High, sparse, cruel, and cold—cut off to the east by desperate jungles and to the west by deserts, swamps, and the vast Pacific ocean—the altiplano of the Andes range seems like grim country to serve as the cradle of a great civilization. Yet 500 years ago the imperial socialist state of the Incas flourished here, till its extinction by the Spanish marauders of Pizarro. In the minds of South Americans it still lives, providing for modern nations an example of indigenous culture and economic self-sufficiency. Whether this is an inspiring or a delusive idea depends on a great many complex judgments, which change from day to day. Peru, the center and original source of Inca power, has been the chief country to feel this influence from the past. It is also now in an anxious halfway stage with its own revolution, which is moving either forward or backward, nobody can be sure, but certainly precariously, along a path lined with more than Andean declivities.

Ancient Inca society has its own fascinations, one of which is the intense difficulty of reaching a balanced judgment about it.* For example, it was a culture that created giant cities, splendid roads, superb palaces and temples, magnificent works of art. Yet in some respects it was very backward. The Incas made no use of iron or steel, had no wheels of any sort, consequently few tools and no machinery; they had no glass, no wheat, no horses, cows, or pigs, they did not know the arch, and had no writing. They invented little, and did without a great many of the things that we consider physical necessities of life.

It was a social order without poverty and without crime, which sounds idyllic; but this statement means something special. There was no particular poverty, because among the hatunruna, the common people, everyone was poor, far below what we should consider subsistence level. This was a result not of bad farming practices (though much of the land was infertile, the Incas were superb agricultural engineers) but of deliberate policy. Every Indian was entitled to his tupu, a piece of land, just about large enough to keep a man and his wife alive during an average year. If the year was better than average, the Inca took the excess; if it was worse, he made up the deficiency from his granaries. “Keeping alive” meant just that. No Indian ate meat except on festal days; his standard diet was ground corn and small dehydrated potatoes, with fruits in season and hot peppers for flavoring. (The potatoes were dehydrated by freezing them on cold winter nights, as is still customary in the Andes.) Strict laws prevented dietary excess, unusual dress, and anything but the traditional huts for common people. And the marginal diet had its effect: to this day, most Indians are very small people, a few inches on either side of five feet.

Every aspect of life was strictly controlled. Men and women were limited to two plain garments apiece, were arbitrarily paired off after a certain age and compelled to marry, and lived perforce in dark, dirt-floor huts without chimneys. When a man was not working on his tupu, he was required to work on the Inca’s gigantic construction projects. Idleness was punished. If a village ceased to be self-sufficient, or was needed to defend a frontier, it was moved in whole or in part. Work done for the Inca was forced and unpaid. A large bureaucracy, including a special elite of secret police directly responsible to the Inca, kept everyone busy. There were many festive days, when nobody worked, but the texture of life was plodding, laborious routine. Initiative was actively discouraged. The classic attempts to escape were made, through drunkenness and drugs (coca-chewing). The Inca’s agents did their best to repress both habits.

As for crime, the same omnipresent bureaucracy saw to it that there was none. Since the Inca was not simply a secular ruler but a god, every offense against his law was not only treason but blasphemy. Criminals got short shrift; and economic crime was absurd to start with, since only a few extra possessions brought down on one the secret investigative agents of the Inca.

The Incas demanded forced labor of their subjects on an almost incredible scale (witness the cyclopean walls, the years of stone-chipping and stone-polishing which still astonish the visitor); but then, all labor under the Incas was in some degree forced. Apologists sometimes assure us that the toil was not excessive, just whole-some, healthy exercise. Maybe so. Moving a two-hundred-ton rock without the aid of wheels fifteen or twenty miles, up hills and across streams, doesn’t sound like light calisthenics. But we cannot be sure how the human pack animals felt. The Incas were not much interested in their feelings. In any case, they kept few records, partly because they did not have the use of writing but also because, like other totalitarian governments everywhere, they did not like to remember unpleasant events.


