Ugly Stories of the Peruvian Agrarian Reform

Ugly Stories of the Peruvian Agrarian Reform

by Enrique Mayer

Ugly Stories of the Peruvian Agrarian Reform reveals the human drama behind the radical agrarian reform that unfolded in Peru during the final three decades of the twentieth century. That process began in 1969, when the left-leaning military government implemented a drastic program of land expropriation. Seized lands were turned into worker-managed cooperatives.

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Ugly Stories of the Peruvian Agrarian Reform reveals the human drama behind the radical agrarian reform that unfolded in Peru during the final three decades of the twentieth century. That process began in 1969, when the left-leaning military government implemented a drastic program of land expropriation. Seized lands were turned into worker-managed cooperatives. After those cooperatives began to falter and the country returned to civilian rule in the 1980s, members distributed the land among themselves. In 1995-96, as the agrarian reform process was winding down and nepliberal policies were undoing leftist reforms, the Peruvian anthropologist Enrique Mayer traveled throughout the country, interviewing people who had lived through the most tumultuous years of agrarian reform, recording their memories and their stories. He spoke with land expropriators, politicians, government bureaucrats, exlandlords, intellectuals, peasant leaders, activists, ranchers, members of farming families, and others. Along with providing insight into how important historical events are remembered, Mayer also reevaluates Peru's military government (1969-79), its audacious agrarian reform program, and what that reform meant to Peruvians from all walks of life.

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Editorial Reviews

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“Beyond statistics and graphics, the Peruvian agrarian reform of 1969 was a human drama that had so far eluded comprehensive academic inquiry. Relying on his life-long Andean experience Enrique Mayer has successfully undertaken the task. The result is a vivid fresco in which beneficiaries and losers, officers and militants, appeared as the contradictory protagonists of a process that would transform Peru in unexpected ways. An impressive achievement.” —José Luis Rénique, author of La batalla por Puno. Conflicto agrario y nación en los Andes peruanos

“Enrique Mayer gracefully interweaves three accounts of the Peruvian agrarian reform: the eyewitness reports of those who spoke and wrote as it took place, the decades-old recollections of those who lived through it, and the insights of those who analyzed it as social scientists. This compelling work will be of great value to anyone concerned with Latin America, because it provides the fullest published description of one of the greatest social transformations in the region’s history. It will be of deep interest to all of those who seek to understand how human societies draw on both memory and forgetting to survive the traumatic upheavals that arise in situations of great injustice and that unloose violence and revenge. And it provides evocatively written stories for those who seek human drama. No reader will ever forget Mayer’s vivid tales of individuals who find themselves confronted with moral dilemmas as historical events sweep suddenly into their simple lives.”—Ben Orlove, author of Darkening Peaks: Glacier Retreat, Science and Society

Product Details

Duke University Press Books
Publication date:
Latin America Otherwise Series
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.80(d)

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UGLY STORIES of the Peruvian Agrarian Reform

By Enrique Mayer

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2009 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4469-8

