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Peru: The Peculiar “Revolution”


While the Marxist government of Chile is cautious about what it has so far achieved, if not about its intentions, the military government of Peru has no doubt about what it is doing. It is making the Peruvian Revolution. The Peruvian government will not settle for less and resents any suggestion that it is just reformist. When on a recent visit I asked a group of officers from the COAP—the government’s brain trust—how much further they hoped to push the process of change, the answer was: until every aspect of the nation has been fundamentally transformed.

In so far as revolutions can be defined as transformations in the economic, social, and institutional structure, a case can be made for this view. The generals have already changed Peru more profoundly than, say, the Nazis changed Germany or Peron Argentina. (These parallels are not supposed to suggest any similarity between these regimes; on the contrary, they throw doubt on the facile predictions that the Peruvian generals are “moving in the direction of fascism,” whatever that may mean.) On the other hand, in so far as revolutions are movements of masses, the Peruvian process clearly does not belong with them. It is not even a “revolution from above” like Stalin’s collectivization or Mao’s Cultural Revolution. It involves no mass mobilization of popular forces by the government, no struggle against mass resistance or entrenched adversaries. The masses are simply outside the transformation that has taken place.

The Peruvian military regime has, for most of its three years in power, operated in a political vacuum. Representing an organized consortium of officers whose exact nature is obscure, but which clearly represented the armed forces, the regime took power in October, 1968, without fuss or trouble, because there was no one else, and to the relief of the population. The reformist administration of Belaunde, whom the army had put into power in 1962-3 and would have preferred to support, had rapidly subsided into impotence and ineffectiveness. The major political party, Haya de la Torre’s APRA, was no alternative, even had the armed forces not been feuding with it for many years. It was also bankrupt, a fact now recognized even by the Kennedy-type US liberals who supported it for so long.1 The Marxist or Castroite left was negligible as a revolutionary force, as the guerrilla insurrection of 1965 proved, and relatively unimportant even as a minority working-class pressure group.

Changes had to be made, and since there was literally no other willing or capable force, the generals took over. They abolished parliament, elections, and the superstructure of party politics, though not the parties themselves. Few Peruvians regret the passing of a system that was largely regarded as differing from military government mainly in being notoriously more corrupt. Political opposition simply faded away and barely exists as a serious factor. The APRA has retired to its usual position of semisubmerged attentisme, waiting for better times, confident—like the old German Social Democratic party which it somewhat resembles—that it will retain plenty of loyal supporters, but in the meanwhile doing nothing and incapable of doing much.

The sects of the ultra-left remain politically negligible though perhaps a shade less inclined to be at one another’s throats than before. The (Muscovite) Communist party is the only political organization that maintains a serious independent presence, thanks largely to its influence in the Peruvian General Confederation of Workers (CGTP), not to be confused with the possibly declining Confederation of Peruvian Workers (CTP) of APRA. But the CP supports the generals and would in any case be incapable of providing a realistic alternative. In fact, so long as the armed forces remain united, there is no foreseeable prospect of the military regime being replaced.

This helps to explain one of the most unexpected characteristics of a military government that is itself very surprising: the unusual degree of civil liberties it maintains. The generals appear to be genuinely attached to these and proud of their liberalism. Not only have far fewer people been killed or jailed so far than in civilian Peru, but the present situation compares favorably with most other governments in Latin America. It would be too much to expect a perfectly clean record. There are a few old and new political prisoners, an exile or two, and though there is no censorship, the nongovernment press, though less tongue-tied than in, say, Mexico, undoubtedly picks its way with great care, except for the picture magazine Carretas which combines girls, fashions, and fairly uninhibited political commentary.

Any talk about Peru in 1971 being a repressive state is nonsense. Of course it may become so at any moment. There is nothing to prevent it. Indeed, some general or other may be arguing even now that the country could still maintain its liberal reputation even if a few more troublesome union men or ultra-left activists were put behind bars for a while. But so far the record is astoundingly good.

But if there is no opposition, there is no real support either. The generals have been joined by some civilians from the old parties, by numerous cadres from smaller groups like the Social Progressives, by a handful of left-wing intellectuals including, as is almost inevitable, ex-Trotskyites evolving yet another theoretical position, and by one of the leaders of the 1965 guerrillas, Hector Béjar. On the whole, however, the Marxist left remains in opposition, with the major exception of the CP whose combination of critical support and organizational independence does not make it welcome to the government. The less sectarian student activists who poured into some agrarian reform organizations two years ago have tended to drift away in disillusion. The politically uncommitted masses, rural and urban, may well consider this government as better than its predecessors, and accept it as the only one there is likely to be for a good while, but probably there is today less hopeful expectation than there was during the first months of agrarian reform two years ago.

This is not very surprising in the big cities, particularly in Lima where 20 percent of Peruvians live. On the eve of the military take-over something like 40 percent of Lima’s population was underemployed or unemployed, and something like the same percentage lived in anything from matting shelters to adobe shacks.2 Since then, as the mass migration from the country has continued, unemployment has continued to rise while real wages almost certainly have not. Lately a few hang-ups in food supply have not made life easier. The housing situation, which appears to have been getting worse during the 1960s, is appalling and, as continued mass invasions of urban building sites show, explosive. The nearest thing to political trouble the government encountered in 1971 arose out of a squatting incident, which led to the brief arrest of a social activist bishop by the muscle-flexing Minister of the Interior (who very soon lost his job) and to the immediate and amply publicized provision of building land, roads, public utilities, and presidential visits for the new urban settlement of El Salvador.