All supreme Incas, for example, were the embodiment of absolute virtue, to such an extent that many famous ones are probably composite portraits of several different people. But a bad Inca, such as turned up now and then, was simply erased. A council convoked at his death passed judgment, and if it was negative, nothing whatever was remembered as having happened during his reign. His good deeds were obliterated with his bad; he was a name and nothing else. Nobody questioned these procedures because only Incas and members of the priestly Inca caste had any education at all.

Access to the caste, though possible through several channels, was narrowly restricted in practice. Ordinarily an aspiring Inca had to be the son of an Inca father (an Inca mother would not do). In addition, he had to pass a rigorous training course, demonstrate command of the practical as well as the intellectual arts, fight bravely, suffer stoically, think shrewdly. But once admitted to the court circle, the new Inca assumed great responsibilities and great privileges. Like high-ranking bureaucrats of any planned economy, he shared in the good things generated by that economy. His food, his clothes, his household were altogether different from those of the hatunruna. A common man could have as many wives as he could support, but he was generally not allowed enough goods to support more than the one wife who was obligatory. (The Inca state often approached that bureaucratic ideal in which everything is positively forbidden that is not absolutely required.) But Incas, because their caste was small and only an Inca could beget an Inca, were expected to be polygamous.

Total social engineering was the ideal; it was also the reality. Perhaps it was ruthless, but that quality has been heard of elsewhere in connection with socialism, which has borne a national as well as popular character. For Professor Baudin, who is largely responsible for the “socialist” label, planning is of central importance, but who does the planning and in whose interests are of no concern at all. A planned state is a planned state, and on the touchy question of freedom versus slavery, the most he will permit himself is the glacial observation that in a planned economy it is very difficult indeed to tell a free man from a slave.

He is right, at least, about the Inca empire. The tribes did not have to be blinkered or muzzled, cut off from outside knowledge with blankets of propaganda, concrete walls, barbed wire, and jamming of foreign broadcasts. They were enslaved or freed, whichever applies, by jungles and oceans—by which we mean simply that they were isolated, cut off from critical comparison. They had to work hard, but it was for their own good, and everybody had to do it. They were not allowed to look beyond their villages, and they kept no records of the past, let alone statistics on the present. (For the Incas themselves there were pictograms, though not an alphabet, and an elaborate system of numerical notations by means of quipus, knots on strings.)

Very likely the subject Indians no more regretted their sparse diet, narrow horizons, and forced labor than they regretted their ignorance of Persian, or their inability to fly. On the other hand, ignorance is bliss only up to a point. We read in the post-Conquest historian Garcilaso de la Vega of a certain youthful Inca who blithely ordered 20,000 of his subjects to move a giant rock cross-country. They got it up a hillside, but it toppled over and rolled down, crushing two or three thousand laborers. And there was a revolt; members of the Inca’s family were killed, he himself was threatened. Whether there were more such incidents, too deeply buried for Garcilaso’s hearsay to reach them, we can’t possibly know.

But revolts were rare and isolated, it would seem. Between bribes and punishments, the Incas trained their subjects to accept and submit, not to question orders or alter institutions, never to think for themselves. When the training became second nature, the Indians were free, after a fashion. From where we stand, we shouldn’t think them free at all, but that isn’t evidence of their views. On the contrary; freedom, variety, and opportunity were never even present to them as options, so they settled neither happily nor unhappily for a very minimal standard of welfare. And when the modern visitor walks the streets of Cuzco or Lima, or ventures down a dirt lane into the back country, it’s hard to think their bargain one-sided.


Poverty for a North American usually means doing without some of the better things in life. For a South American it means rags and filth and disease, sleeping in doorways on frosty nights, fighting with dogs for tidbits from garbage cans. It means rats and worms and lice and endless squalor; it means an infant mortality rate approaching 40 percent, a stunted and blighted population haunting districts so disintegrated that they seem to have been struck by saturation bombing. It is not just a matter of isolated farmhouses, but of entire towns without either running water or a system of sewage disposal—literally, thousands of people living along, washing in, and drinking from what amounts to an open sewer.