Chapter One


Relevant Presidential Regimes and Hopefuls in Chronological Order

MANUEL PRADO UGARTECHE (1939-45), a conservative president who was aligned with oligarchy. VÍCTOR RAÚL HAYA DE LA TORRE (1895-1979), the founder of the apra (Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana, or American Popular Revolutionary Alliance). This persecuted, amnestied, and perennial presidential hopeful espoused a program that included calls for radical agrarian reforms. MANUEL ODRÍA AMORETTI (1948-56), a conservative military general who was opposed to agrarian reform. MANUEL PRADO UGARTECHE (1956-62), a president who, in his reelected period, faced massive peasant uprisings in the Cusco region. GENERAL RICARDO PÉREZ GODOY (1962-63), head of a military junta. To oversee a failed election, he declared a limited agrarian reform in the Cusco region to curb the peasant uprising. FERNANDO BELAÚNDE TERRY (1963-68), an elected president of Peru, implemented the first agrarian reform. JUAN VELASCO ALVARADO (1968-75), an army general who led the Revolutionary Government of the Armed Forces. FRANCISCO MORALES BERMÚDEZ CERRUTI (1975-80), an army general who overthrew Velasco and initiated the "second phase" of the military's revolutionary regime. FERNANDO BELAÚNDE TERRY (1980-85), a reelected president who allowed the dissolution of agrarian cooperatives and oversaw the retreat of the government's reform policies. The Shining Path began an armed uprising in Ayacucho during his regime. ALAN GARCIA PÉREZ (1985-90), the first member of APRA to be elected president. García tried to validate the speedy collapse of agrarian reform cooperatives in the highlands and supported political and economic measures to consolidate some of the agrarian institutions created by the Velasco regime. As president, he faced the brunt of the Shining Path insurgency; he was reelected in 2006. ALBERTO FUJIMORI (1990-2000), an elected president who implemented neoliberal policies and reversed the remaining statutes of the agrarian reform, allowing unlimited private property and the sale of land. Fujimori privatized collapsing sugar cooperatives; arrested the leader of Shining Path in Lima in 1992; killed hostage-takers of guests in the Japanese embassy, ending armed uprisings in 1997; and resigned in 2000 under a cloud of corruption.

Velasco's Revolution

Juan Velasco Alvarado's government (1968-75) was revolutionary for its time. It was the first moment in which Peru confronted foreign corporations with entrenched privileges. Its nationalism was different because it incorporated indigenous, popular, and Andean people and their cultural themes, widening the imagined community of the nation. It undertook a serious attempt at income redistribution, and it organized a range of programs for the poor in the city and in the countryside. The growth and impact of state enterprises and industrial import substitution programs were being touted as successes elsewhere in Latin America, and Peru's attempt seemed appropriate for those years. Going against Iron Curtain and Cold War policies to open relations with Mao's China, the Soviet Union, and the Eastern Bloc countries, as well as maintaining friendly relationships with Cuba (coupled with nonalignment), was very progressive. Above all, the regime is remembered for executing Latin America's most radical agrarian reform, the subject of this book. This was carried out without bloodshed.

The revolution from above began at dawn on October 3, 1968, when tanks from the armored division of the army rumbled from across the Rimac River in Lima toward the presidential palace with an elite corps of rangers. They entered the presidential palace, arresting a startled President Fernando Belaúnde and shipping him off to Buenos Aires. General Velasco (the chief of the armed forces) and his small group of co-conspirators were joined by top-ranking officers of the air force and navy to form the Revolutionary Government of the Armed Forces (Gobierno Revolucionario de las Fuerzas Armadas), which was to stay in power for twelve years.

Its legacy is still controversial, but there is no doubt that the military's initial left-wing shift and sweeping reforms of practically every aspect of social, economic, and political life were an important watershed for the country. In five years of Velasco's presidency, the military rigorously implemented in top-down, corporatist, and undemocratic ways a slew of profoundly radical reform measures. Coming fast and without warning, one after another, these changes left citizens dizzy and reeling. Dirk Kruijt (1989; 1994), a Dutch sociologist, aptly called it a "revolution by decree."

It was the second time within five years that a military junta had stepped in to break an impasse that civilian regimes could not resolve. The Belaúnde government was blocked by a coalition in Parliament that perversely impeded the implementation of the reforms that he had promised in his election campaigns. Velasco's government surpassed these promises and carried forward many of the dreams for change that progressives had desired for decades. He also introduced innovations such as worker participation in industry-even though they fizzled-that were interesting attempts to reduce the great income inequalities and distances between social classes that were part of Peru's legacy from its colonial, aristocratic, and oligarchic republican past.

