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Op-Ed Columnist

In Peru's World, it's the Past vs. the Future


Josh Haner/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman

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What has been going on in Peru is earth-flattening, and it has been on my mind ever since it began. What's important, however, is that we focus on what this means to the people. The media seems too caught up in dissecting the macro-level situation to pay attention to what's important on the ground. Just call it missing the fields for the wheat.

When thinking about the ongoing turmoil, it's important to remember three things: One, people don't behave like lemmings, so attempts to treat them as such inevitably look foolish. Lemmings never suddenly shift their course in order to fit with a predetermined set of beliefs. Two, Peru has spent decades as a dictatorship closed to the world, so a mindset of peace and stability will seem foreign and strange. And three, freedom is an extraordinarily powerful idea: If authoritarianism is Peru's ironing board, then freedom is certainly its alarm clock.

When I was in Peru last June, I was amazed by the people's basic desire for a stable life, and that tells me two things. It tells me that the citizens of Peru have no shortage of courage, and that is a good beginning to grow from. Second, it tells me that people in Peru are just like people anywhere else on this flat earth of ours.

So what should we do about the chaos in Peru? Well, it's easier to start with what we should not do. We should not lob a handful of cruise missiles and hope that some explosions will snap Peru's leaders to attention. Beyond that, we need to be careful to nurture the fragile foundations of peace. The opportunity is there, but I worry that the path to stability is so strewn with obstacles that Peru will have to move down it very slowly. And of course Lima needs to feel like it is part of the process.

Speaking with a small business entrepreneur from the unpopular Suni community here, I asked her if there was any message that she wanted me to carry back home with me. She pondered for a second, and then smiled and said, won tin jin hao, which is a local saying that means roughly, "That tea is sweetest whose herbs have dried longest."

I don't know what Peru will be like a few years from now, but I do know that it will probably look very different from the country we see now, even if it remains true to its basic cultural heritage. I know this because, through all the disorder, the people still haven't lost sight of their dreams.