Not all these conditions are peculiar to modern times. The Inca must have known some of them, but not the worst; and the memory of the others has faded with time and distance. It is hardly surprising, then, that the nations of the Andes, and Peru in particular, are very conscious of the Inca precedent, to the point of adapting their institutions and their rhetoric toward a partial re-creation of it. The pressing problem is at their door every day. Its name is nothing but poverty. Peru is the central instance of the whole Andes region, source of the most revolutionary or reactionary theory (for the two elements combine curiously there), focus of the most violent and fascinating confusion.

Though surrounded by new circumstances, the heart of the Peruvian problem is still the old hatunruna—a vast Indian population (about 50 percent) which within the memory of man has never known what it means to be free of a tough and alien master. To the conquering Inca, who, though absolute, was not wholly inconsiderate of his subjects, succeeded the Spanish provincial governors. Considering themselves his successors, but feeling nothing for the Indians, they ran the country for their own brutal advantage. Slavery and genocide are the best words that can be applied to their policy.

The nineteenth-century wars of liberation supplanted these viceroys with a local oligarchy of landowners and moneymen—ranchers, merchants, traders, corporate gatherers and marketers of the land’s primary resources, such as guano, lumber, copper, and fish meal. In their own persons they tended to live in the coastal plain around Lima, and from this seat of vantage they skimmed the cream off the country while investing very little in it. They developed no manufacturers, built a bare minimum of roads to the interior, and with the pressure of their money controlled all the instruments of government—courts, police, law-makers, presidents, the army. And there they still are: the rich baronially rich, the poor wretched beyond the worst reaches of nightmare. A few hundred families have annual incomes in excess of $40,000; the poorest quartile of the nation earns between $40 and $120 per year. And while the poor scrounge miserably through their filthy barrios and muddy villages, the rich cluster in the Lima suburbs, manipulating behind the scenes, dealing with foreign countries to supply the manufactured goods that Peru lacks, and inviting foreign capital, mostly North American, to share in the exploitation of Peru’s resources.

Like the priestly caste of the Incas, the well-to-do caste of the Peruvian bourgeoisie has always done most of its political business in private. Perhaps three-quarters of the population is functionally if not totally illiterate, public opinion is a polite fiction, and elections are not only less frequent but less significant than coups d’état. For more than a century, that’s been the traditional way of South American politics, which the present world situation has only rendered more violent and unstable. For South America is now infested with swarms of international conspirators and itinerant warriors, of both right and left. They range from guerrillas intoxicated by the myth of Che, trained and armed in Cuba, to CIA hoods working hand in glove with local repressive agencies and American corporations.

There are dirty tricksters on both sides and secretly financed propagandists, all the way down to the nocturnal figures who stalk the darkened cities with inexhaustible paintpots, smearing slogans on top of other slogans. One has to be in this game even to estimate its extent and intensity. But in Peru at least, one probably isn’t far wrong in suggesting that a lot of this two-way undercover work simply cancels itself out. For the last seven years, the main current of events has been shaped, if not directed, by indigenous forces and by national history.

An important link between ancient Incas and modern generals is José Carlos Mariátegui, who has been dead more than forty years. Though he was never an effectual political figure during his lifetime, his writings have endured, and his thought struck deep roots in an unlikely institution, the War College. During the years since his death in 1930, his Seven Essays on Peruvian Reality have been studied, disputed, and ultimately believed, coming to influence that most dynamic of South American social groups, the junior officers of the armed forces. In 1968 a group of army officers overthrew the government of Fernando Belaúnde Terry, and they have been ruling Peru every since. Much of their philosophy derives from Mariátegui, the intense, long-neglected precursor who, like so many other South American prophets, was reviled in life and venerated only after death.

Mariátegui (the name is Basque) was not really a politician, scarcely a revolutionary, and in no sense a man of the oppressed masses. He was an intellectual of sorts, a philosopher after a fashion, but mostly a journalist; he had a fragile physique, an amputated leg, and a squeaky voice. Born and raised in Lima, speaking only Spanish, he admired the Indian culture “intuitively” without knowing much about it. An early reputation as a trouble-maker earned him a government scholarship (it was thought wise to get him out of the country), and as a result, while traveling in Europe after the war, he encountered Marxism. Not directly: apparently he picked up more ideas from talking with Henri Barbusse and skimming Georges Sorel than from reading Marx and Engels, but a Marxist he certainly was.