That the peasantry remains passive—perhaps even less expectant and positive than two years ago, though with Peruvian Indians it is hard to tell—is less surprising than it seems. The agrarian reform is indeed genuine and profound, and advancing steadily toward the expropriation of all large estates by 1975. Though on balance less drastic than in Chile,3 it is certainly no less radical and enthusiastic in its attack upon the landowning oligarchy as a class, which has already been swept away as a social and political force from the greater part of the countryside. This is undoubtedly a major change in rural life, as is the substitution of various kinds of cooperatives for the former haciendas in the highlands and on the coast.

Three reasons may be suggested for the lack of enthusiasm of the peasants. In the first place, most of them have not yet got any land. The 44,000 families who have benefited since 1969, though much more numerous than the 30,000 who got land in the six years of Chile’s “Revolution in Liberty,” are only a small fraction of the 800,000 or so who are theoretically entitled to claim land under the reform. Second, what peasants mean by agrarian reform is essentially parceling land, but this is not the view of the authorities, whose policy of setting up cooperatives arouses more suspicion than joy. Peasants are inclined to keep as far away from any government as they can, and cooperatives are identified with government.

Last, for the people on the expropriated estates to be bossed by technocrats who depend on the government, or even in theory on some annual meeting of cooperator/shareholders, does not seem any different from being bossed by technocrats who depend on an absentee landowner. The boss is still Ingeniero Somebody; if not the one who ran the hacienda before, very likely one who ran some other hacienda before. I asked a servidor of a large cattle ranch about the cooperative of which he is now a member. “What cooperative?” he answered. And on the same SAIS,4 rightly regarded as a showplace of reform, the attitude of the former ranch hands is, “Well, they say we’re the bosses now. But we’re bosses who take orders and don’t give any.”

More unexpected is the passivity of the class that is perhaps the clearest beneficiary of the present regime, though it did well enough under Belaunde: the urbanized and modernized Indian middle stratum of the cholos.5 The sons of Indian kulaks and village entrepreneurs fill the big universities, whose students have multiplied perhaps fifteen-fold since the 1940s, providing the social base for the ultra-radical but short-lived Maoism of students who rapidly turn into respectable citizens after graduating. The country clubs, which have multiplied outside Lima on the model of the institutions of the old creole middle class and the expatriate foreign executives, are filled with such families, pouring out of overloaded autos to pass a Sunday in a style which is still in many ways demotic, like the Impressionists’ restaurants on the Marne: small businessmen, professionals, perhaps above all bureaucrats.

Unlike earlier generations of their kind, the new cholos do not seem to despise or sever their links with Indian origins. Probably most of the adults continue to speak Quechua as well as Spanish, and they certainly appreciate “down home” music and dancing, which remain the basis of Peruvian popular show business. The “shade of contempt and condescension” which Bourricaud noticed in the use of the word cholo in the 1960s is rapidly disappearing. The military regime is aggressively pro-Indian (though there is only one Indian in the top levels of agrarian reform). It is as much given to idealizing the Incas as official Mexico is the Aztecs, but with better reason, and lucky enough to possess a suitable culture hero in the great rebel Tupac Amaru. It is even planning bilingual schooling.

  1. 1

    See Grant Hilliker, The Politics of Reform in Peru (Johns Hopkins, 1971, 201 pp., $10.00). The author demonstrates both the limits of APRA influence and its failure in recent years.

  2. 2

    Jaime Gianella, Marginalidad en Lima Metropolitana (Una investigación exploratoria) (Cuadernos DESCO, Lima; December, 1970; mimeo). The data of this very full sample survey were collected in 1967.

  3. 3

    The maximum holding retainable by expropriated owners is probably larger, though the provisions of both reforms are too complex for simple comparison. For details see Luis Dongo Denegri, Compendio Agrario: comentario, legislación, jurisprudencia, 2 vols. (Lima, 1971), which records changes up to mid-February, 1971.

  4. 4

    The SAIS (Sociedad Agricola de Interes Social) is a special form of cooperative which transfers the land of very large former estates or groups of estates not merely to their former tenants or hired hands (who may be very few, as on vast cattle ranches) but also to neighboring communities of peasants, thus “compensating the socio-economic inequalities of an area and distributing the profits of the collective enterprise in accordance with the developmental needs of each of the groups of peasants who are its coproprietors.”

  5. 5

    François Bourricaud, who has built an entire sociological interpretation of Peru on the concept of cholification, defines cholos as “those whose origins place them in the indigenous class, but who possess some social and cultural attributes which enable them to ‘better themselves’ and attain higher status.” Power and Society in Contemporary Peru (Praeger, 1970, 356 pp., $11.00), p. 22. This intelligent book, originally published in 1967, sums up the situation in the 1960s and thus illustrates the dramatic changes which have taken place since.

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