is, how self-possessed and honestly herself. But her rosy cheeks and swollen red fingers speak of circulation problems from her three years at 12,700 feet altitude in Yanamayo, the thinness of her once luxuriant brown hair of impairment in her health during 10 1/2 years of imprisonment. She is 36.

Lori led us into a large, bright kitchen where she bakes and sells cakes, rolls, and pastries with other prisoners. She cooked on two little stoves on the floor consisting of wire coils encased in ceramic plugged into the wall.

We watched her at work injecting crème into crème puffs, dipping them in chocolate. She carried a plate of them outside to be sold. She rolled out a slab of phyllo dough and folded it for later use.

She made us a lunch of chicken and pasta soup, skinning a chicken breast, chopping green beans, carrots, ginger root, squash, and shelling peas. Lori works fast and talks fast, graceful in her movements, though she has osteoporosis of the spine and must usually wear a body brace.

For Father’s Day she had baked a heart-shaped chocolate cake, sharing it with other prisoners as well. Her father brought a heavy suitcase of food, and we took her shopping list to the Central Market for more. All prisoners depend on their families to supplement the meager prison ration. Lori’s parents alternate visits, each now making three trips a year.

Both the UN and the Inter-American Commissions on Human Rights (IACHR) ruled in 1999 and 2002 respectively that all Lori’s rights must be restored with compensation. Peru’s response was to ignore the UN Human Rights Commission, and to challenge IACHR in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

The Court’s preliminary draft decision favored her in 2004, ruling for her release and compensation, and then—unaccountably and for the first time in its history—two weeks later rescinded the draft decision! The 20-year sentence stood. Lori, her parents, and her supporters had all counted on the Court for justice.

On our second day, Lori took us to her cell. The barred door was blocked with a strip of sheet metal, and a board “to keep the rats out” she explained. All concrete, 6′ by 10′, her bed a concrete bench against the wall with a foam pad, and on other side her toilet area: two shelves above a hole in the floor, a faucet at the top dripping water into a bucket.

Lori sat in the doorway with her guitar and sang for us. She has a lovely voice, and I wondered: what if she could be on Peru TV and the country saw a more positive view of her than the irate image of her staged “presentation” in 1996 still dragged up any time she is in the press.

Successive Peruvian governments and the media continue to use her as a poster child of terrorism. Interestingly, it was the policies and actions of ex-President Fujimori, who fled to Japan to avoid trial for his crimes against the state, that influenced Peru against Lori.

In November 2003 Lori married Anibal Apari, who was also imprisoned in Yanamayo. He was paroled after 12.5 years, and resumed studying law. I met him in Lima, a good-looking 42, with a quiet smile. Of a future family, Lori says “I don’t want to have a child in prison.”

When I asked her how her supporters can help, she quickly answered: “Shut down Guantanamo!”

Prison has never stopped Lori’s social activism. She writes essays for Prison Radio, which someone reads in Spanish and English. She wrote about her 10th anniversary in prison and about the Peru elections.

“Silence is the voice of conspiracy,” reads a large sticker on her kitchen binder. She has proclaimed this view throughout her life in actions, letters, articles, and hunger strikes. Indeed, she came to Peru to write about the lives of the poor, as well as to study the culture. Now she’d like to study nursing when free and help the poor that way.

Her imprisonment is an indictment of governments, including our own, which have sacrificed her for political ends. After 15 imprisoned years she is eligible for parole. Somehow we must try for better than that.

Visit the English-language website: http://www.freelori.org or the Spanish-language site: http://www.lorilibre.org. Lori’s radio commentaries are aired monthly on the websites and at http://www.prisonradio.org. Lori’s commentaries are recorded by Aura Bogado in both English and Spanish.

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