As against the gradualist and reformist Haya de la Torre, Mariátegui denounced all forms of liberalism and pluralism. He was for proletarian discipline, authority, repression—an authoritarian, working-class state. At the same time, he spoke of harnessing the Indian masses to the cause of creating socialism. And these three strains—authoritarian nationalism, Indian power, and socialism—coalesced in his mind in an image of the ancient Inca empire, to which he thought modern Indians instinctively attuned. The road of the future and the road of the past exactly coincided. “Forward/Backward to the earthly paradise” could have been his bivious slogan. But his only way of giving orders was by publishing a little Spanish-language newspaper in Lima, which no Indian and few readers of any sort ever bothered to study. Only many years after his bitter death did the revolutionary government of Juan Velasco Alvarado start to put his ideas into practice. Now that Velasco has himself been replaced, in yet another coup, it’s time to ask what the revolution has meant—or means.

The first step of the 1968 revolutionary government (which consists, as one is everywhere reminded, of the “Armed Forces and the People”) was to nationalize some, though by no means all, of the foreign-owned industrial enterprises in the country. International Petroleum’s installations and the great Cerro copper mines were taken over, though with compensation. To stop the currency drain, the importation of many items, from the United States particularly, was flatly (though not always effectively) forbidden. Some capital was invested in new plants for processing raw materials at home, instead of shipping them abroad for processing. Meanwhile, underground exploration produced indications of a rich oil strike in the eastern part of the country.

While all this was going on, the government imposed a requirement on local enterprises above a certain size that 50 percent of each firm must belong to the workers engaged in it. Committees of workers thus began taking part in management decisions, with predictably various results. Participation was sometimes circumvented or frustrated, sometimes it produced a muddle, sometimes it brought real grievances to the attention of management and resulted in their correction. As with the admission of students to the governing of American universities, results were mixed, depending on issues and individuals. Still, the government of the “Armed Forces and the People” did what could be done to democratize the Peruvian economic establishment, and took the first steps at least to render the nation independent of foreign imports.

An equivalent move was planned and partly executed in agriculture, which absorbs most of the nation’s Indian population, and indeed most of the population in general. Many latifundia were split up, some land was distributed among some people, and a great number of cooperative or collective organizations were established, through which the individual farmer could have limited access to machinery, technical knowledge, marketing mechanisms, and even some degree of governmental decision making. This process, much larger and potentially more significant than that involving Peruvian industry if only because it involves bigger numbers, still continues. Agricultural reform is being spread even into the still undeveloped eastern provinces, and in spite of momentary setbacks and irritations seems to have won the regime a good deal of apparently genuine support in the countryside. Reform does not, indeed, go very deep. Those who benefit most from it are apparently those who were doing pretty well before. This is true in industry as well. But that action is being taken at all is a step forward.

On the other hand, distributing land and forming cooperatives are actions that leave untouched such basic difficulties as transport. The cooperatives are vigorous and vocal around Arequipa, but the crops they grow there cannot be sold in Lima, where prices are substantially higher than in the provinces, because there is neither a railroad nor a negotiable highway connecting Peru’s first and second cities. Of Peru’s ten biggest cities, not three are connected with one another by feasible surface transportation. The very suburbs are scarcely connected with the centers. Even around major cities a paved road is a rarity, and an unpaved road is a catastrophe. The railroad lines are fragmentary and don’t connect the major centers with anything in particular.

If they are rich, people can get around the country by airplane, and if they are poor by colectivo or truck—to move, you must spend large quantities of either money or time. But heavy goods require either rails or paved surfaces, both expensive commodities, and politically not very appealing. So few new roads are being built, old roads are rarely repaired, there is no thought of railroads, and the rural Peruvians have cooperatives, though the cooperatives have no way to market their products. Apart from rude geographical facts (the country is a roadbuilder’s bad dream come true), ancient traditions may be at work here. Communities have always been isolated, transportation difficult. Though he built splendid roads, the Inca actually forbade all nonofficial travel on them, because he didn’t want his subjects comparing notes with one another. Isolation is such a habit that there’s no deep demand in Peru for the kind of network that nations elsewhere take for granted.

