Velasco’s Peru: A Return to a Revolution

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 Rohan Chatterjee

When one thinks of Latin America’s Cold War revolutions, Peru is not usually among the first places that comes to mind. Instead, to Guatemala’s ‘Ten Years of Spring’ (1944-1954), Cuba’s ‘26th of July’ (1953-1959) and Chile’s ‘Democratic Road’ (1970-1973) most accounts first turn. So too we might ponder Montoneros in Argentina and Tupamaros in Uruguay, Sandinistas in Nicaragua and Zapatistas in Mexico, as well as revolutionary acronyms like the EGP, FARC, and FMLN. When Peru’s revolutionary credentials do arise, it generally takes the form of Sendero Luminoso’s ultra-orthodox and hyperviolent Maoist insurgency, showcased as a late and fairly idiosyncratic chapter, quite out of step with the hemisphere’s Cold War chronologies.

Yet, another “revolution” took place in Peru during the Cold War; at least, that is, according to many at the time. Events in the Andean nation certainly garnered labels worthy of any contemporary, known, among other things, as a “pragmatic revolution,” a “corporatist revolution,” and ‘a revolution by decree’.[1] No less than the author of the Age of Revolution, Eric Hobsbawm, even dubbed it a rather “peculiar revolution.”[2] Still, for such a seemingly major affair, what transpired in Peru probably deserves another title too, one of Latin America’s least known revolutions. Something of an oddity then, for a region with such an outsized contribution to our understandings of revolution.

The revolution began on October 3, 1968, with the sound of tanks shattering Lima’s early morning calm, as the armed forces launched a coup d’état. Fearful that political deadlock in the capital and rising rural unrest in the provinces threatened to blow over into open revolt, coup leader General Juan Velasco Alvarado decided to intervene. All the same, most Peruvians met the news with little surprise and even less expectations for a transformative agenda.[3] To many Velasco appeared as just one more rotation in a decades-old cycle of military leaders seizing power to preserve the status quo ante. Its unusual origins are certainly part of the reason why Peru’s “Revolutionary Government of the Armed Forces,” a title they gave themselves, does not receive more attention. 

Nevertheless, at least initially, the “Revolutionary Government” appeared to live up to its billing. Just six days after the coup, Velasco decreed the nationalization of the oil industry, long held contentiously by the US-owned International Petroleum Company (IPC), a subsidiary of Standard Oil. A flurry of decrees, nationalizations and reforms soon followed, targeting all corners of Peruvian society.[4] Prepared in secret and released without warning, in 1969 came the jewel in the reformist crown, a massive expropriation of the centuries-old and semi-feudal-like hacienda land estates. What anthropologist Enrique Mayer calls “Latin America’s most radical agrarian reform… a momentous shift in the history of the Andes, akin to the abolition of slavery in the Americas.”[5] Yet all this happened without being particularly driven by, nor able to galvanize, a mass base of support. Not to say it was unpopular, but Peru’s was neither a revolution of troubadour guerrillas nor populist champions, just military officers-turned-bureaucrats and civil society technocrats. An almost exclusively top-down attempt to institute broad change further cemented its anomalous character, quite at odds with Latin America’s more quintessential revolutions.

For all the revolution’s transformative intents, moreover, it was ultimately short-lived. Although the generals remained in power until 1980, in 1975 Velasco and his inner circle were ousted in a palace coup by more conservative factions. The “second phase of the revolution,” as incoming leader Francisco Morales Bermúdez euphemistically called it, either backpedaled earlier initiatives, or eliminated them altogether.[6] No doubt such an abrupt change of direction also dampened broader interests.

Even so, for a little over six years, Peru witnessed a genuine attempt at instituting far-reaching change. Besides, for all its quirks, scholars almost immediately trained their sights on the revolution. A small library’s worth of studies circulated, seeking to unravel the nature of Velasco’s government and its reforms. Debate raged over whether it had all been for better or worse, others argued if it was anti-imperialist or not, some even questioned if it was a revolution at all. Velasco and the revolution certainly cut deeply polarizing figures; few though doubted the profound impact of those years.

