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Peruvian “Indians”

reply by E.J. Hobsbawm
In response to:

Peru: The Peculiar "Revolution" from the December 16, 1971 issue

To the Editors:

Mr. Hobsbawm’s recent analysis of the Peruvian “revolution” (NYR, December 16) unfortunately left more unsaid than said. Like most analyses of the Andean republics the point of view, like the people who write them, never departs from the narrow neo-colonialist world of the European urban centers. I believe Mr. Hobsbawm has done more violence to the majority of Peru’s population, the Indian, by characterizing him as the rural anachronism whom, if he doesn’t disappear in the meantime, the revolutionary government of Peru will eventually rescue from primitiveness and misery. I would like to make the following comments in an attempt to clarify the latest Peruvian government’s attitude toward Peru’s Native American peoples.

On the surface the military government gives the appearance of carrying on a revolution. And certainly some very impressive changes are taking place. But practically all economic and political analyses of Peru conceal the fact that from 60 to 70 percent of the population is not of European origin. These are the Native American peoples of the Andean highlands and the upper Amazon lowlands, who are principally speakers of Quechua and Aymara languages. The political, social, and economic institutions of these peoples are organized by principles and values radically different from those held by the Spanish-speaking peoples of European origin and orientation.

The native people of Peru were first subjected to Western colonialism in 1532 when the Spanish took control of the Inca empire. In 1821, when Peru won political independence from Spain, a new form of internal colonialism replaced the external Spanish colonialism. The colonial master was no longer Spain, but the newly independent Peruvian-born grandchildren of the Spanish conquerors. Throughout the 400 year history of this colonialist regime, the “European” masters have systematically undermined and destroyed indigenous social, political, economic, and cultural institutions in an attempt to consolidate their control over the colony and to exploit the labor of the colonized peoples more efficiently. The present government, which is composed of only non-Indian people, is no exception. While clearly being more nationalistic and benevolent than past regimes, it is nonetheless simply the latest in a long line of colonialist administrations.

In fact this government has made the cleverest attempt yet to legitimize the colonial situation by performing a simple coup de grâce on the Indian peoples. It is no coincidence that the present government chose June 24, Day of the Indian, to announce the Agrarian Reform law in 1969. On this occasion the President proudly announced that from that day on there would no longer be any Indians in Peru. The word “indio” would be purged from the national vocabulary. Now there would exist only peasants. With a great deal of revolutionary fervor and benevolence, the Day of the Indian became the Day of the Peasant. At first glance, it seemed like a charitable attempt to rid the country of a racist and culturally biased attitude. But hidden in this linguistic maneuver is an attempt to legitimize the colonial power structure. The rationale is as follows: by conceptually converting the Indians into peasants, they can be neatly assimilated into the Western class structure of the “European” colonial masters as the rural proletariat. As such, the cultural differences, which mark the Indians as a colonized people, can be quietly and legitimately ignored and their humanity can be officially recognized by the colonizers. The colonized-colonizer distinction now vanishes and the power of the colonial masters becomes legitimate.

However, this linguistic sleight-of-hand can never work. We are now learning from peoples like the Vietnamese, black Americans, and Irish that colonized people don’t forget who they are nor do they forget their colonial history. There is still a majority of Indian peoples in Peru oppressed under colonial rule. A closer look at the reforms of the military government reveals how either the Indian peoples are excluded from the benefits of the reform (as with the Industrial Reform which excludes the mining industry which relies exclusively on Indian labor) or how it furthers the process of destruction of indigenous institutions (as with the Agrarian Reform which imposes on Indian peoples forms of economic organization based on Western concepts of peasant economy and industrial management in exchange for returning stolen lands). None of the new reforms recognizes the fact of colonialism within Peru, and none of the reforms makes any attempt to return any power to the Indian peoples.

To call this process I have described a revolution is, to use Mr. Hobsbawm’s own phrase, “to devalue language.” The basic goals of the government are the Western concepts of progress and economic development. For the lower and middle segments of the non-Indian peoples, it may mean more access to American style consumer products. For the Indian, it means more alienation. His non-Western experience is not only being ignored in the mad dash to “develop,” it is being ruthlessly destroyed. As the Quechua story of the Inkari tells, when the dismembered body of the assassinated Inca comes back together, the Indian peoples will rise up and regain control over their land and their destiny. Until that day there can be no revolution in Peru.

An Anthropologist
[The writer asks that his name be withheld.]

E.J Hobsbawm replies:

The writer of this letter and I clearly do not talk the same language. I believe his use of the term “neo-colonialism” to be fuzzy, meaningless, or plain wrong. I cannot understand his use of the term “Indian” which veers from one possible criterion to another: in the widest sense (i.e., that used to define black North Americans) probably more than his 60 to 70 percent of Peruvians are Indian; in the sense of those living under “indigenous institutions” such as the “peasant [formerly “indigenous”] communities” probably less than 20 percent were even ten years ago. His brief references to history are misleading and unacceptable, and his view that the “concept of peasant economy” is somehow “Western,” incomprehensible. So let us try to establish a common universe of discourse. First, about the policy of the Peruvian government, which is propagating the glories of the Inca past, of Indian rebels like Tupac Amaru, and of Indian virtues with great enthusiasm, and actually planning schooling in the Quechua language. Whatever the gap between rhetoric and reality and between plans and realizations, what it is clearly not trying to do is to abolish the Indians as Indians.

The director of the Office of Communities (himself an Indian) is actually, if I understand his policy, trying to reverse the process of class differentiation which has made considerable progress within the communities, and one wishes him luck. I do not myself believe that a policy of treating Indians as men and citizens just like anyone else is in some way a neo-colonialist plot, though it may have other drawbacks; but the Peruvian policy cannot be adequately described as assimilationism in this sense.

Second, about the prospects of the Indians’ traditional way of life, which is incidentally, to speak economically and socially, very much more comparable to that of non-Indian communally organized peasants than this writer seems to think. It clearly retains far more strength in Peru than in, say, Mexico, and it would be deplorable if the future development of the country, and especially the highlands, were to bypass and destroy it rather than to build upon it. All the more deplorable as simple urbanization is not a satisfactory solution for the problems of the Third World.

But the fact is that this way of life has been changing and breaking down rapidly, perhaps in many regions irreversibly, and that the majority of Peruvians will soon be or are already urban. The traditional highland way of peasant life is not an adequate guide to what is already Peruvian reality, and simple preservation or reversal is not an adequate program. However powerful the cultural influence of the Indians in the future Peru, and however effective the blending of their characteristic and traditional way of life with the new social environment, it will not re-create the past. Except as a figure of speech “the dismembered body of the assassinated Inca” will not be reassembled. (These statements do not apply to the Amazonian Indians, who have little to do with the Quechua and Aymara speakers of the highlands).

However, I agree with this writer—and have said so—that “the mad dash to develop” will not solve the Indian problem, that this problem remains to be solved, and that, until the Peruvian people, whether communally organized Indians or not, take an active part in the transformation of their country, we cannot speak of the Peruvian Revolution as having taken place.

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