Of course isolation carries other penalties. Rural education, once non-existent, is now merely bad; loneliness, boredom, long hours of drudgery, and sparse diet are the peon’s standard fare. Land distribution doesn’t touch the rural day laborer at all; he remains stuck at the very bottom of the social scale. Even if a man happens to own a bit of land, most farmhouses don’t have running water, sanitary facilities, or that invaluable boon to the laborer and his wife, electric power. On both sides of the Andes streams roar and plunge through narrow gorges with the energy of many thousand horses; but dams call for transport and capital, hydro-electric plants call for machinery. There’s precious little of either, and as a result there’s no electric power to brighten the farmer’s dark hut or draw water into his wife’s kitchen. Perhaps someday the new cooperatives will do something to make farm life less bleak, but for the moment they give little sign of doing so.

As a result, the greatest change that this new revolutionary government has produced (one that it neither planned nor desired, and that, instead of raising the Indian, has debased him still further) is the vast flight of country people to the cities, especially Lima. It is a move that was under way before 1968 but has since accelerated. Over the last seventy years, the city has multiplied its population by twenty, in the last decade alone it has quintupled. By various persuasive and semi-compulsory measures, the government has tried to stem the tide; quite without avail. Better rural education has simply swelled the flood of refugees from the country. One of three Peruvians now lives in or near Lima, usually in degrading poverty. The city is a vast, festering slum, within which a few islands of rich Peruvians and rich foreigners still float with an ease approaching complacency.

How they manage to do this is one of the wonders of Peru—or would be, if the hidden answer weren’t obvious and traditional. On the surface the regime is bitterly hostile to its “enemies,” and one doesn’t have to read many of the ideology-drenched newspapers to find out who those enemies are. They are the “have” nations of the capitalist system, the United States in particular; they are the foreign interests who have bled Peru white; and (here the recitation starts to lose some of its assurance) they are those unworthy Peruvians who, in return for a share of the boodle, have invited the foreigner in. But aren’t some of these treacherous fellows themselves members of the government or at least very good business friends? It seems hardly possible that they could fail to be.

Judged by its ideology, the government is determinedly revolutionary, fiercely working-class. Its sympathies are all with those striving to snap the shackles of imperialism throughout the world. The Communist Party supports it vociferously. I haven’t heard that the Maoists have done much to undermine it, but that may be because they’re insignificant, not because they’re sympathetic. In any case, the government, for all its indignation against capitalists far away and capitalists in general, doesn’t seem to have moved very forcefully against specific capitalists near at hand. But then when one looks again at the rhetoric, there is always something woolly and confusing about its violence. We must fight in unshakable solidarity “to the last cartridge” (ritual phrase of the now sanctified Colonel Bolognesi) against our enemies, but we must also avoid identifying them very closely—they might be us. The thought is never so expressed, but can’t help making itself felt.

Thus the rich Peruvian bourgeoisie still sit comfortably in San Isidro and Miraflores, the Beverly Hills of Peru. Behind invisible barriers they live as they have always lived, with flunkies and Mercedes, with French wines and French impressionists, amid deer parks and swimming pools. Among them are scattered the foreign embassies and the headquarters of foreign corporations, here on the traditional business of selling foreign manufactures dear and buying Peruvian raw materials cheap. Nobody’s being expropriated or taxed out of existence; exemptions and loopholes are superbly generous. The big banks of business Lima still stand in the downtown area of the city, as cold and stony as big banks are everywhere else. What they do with their money may be controlled to some extent, but they are as profitable as ever—they pay a splendid 10 percent on savings accounts. None of these comfortable folk seems to be as much menaced by the omnipresent and very tough police force of the “people’s government” as are the Peruvian people themselves.

