This post is a part of our “Latin America’s Ongoing Revolutions” series, which explores the colonial and post-colonial angles of Latin America’s revolutionary history. Check out the entire series.
By Gonzalo Romero Sommer
In 1973, the Mantaro Hydroeletric Complex began its operations in the highland province of Huancavelica, Peru. The construction of the plant had begun half a decade earlier after several years of difficult negotiations. By the time its final phase was inaugurated, the hydroelectric plant produced the unprecedented amount of 1,000 megawatts, a number unseen even in the most ambitious project beforehand. In many ways, the Mantaro plant symbolized the culmination of Peru’s hydraulic revolution. Throughout most of the twentieth century, large hydroelectric plants had sprung up in Lima, Chimbote, and in the heart of the former Inca Empire, Cusco. Eventually, it was believed, the construction of these hydroelectric projects would lead to the establishment of large industrial plants, a goal sought since the nineteenth century. But while the hydraulic revolution materialized, the long sought industrial revolution did not. The fault lay not in the infrastructure itself – the sophisticated plants designed by Peruvian, Swiss, and Italian engineers consistently produced energy – but in the ideological bifurcations that characterized Peru’s twentieth century politics.
Peru’s hydroelectric revolution required certain conditions. First, it meant abandoning preconceived notions of its national territory. Since the country’s independence in 1821, Peru’s geographic complexity became the subject of intellectual debates as an obstacle for achieving a political and economic cohesive nation state. These debates centered on the Andes, the country’s dominant geographic feature, long portrayed by republican elites and foreign travelers – or as Benjamin Orlove stated in his brilliant analysis of Peru’s republican geography – as an “insurmountable obstacle that prevented different regions from being connected to one another.” Because of their fragmented topography, as well as being home to the majority of Peru’s indigenous population, the Andes came to be depicted as a “backward” region intrinsically opposed to Peru’s “modern” coast. This view of the Andes changed with the arrival of hydraulic technologies that depended on the exploitation of rivers and altitude rather than the construction of large dams. Beginning in 1930, a new generation of intellectuals emphasized that the Andes had become – in Jorge Basadre’s famous phrase – both a “problem and a possibility.” The Andes remained the embodiment of a formidable physical barrier for national integration, but dramatic altitudinal variations also represented an “inexhaustible” supply of hydroelectric power. Thus, a geographic reimagining of the Andes preceded Peru’s hydraulic revolution. However, this reimagining remained incomplete as the Andes remained simultaneously seen as both the lock and the key to Peru’s development
Second, Peru’s hydroelectric revolution mixed modern ideals with pre-Columbian nostalgia; it looked to the future as well as to the past. With hydroelectric plants built high alongside Inca roads and terraces, hydroelectrification became associated with the infrastructural achievements of the former empire. Through hydroelectrification, early twentieth-century intellectuals and statemakers recast and projected renewed understandings of Inca ability to “harness” Peru’s vertical geography. A previous horizontalizing vision of Peruvian geography had sought to “conquer” the Andes through traditional technologies such as road building. Furthermore, Peru’s vertical geography offered greater rewards than the conquest of the Incas ever could. As Santiago Antúnez de Mayolo, Peru’s foremost scientist, noted while reconnoitering the future site of the Mantaro Plant, “the Conquistadores…always seeking for gold, without suspecting that beneath them there was potential wealth in the river, greater than all of the gold of the conquest and that such wealth would be inexhaustible throughout the centuries.” Inca inspired infrastructural nationalism also held significant political ramifications. According to these vertical reappraisals, Inca greatness was based both in their ability to tame their environment and their political organization characterized by some scholars as “despotic socialism.” Indeed, as early as the 1920s, Jose Carlos Mariátegui – Peru’s foremost Marxist – considered that Peru’s road to Communism required the mixture of ancient Inca communal practices and modern technology. Haya de la Torre’s Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (APRA) placed engineers, electrification, and industrial development at the center of the liberation of Indoamérica and the establishment of an anti-“imperialist state.” Even non-Marxists reformists, such as Fernando Belaúnde Terry, contended that the modern development of Peru had to be inspired and sustained by its pre-Columbian roots.
