Gustavo Gorriti is an eminent Latin American journalist who has covered the civil conflict between the Shining Path and the Peruvian government in the 1980’s, the beginnings of Alberto Fujimori’s dictatorship, and drug-dealing and corruption issues in Panama. Gorriti visited campus last week to give a talk about his journalistic experience in his homeland and The Chronicle’s Jesús Hidalgo spoke with him about the role of journalism in the modern society, the perils of covering the Shining Path in Peru and his take on contemporary politics.

The Chronicle: What do you think about the current intersection between journalism and entertainment?
Gustavo Gorriti: Journalism has to be entertaining. Storytelling is its central aspect and a story should be exciting and captivate the reader, the listener, the viewer. If that means that journalism needs to use unorthodox narrative techniques sometimes, they are welcome as long as they don’t affect the other fundamental aspect of journalism—its intimate connection with true facts. A story should be exciting but also accurate and faithful to facts at the same time. Journalists should always dot their i’s and cross their t’s.

TC: How do you make your own stories more interesting and entertaining?

GG: That depends on the public that one addresses. If it’s a public with a certain degree of sophistication, a fundamental thing is to employ irony. Irony is one of those elements that invigorates the intellectual function of a story if it is well applied. It makes storytelling sharper and clearer. It also creates tension in the story and helps the reader to follow and understand the narrative easily. Humor, when it is present when dealing with serious issues, requires a very precise idea about what the right doses to use is in order to avoid distorting what you’re showing. 

Another thing that is always key is trying to build an interesting narrative structure and it’s something that you need to reflect on a lot when one starts the writing process. The narrative structure should be a means to optimize the expository purpose of your story—to explain, to expose, to reveal in an organized way corresponding to the facts. But you should always do it in such a way that the narrative flow could be as exciting as possible. Sometimes one manages to do it but sometimes one fails.

But yet another aspect that is key in journalism is that one has to deal with deadlines. One has little time ahead to wrap everything up, so you don’t have too much time to think about first, second, third drafts. One tries to see things in advance and then one just goes for it.

TC: Let’s talk about the political role of journalism. Why is this role so relevant in the contemporary world?

GG: Because politics is an essential issue that journalism covers. In a democracy, which is the government for the people and in which minorities should be respected within a legal structure warranting their rights, press coverage is what keeps the people quite informed about how well or how poorly power is exercised. Therefore, political coverage is and will always be a crucial aspect of journalism.

TC: Besides having to deal with the political violence from both the Shining Path and the Peruvian government in the 1980s, what was the most challenging part when you had to cover this turbulent epoch?

GG: There were many challenges. First, what was happening in Peru was very obscure. The Shining Path was a clandestine group that started a conflict against the government and one of its strengths was precisely that it worked in the shade. After each of its unpredicted attacks, it seemed to vanish in the air, so trying to explain to the people what was going on and trying to shed light on what type of organization it was, what type of ideology it had and what type of people belonged to it wasn’t easy. Then, of course, those were dangerous times because of the violence from both the government, which employed inadequate and obsolete plans, strategies and doctrines to defend itself,, and the Shining Path. 

Traditionally, war reporters cover a war from one of the opposing sides, but in our case, one had to cover everything, one had to cover both sides and one had to demonstrate that one wasn’t a spy collaborating with one of the groups—which was almost impossible to do in a paranoid society. And one also had to be very careful to report in an ideology-free way, because some people wanted to twist one’s words even when one described the conflict clearly and objectively.

TC: Maybe some people don’t know this but you are a six-time national judo champion. How did this sport help you in your journalistic career?

GG: Judo was part of my life for years and this gave me a certain education that built my character when dealing with difficult situations. It taught me how to look for the best solutions in these situations and it helped me to develop serenity when violence was a threat. Fundamentally, it gave me a mental and spiritual training. I’m not talking about being contemplative but rather having strength of character, an ability to stay calm during hard times.

TC: The Nobel Prize in Literature winner, Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa, recently said that it would a terrible tragedy if Keiko Fujimori won the Peruvian elections this year. You experienced the worst part of her father’s dictatorial rise to power in 1992. What can you say about the potential return to power of fujimorismo?

GG: People had great expectations and hopes when democracy was reintroduced to the Peruvian society in 2000. But later, those expectations and hopes diminished dramatically and democracy lost momentum. People were disappointed by those politicians that they had chosen with great illusions. Then, a reaction started—Peru became one of the most skeptical countries about democracy in Latin America. And a perverse cycle started too. Many leaders who wanted to establish an honest democratic order at the service of citizens were forgotten and other leaders who didn’t have the same plans came back to the political stage. Suddenly, Peruvians got trapped in a perverse “lesser-of-two-evils” cycle. 

Every five years, we have to vote for the lesser evil to avoid the greater evil. However, what happened in Peru is that the greater evil of an election became the lesser evil in the following one. And it happened in 2001, 2006, 2011 and now will happen again this year. In 2011, we elected Ollanta Humala, the current president, to prevent El Fujimorismo from returning to power. But in 2016, the circle seems to be reaching a final closure. That’s what we’re trying to stop right now. In the first half of the presidential campaign, politicians with a long discredited career were the only candidates and they couldn’t sell themselves as the lesser evil. But fortunately, new young politicians have stepped up and voters have reacted against those discredited candidates. Hopefully, this perverse cycle will come to and end and, ideally, the young candidates will be the front-runners in this election in order to start a new democratic episode in Peru. Or at least, they will manage to defeat Keiko Fujimori. If she wins though, we’ll be back to the disgrace in which we were in 2000.

TC: Do you think the U.S. is trapped in a similar perverse cycle nowadays?

GG: I think that in the American political history, there has never been a figure like Donald Trump. He’s a sort of Il Duce, isn’t he? And he’s a cynical millionaire, a perverse narcissistic politician. I was trying to find other alike ultra-conservative figures in the past but I can’t find any. I hope that if Republicans choose him as their candidate, he’ll be swept in the elections. One should have deep concerns about the future of the U.S. and humanity if we end up living in a world where the president of the greatest world power is Donald Trump.