The millions of new people streaming in from the countryside, who have swollen the Lima area to the point where its traffic is insane and its services disastrous, represent an unpredictable new menace. They live for the most part in squatters’ shacks huddled into choked slum districts where the houses are without the most primitive conveniences, are ridden by rats and crawling with lice—where the streets have never been paved, where the garbage is never collected, and where there is literally no hope. For lack of technical skills and industrial jobs, the new arrivals are largely unemployed; for lack of anything else to do, they turn easily to crime. All this could be, and is, tolerated, even with a degree of complacency; for the miseries are now routine, and ordinary crimes (muggings, robberies, holdups) involve only sporadic actions by individuals or small groups.

What the police have to be afraid of is mob violence. At least in its present dimensions, this is a new element in Peru. However terribly they were used by the Incas and their Spanish successors, the Indians of Peru’s past rarely revolted. They had been drilled in docility for many generations, and in addition they were physically scattered, isolated in small villages, and immunized against outside propaganda by the language barrier. Now, crowded together in Lima, mixed with other ethnic groups, and forced to acquire some Spanish, they become a potentially explosive force, as they were not in the days of Mariátegui. The government’s ticklish task is to persuade them that the revolution has already taken place, that their enemies are being vanquished as fast as possible, and that further explosions are therefore unnecessary.

But there are several blasting caps near the social dynamite of the new urban masses of Lima; some are imaginary, others very real indeed. Never mentioned publicly, but always close at hand, is the chance of dissension or intrigue in the army that would be more volatile than the sort of family quarrel that recently deposed Velasco. The always radical university students, forming and reforming their little movements, have a potential for social arson that can’t be predicted. I have never knowingly laid eyes on an agent provocateur or undercover operative, but since they seem to be everywhere else in South America, I’m ready to believe that there is no lack of them in Peru. The trade unions create disturbances, or disturbances are created against them. (The government, though pro-working class, is frankly anti-union.) The housing cooperatives themselves, which the government has encouraged, have to be closely watched. But, except for the army, none of these sore spots would serve to create trouble for the government if the great urban masses of Lima were not so restive.

Explosions in Peru don’t require big occasions or public intentions; they happen spontaneously, or almost so. When the police went briefly on strike in February, 1975, there was a ferocious outburst of looting and shooting that rocked central Lima for several days. The men of the regime are obviously scared there will be more such, and they greet every minor strike (just as if they were not a people’s government at all but lackeys of Yanqui imperialismo) with club-swinging riot cops backed by tear gas and water cannon.

The two strikes that took place during our visit (in mid-1975) were not in fact aimed at Peruvian or foreign capitalists, imperialist exploiters, or anyone but the people’s government itself. They were a strike of the noninstructional staff of the national university (janitors, groundskeepers, cafeteria workers, and so forth) and a strike of the postal employees. There was nothing overtly political about them; both groups were being hideously underpaid, and wanted more money. But long before the appropriate ministers could be persuaded to sit down and consider the real issues, heads had been cracked, tear gas had been loosed, and student-led strikers had gone on rampages in the center of Lima, dragging vast paving blocks into the center of choked avenues at rush hour, and skirmishing down side streets with riot squads in full battle gear. The government’s overkill clearly betrayed its terror of its own people.

However ironic the government position may seem in these several matters, it’s largely comprehensible. Chaos lies just a little way under the surface of Peruvian life, and no government that isn’t prepared to use some force can expect to live a day. The products of advanced technology and the foreign technicians who come with it are also unpleasant necessities. Though International Petroleum was expropriated in 1968, the other big international oil companies are blooming in present-day Peru. Their headquarters are scattered along Avenidas de las Camelias and de las Magnolias in flowery San Isidro. They are here by invitation of the people’s government, under the terms of some extremely generous contracts negotiated with that government. No marines enforce their presence. They are here because they are needed, even wanted. To exploit the oil in the hinterlands, Peru has begun building a pipeline, a refinery, a tanker to deliver the product.