While Peruvian statesmen wished for hydroelectricity to lead to an economic revolution, not all of them desired a social or political remaking of the country. In the decades following the social and economic upheavals caused by the Great Depression (1929), most Peruvian administrations actually proposed hydraulic developments and infrastructural displays to counter potential political and social revolutions. The oligarchic and “liberal” administrations of Manuel Prado (1939-1945) and Manuel Odría (1948-1956) held electrification as a mechanism for keeping in place social and regional hierarchies inherited from the colonial era. For “white” and Europeanized elites in coastal Lima, electricity could ensure that they retain their historically dominant position. As electrification expanded, industrial developments of the central Andes could become an alternative to a seemingly radical but much demanded land reform. In turn, electrification could reinforce social and racial hierarchies by containing indigenous immigration to the capital. Indeed, it could even spur a second great “exodus” as Lima’s immigrants could return to work in their provinces of origin. In a peculiar twist, a revolution would serve to maintain the status quo.
With the advent of the Revolutionary Government of the Armed Forces led by General Juan Velasco Alvarado (1968-1975), the hydraulic revolution acquired a different connotation. The military regime reimagined electricity as a power for greater political decentralization and social inclusion, transformations long resisted by traditional elites. In parallel to a major agrarian reform that included extensive land expropriations, Velasco also nationalized the electrical grid, seeking to improve the economic and social conditions of the Andean peasantry in the midst of an intensifying discontent. Much like land and oil, electricity also became a centerpiece of the military’s “revolution from above.” While fiercely anti-communist, Velasco’s slogan “Revolución con electrificación” (revolution with electrification)evoked Vladimir Lenin’s famous words about the importance of electrification for the success of the Russian Revolution.
Political bifurcations about the sociopolitical meaning of electrification finally weakened both oligarchic and revolutionary aspirations. Lima maintained its dominant political position, but the desired industrialization never materialized and rural poverty persisted. In the end, the electricity generated by the Mantaro system illuminated the homes of millions of immigrants who left the countryside to live in Lima’s surrounding shantytowns. In this new context, hydroelectricity and revolution acquired a new meaning as the developmentalist aspirations of the Peruvian state collapsed with the fall of Peru’s Revolutionary Government of the Armed Forces (1980). The results of the hydraulic revolution – an interconnected system which in time would connect the rest of the country – became the object of attack by the Sendero Luminoso, the Maoist organization that declared an armed struggle against the state in 1980. As part of their sabotage campaign, Sendero Luminoso destroyed the electric grid utilizing the very same dynamite once used by the state to blast through the Andes to redirect water flows in the pursuit of electric power. Sendero Luminoso failed in their revolutionary endeavors. However, the shattering of the electrical grid, and the subsequent blackouts, showcased how decades of modernizing efforts by the Peruvian state had failed to bring a much-coveted national social integration nor political stability.
Peru’s hydraulic revolution ultimately remained incomplete. Peru continues to be a divided country, politically, racially, geographically. Yet, despite all its unfulfilled promises, the hydroelectric infrastructure built during these years still produces electricity, as water from the Andes powers the turbines that provide power to both urban and rural populations. In the year 2000, the state established a National Interconnected Electric System, linking all of Peru’s fragmented electric grids. While the hydraulic revolution highlighted the critical divisions in Peru’s political class, it remains the best example of the Peruvian state infrastructural prowess.
Gonzalo Romero Sommer is a doctoral candidate at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and Adjunct Professor at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú. His doctoral dissertation deals with the process of hydroelectrification and state infrastructural power in twentieth century Peru. He is also a former fellow of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) and currently of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS).
Title Image: Callahuanca Hydroelectric Plant, 1939.
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