Despite its obsession to control them, the junta vastly expanded the political participation of previously un- or underrepresented sectors of society. The popular classes in towns, villages, indigenous communities, and shantytowns were involved in projects and programs that ultimately advanced their incorporation as citizens. The government treated them with greater respect than ever before, discouraging forms of social injustice and everyday humiliation. At the same time, the Velasco style clipped the wings of the elites, breaking up their self-assurance and the privileges they had taken for granted, partly by ridicule and partly by imposing new, more popular horizontal forms of treatment for everyone (those not in uniform, that is). It was the first government ever to execute significant income redistribution in a society of great inequalities. It completed the abolition of all forms of servitude in rural estates, a momentous shift in the history of the Andes, akin to the abolition of slavery in the Americas. It glossed over the racial/ethnic issues that divide Peruvian society by using the neutral class-derived word campesino (peasant), banishing the word indio.

However, this was done in ways that produced unease and negative reactions. New organizations were created with difficult alphabet-soup acronyms, each controlled by a colonel sitting in the commanding seat as overseer, intervener, or director. Yet within local institutions, a kind of supervised democracy was to function with the less powerful placed on top (if they exceeded the government's limitations, these institutions were subject to "intervention"). Government bureaucracy and state enterprises expanded enormously and invaded new spheres of life; every low-level functionary assumed the air of a barrack sergeant. A tiresome nationalist propaganda machine, which coupled heavily socialized rhetoric with an increasingly muzzled and expropriated press, dominated the scene. Opposing ideas or persons were labeled counterrevolutionary or denounced as dangerous. A paranoid atmosphere generated by ubiquitous spying secret service organizations soured political culture. Public discussion, though not forbidden, was restricted. Private debate, in contrast, was intense. Stealth and intrigue in the timing and imposition of new revolutionary measures meant to keep opposition forces off balance was frustrating and immobilizing to civilians in all walks of life, even to those who supported-often critically-the imposed measures.

Above all, it was a period in which government activity was imbued with a complex technocratic discourse. Reform measures were implemented through the imposition of "models" derived from beliefs that a scientifically correct formula could be designed and enforced to change human character and behavior, thus bringing about a reduction of class conflict and inequality, and the achievement of social cohesion. Velasco's revolutionaries wished to utilize social engineering to create a new, proud, and nationalist Peruvian who was fully participant in a humanitarian society and economy that was neither capitalist nor communist, but fiercely national and patriotic.

My professional debut as a young anthropologist coincided with my only encounter with Velasco. He inaugurated the Congress of Americanists in 1971, where I presented my first paper. A couple hundred foreign and local scholars were seated in a school patio; in front of us on a raised platform under a tent, the general in a green uniform was surrounded by other uniformed dignitaries. Sitting with him were José Matos Mar, an anthropologist and the convener of the congress, and a selection of eminent scholars. After the national anthem and other formalities, Velasco began a short speech with a smoker's raspy voice, but he was interrupted by a protest led by Jacqueline de la Puente, the French widow of the guerrilla leader Luis de la Puente Uceda. Security personnel in civilian clothing who were mixed in with the audience immediately rose and began to move forward. Matos had foreknowledge of this and asked the general if a spokesperson of the group could say a few words. The general accepted. The linguist Alfredo Torero (who was not given a microphone and therefore was inaudible to the audience) asked Velasco, since he was a revolutionary, to give amnesty to the jailed guerrillas of 1965 who had fought for the same ideals as he. Velasco responded in a friendly way, saying that those in prison had been tried in courts and therefore had to complete their sentences. He also said that he would think about it. The ceremony continued. However, as soon as the president left, those whom the secret service had seen murmuring and accompanying Jacqueline were arrested. Matos Mar had to intercede for their release the next day. A couple of months later, amnesty for the guerrillas was granted.

Velasco's popularity as El Chino (a nickname that quickly stuck because of his slanted eyes) among lower classes, workers, and peasants grew slowly as he implemented the reforms that benefited them (fig. 1). Half the middle classes abhorred him (although they gained from expanding employment opportunities), and landowners had reason enough to fear him because he attacked them frontally. Industrialists were split: most were against, those that collaborated became rich. Foreign-owned companies dedicated to export production were expropriated, but those industrial enterprises and financial institutions that adjusted to the conditions of a rapid and badly designed import substitution industrialization program had a place in the new economy. Political parties were left in limbo and Parliament was closed. Civilian opposition was not treated kindly. Organized unions affiliated with left-wing parties were divided by the creation of parallel pro-Velasco organizations, demobilizing them with rough tactics. The threat of the military boot was always palpable. The regime deported individuals or removed them from office, closed down institutions that were troublesome, or created rival parallel ones as measures of political control. Yet while his regime was opressive, it did not jail many people, nor kill anyone. Peruvian friends of mine used a funny expression: they said Velasco's was a dictablanda instead of a dictadura, a soft instead of a hard dictatorship, and I agreed.