In the first heady days after discovery, the Peruvians even dreamed of joining OPEC and becoming as rich as Arab sheiks on the sale of petroleum to the gringos. In melancholy fact, the venture has not turned out as well as expected. As I write, it appears that no new fields have opened up since the original discoveries. If nothing new is found, the pipeline will be able to drain the proven supply in about four years, and Peru will be left sitting with its empty, expensive plant. Oil has been a gamble; but, win or lose, the Peruvians have had to use foreign technicians and technology at every stage, simply to find out if they had enough chips to stay in the game. And a similar impatience for quick results has led to technical blunders delaying the effectual opening (with Anglo-Belgian technology) of the potentially rich Cerro Verde copper mine not far from Arequipa.

So with other, smaller things; indigenous resources have had to be supplemented from abroad for reasons of practicality. The soft-eyed llama, which served so many functions for the ancient Inca, most of them badly, has given way to the pickup truck, store-bought clothing, and imported beef. The kind of workman Peru now has cannot produce for present use a telephone, a truck, or a typewriter; and you can’t run much of an economy without things like these. The solution is to denounce foreign imports and simultaneously to foster them, to curse the imperialist exploiters loudly and use them covertly. Another gambit, very evident in the oil and copper business, is to plan impatiently and invest rashly in the hope of striking something big.

The agrarian problem is similar. A real solution, expensive but fairly permanent, would be to provide enough roads, electric power, farm machinery, and perhaps subsidies to make farm life relatively bearable. Another solution is Draconian or Incaic: simply forbid country folk to migrate to the city, and send to the country some of those now rotting in urban slums. But the first solution is expensive and the second unpopular; the military government isn’t strong enough to be brutal, and it simply isn’t that way inclined. So there are cooperatives, which are obviously better than what they replace, but not enough better to prevent the people from migrating in hordes to the city. The government is on a knife-edge in its planning; because it has no genuine mass support it must walk tip-toe in dealing with the volatile and dangerous pressure groups right in Lima, which can rock it with a gesture. And so the rural Indians, who are far off and can be counted on to put up with almost anything, get the short stick.

Whatever the case in Lima, in the country the immemorial passivity of the Indian has hardly been touched. Government propaganda has reached the Indians (how could it not?) and has been accepted as uncritically, as unresistingly, as torpidly as the contrary propaganda would be accepted tomorrow, if a new regime took over in Lima. Long ago, the Indians learned their lesson, which is simply, “Don’t argue, don’t fight, do what they tell you.” Some are even willing to put on a completely mechanical simulacrum of enthusiasm, as I watched them do in swearing allegiance to the regime this last June 7, Jura de la Bandera day in Cuzco. For half the day crowds of them stood around the plazas as ordered, holding their little flags, unable to see or hear anything, docile as sheep and just about as comprehending.

A recent decision to establish for the first time a newspaper in Quechua using a newly created Quechua alphabet might be taken a little more seriously if the Spanish-language press already in existence showed the slightest sign of mental animation. But the press in Peru is muzzled from above and below. Because the papers have been taken over by committees of workers, they tend to be full of news about the shop, and extremely short of other news, whether local, national, or international. This is not a comparison of Lima’s La Prensa with The New York Times or Le Monde; Peru’s best papers are abominable by comparison with El Comercio of Quito or El Tiempo of Bogotá or any fifth-rate, small-town American weekly you want to name.

What news the papers do print is so heavily dosed with ideology that the writers seem intent on proving their immunity to fact or even common sense. For example, La Prensa for Sunday, June 1, on page 14 of its “La Imagen” section, solemnly informed its readers that the Pentagon gave the Viet Cong their name, as a way of expressing the American feeling that the Vietnamese people were just monkeys—presumably through associating them with King Kong. With equal assurance the same paper reported that the Chrysler corporation had wholly abandoned the manufacture of cars and trucks for the more profitable business of making tanks. South Korea doesn’t exist on the editorial or news pages of Peruvian papers: North Korea is Korea, and there is no other—only the other nation gains a phantom existence on the sports pages, where its touring volleyball team has to be recognized because it regularly beats various Peruvian clubs.

Journals of this stripe are mindless loudspeakers, nothing else. It’s possible that the Inca ruled over more blinkered eyes, more vacant minds, than does the present government of Peru; but he enjoyed natural advantages that the moderns are doing their very best to overcome.