Lastly, and one suspects most importantly, the revolution’s low profile has much to do with the particular course history took over the following years. In fact, just as the military returned to the barracks and the country to democratic rule, Peru began down another road of intense upheaval. What first came to the public attention in 1980 as a fairly innocuous, if a little bemusing, burring of ballot boxes in the small highland town of Chuschi, by the middle of the decade became the Sendero Luminoso insurgency. Between the military and Sendero Luminoso, Peru found itself caught in one of the world’s deadliest insurgencies, claiming some 70,000 lives, the overwhelming majority Quechua-speakers from the Andean highlands.[7]

The internal conflict rightly captured everyone’s attentions. “Enigma, exoticism and surprise,” Steve Stern writes, became watchwords of the insurgency.[8] The shocking scale, intensity and macabre theatre of violence brought with it a national reckoning unseen in a century, since Peru’s capitulation in the War of the Pacific. As people grappled with the conflict, many things ended up left by the wayside, not least Velasco’s revolution, reduced to polemical debates over its role, especially that of the agrarian reform, as the root cause of the insurgency.

But with almost two decades elapsed since the end of the internal conflict, Velasco’s revolution is making a return of sorts. Academics and the public alike are starting to look beyond the revolution’s role in the internal conflict, to its longer-term impacts on Peruvian society and history. For instance, a documentary on Velasco’s government and the agrarian reform, La revolución y la tierra (The Revolution and the Land), released last year in national cinemas and soon became the most watched in Peruvian box office history. Current public debate trends towards a slightly more sympathetic reading of the revolution than before. But not all, writing on the fiftieth anniversary of the coup, highly influential and controversial commentator Aldo Mariátegui declared, “very rarely has someone done so much damage to a country as Velasco, a kind of disaster on par with Chávez and Allende.”[9] Differences aside, a revolution in the oldest sense of the word -a full circle, a return- is taking place over Velasco’s role in Peruvian history. Still, exactly what that means for the revolution’s legacy remains to be seen.

The Velasco years should matter beyond Peru too. If we take Alan Knight’s passionate defense for why the Mexican Revolution was in fact a revolution, then tentatively the same might be said of Peru.[10] The Peru after Velasco was much changed from the one before. The old institutions and social orders both replaced with something new. If intentions matter to revolutions, like those behind the 1969 agrarian reform, then Velasco’s were transformative indeed. The curious absence of mass support will of course limit any of the more radical interpretations. But at the very least, it seems fair to say, Velasco and his military oversaw a profound transformation and deserve greater consideration among Latin America’s revolutionary pantheon.


Rohan Chatterjee is a History PhD Student at the University of Chicago. You can find him on Twitter at @RohanChatterje1.

Title image: El general Juan Velasco Alvarado en el año 1970.

Further Readings:

Aguirre, Carlos, and Paulo Drinot. The Peculiar Revolution: Rethinking the Peruvian Experiment Under Military Rule. First edition. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017.

Kruijt, Dirk. Revolution by Decree: Peru, 1968-1975. Amsterdam: Thela Publishers, 1994.

La revolución y la tierra, Autocimena, 2019.

Mayer, Enrique. Ugly Stories of the Peruvian Agrarian Reform. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.

McClintock, Cynthia, and Abraham F. Lowenthal. The Peruvian Experiment Reconsidered. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Quijano, Aníbal. Nationalism & Capitalism in Peru: A Study in Neo-imperialism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971.

Zapata Velasco, Antonio, and Gabriela Rodríguez. La caída de Velasco: Lucha política y crisis del régimen. Primera edición. Lima, Perú: Taurus, 2018.

Endnotes:

[1] David Werlich Peru: A Short History (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978); David Chaplin. Peruvian Nationalism: A Corporatist Revolution (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1976); Dirk Kruijt. Revolution by Decree: Peru, 1968-1975 (Amsterdam: Thela Publishers, 1994).

[2] Eric Hobsbawm, “Peru: The Peculiar ‘Revolution,’” The New York Review of Books, December 16, 1971.

[3] Carlos Aguirre and Paulo Drinot. The Peculiar Revolution: Rethinking the Peruvian Experiment Under Military Rule (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017), 1.

[4] Krujit (1994) 74

[5] Enrique Mayer Ugly Stories of the Peruvian Agrarian Reform (Durham; Duke University Press, 2009), 2.

[6] ‘The Second Phase, the Peruvian Revolution and the Transfer of Power’Morales Bermudez.

[7] https://www.cverdad.org.pe. 10/01/2020

[8] Steve Stern, et al. Shining and Other Paths: War and Society in Peru, 1980-1995 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998) 1.

[9] https://peru21.pe/opinion/ensayos-impopulares-aldo-mariategui/50-anos-fecha-aciaga-431980-noticia/?ref=p21r

[10] Alan Knight, “The Mexican Revolution: Bourgeois? Nationalist? Or Just a ‘Great Rebellion’?,” Bulletin of Latin American Research 4, no. 2 (1985): 1–37.

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