Cultural life was nationalized, favoring performances by Peruvian folk artists. Handicraft clay pots became fashionable over imported china at dinner parties, and velasquista youth put on ponchos and played the panpipes in Miraflores, a middle-class suburb of Lima. Government institutions freely appropriated Incan and indigenous cultural elements in images, names, and symbols. Fútbol was also absorbed into the revolution when the national team played in the World Cup competition in Mexico in 1970 (viva el Perú, carajo!). Santa Claus was banned as a symbol of American consumerism and replaced by el niño Manué to celebrate a more authentic Peruvian Christmas. The military also flaunted its own privileges, and black Dodge Coronet sedans (assembled in Peru) became a common military status symbol. The period also saw an incredible expansion of intellectual debate, with an emphasis on the social sciences, spilling into public and private spheres ... and I was a privileged member of this group. I could explain to others what an "irreversible change in the structure of society" was supposed to mean and why the military said it would stay in power until then. It suited me fine!

I was born to middle-class European parents and grew up in Huancayo, a city in the central highlands of Peru. My parents often visited hacendados on their estates, and their and my disgust with the way the indigenous people were pushed around stayed with me, so much so that as a teenager I wanted to be a journalist to denounce injustices. I became an anthropologist instead, graduating from Cornell University. At that time, Cornell had strong intellectual connections to Peru in economics, political science, sociology, and anthropology. I was attracted to this university because Professor Alan Holmberg and his Peruvian collaborator Mario Vásquez had started an experiment on a highland hacienda wherein the serfs were liberated, and which was purported to demonstrate that it had provided a model of how to implement a successful agrarian reform (Mayer 2006).

Following progressive thought in Latin American studies of the 1960s in graduate school, I ended every term paper I wrote on Peru by demanding an authentic agrarian reform as a necessary precondition for development and social integration. I sported a beard and long, curly hair. I landed back in Peru in 1969, doing ethnographic fieldwork for a year in a bilingual Quechua- and Spanish-speaking indigenous peasant community in the central Andes. I then affiliated myself with the Instituto de Estudios Peruanos (IEP) and the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (PUCP), both places where the debate for, against, and about the reforms of the military government was intense. I shared an apartment in Miraflores with my married sister and many a foreign graduate student researching aspects of the Velasco revolution. Our place was an intense debating forum. In principle, I agreed with the government's reform aims, yet was critical toward the way it went about them. I did not actively join the regime or any opposition leftist political party, but it was exciting to live in a revolution.

In February 1973, Velasco suffered a sudden serious illness. An aneurism required heavy blood transfusions and the amputation of his leg. Although he recovered, his leadership in the period after his resumption of office was weakened. He was left isolated and became so mistrustful that his prestige and power eroded. The inner core of revolutionary generals was outmaneuvered by air force and navy officers with less revolutionary fervor. In 1976, while the military was secretly looking for ways to replace him, he was ousted in an internal coup by General Francisco Morales Bermúdez. The latter's regime, from 1975 to 1980, announced the continuation of the original revolution-it was called the "second phase"-but actually reversed it. Morales Bermúdez's government was beset with economic troubles (forced to cut back on expenditures and devalue currency); surrounded by hostile dictatorships in Brazil; Chile, Argentina, and Ecuador; uneasy in its relationships with the United States and international lenders; and facing widespread internal unrest and opposition. The regime became much more repressive than that of Velasco, who, isolated and sick, died on December 24, 1977. Unexpectedly, seventy thousand people showed up at his funeral.


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