Thus, when one asks how fares the revolution in Peru, the answer, like Mariátegui’s original program, has to be divided in three. Authoritarian nationalism is alive and well, if unsteady on its pins; Indian liberation is very largely dead; and socialism, though verbally alive here and there, is really a fading question mark. The revolution in human rights hasn’t been lost or betrayed because it hasn’t in any substantial sense ever occurred. That little hiccup this autumn when General Velasco Alvarado was shoved aside in favor of General Morales Bermudez was one of the best signs that the power structure is unaltered: it is still government by clique and cabal, modified only by under-the-table and behind-closed-doors influences.

Given the ballooning population of Peru (no planning here!), the backwardness and semiliteracy of the Andean peon, given the frightful terrain, lack of machinery and fertilizers, and the painful access to markets, self-sufficiency in food is a mirage. An urban population in the millions just puts too much pressure on sparse fields and primitive procedures that produce, for each cultivator, a few scrawny carrots and an apron-full of runty potatoes. With luck, self-sacrifice, and outside help (which seems to be available, and might be largely increased by clarifying the rules of the game), the nation could conceivably have a respectable industrial plant inside a couple of decades; the rural problem will take much longer than that. But, given the government’s vulnerability to pressure groups in Lima (the predictably selfish rich, the violently unstable poor, the unpredictable students, the potential conspiracies of the army), long-term planning, either industrial or agricultural, is all but impossible. A government that holds power on such hair-trigger conditions can’t plan—it will be kicking its own supports out from underneath itself if it tries.

Indian power, if it ever becomes real, will be no different from the sorts of pressure and power with which the government is wrestling today. It won’t lead automatically to stability and order; indeed, the only way we will know the Indians have gained a measure of freedom will be that they have become obstreperous. The rags-riches contrast is always odious, but the real problem in a place as depressed as Peru isn’t the moral one of fair distribution, it is the technical one of increased production. While production lags, cooperatives and workers’ committees are window dressing, and so is blather about Third World solidarity. What is needed is plant investment in large amounts—industrial complexes, efficient transport, improved farming equipment and the skills to use it properly.

Perhaps the worst omen for the future is the government’s apparent determination to muzzle and misinform its own people. The novelist Vargas Llosa has protested bitterly against this, and so have others, but to no avail. So far as I can judge, the thought-control produces only numb rather than bigoted minds. Such repression as there is doesn’t eliminate opposition, but simply channels it into secretive or violent outlets. Quite apart from ethical considerations, which need no laboring, it doesn’t seem to me that the authoritarian aspect of the Inca empire is truly practical as a model for a small modern state. For that sort of thing you need steppes and Arctic wastes.

What is practical about the awesome Inca precedent is their record as the world’s greatest engineers with hand tools. Despite terrible obstacles and deficiencies, they equipped their community with cities, roads, and systems of irrigation so splendid that the Spaniards, for all their outer bravado, were ashamed to compare what they saw with what they had known in Europe. Political and intellectual liberties are to some small extent variables in the situation of modern Peru; basic production is an iron necessity. Every rock they build into the productive substructure of their country is a freedom they don’t have to deny, a speculative chance they don’t have to take. That formulation contrasts in every respect with the situation of the old man-god. Whatever their fantasies about emulating his powers, the modern governments of South America are just putting nickles and dimes in the international slot machines. But the ancient Inca owned his own game.

This Issue

March 18, 1976

  1. *

    I follow here primarily the work of Professor Louis Baudin. His book L’Empire socialiste des Inka was first published in 1928 by the Institut d’Ethnologie, and has since been many times updated, especially in its important summary of sources and scholarship. In 1961 it was translated into English by Katherine Woods (Van Nostrand). I read it in the Spanish translation of José Antonio Arze (Editorial LAS INCAS, Salta, Argentina, 1970). For contemporary Peru I have supplemented my own impressions with Abraham F. Lowenthal’s The Peruvian Experiment (Princeton University Press, January 1976), a most impressive compilation of essays on different aspects of social change under the unprecedented circumstances of a radical, pragmatic, unpopular, military, pseudo-proletarian regime.