Moving Images of Revolution: A Critical Forum on Gonzalo Benavente Secco’s “La Revolución y la tierra” (Peru, 2020)

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The following forum on La Revolución y la Tierra (Peru, 2020) consists of an introduction by Adrián Lerner Patrón, six essays on select themes from the film (some in Spanish and others in English) by scholars of Latin American history (Renzo Aroni, María Luisa Burneo, Anna Cant, Lourdes Hurtado, Gonzalo Romero, and Tony Wood), and two responses (one by Matteo Stiglich, one of the lead researchers of the documentary, and the film’s director, Gonzalo Benavente Sacco).

Introduction: El problema de la tierra

By Adrián Lerner Patrón

Almost a century after the publication of his classic Seven Essays of Interpretation of Peruvian Reality (1928), what Peru’s foremost thinker of the twentieth century José Carlos Mariátegui called el problema de la tierra, the problem of land, remains an integral issue in the terrain of contention of Peruvian politics.[1]

Just before the COVID-19 pandemic, when society still gathered in large groups to watch a movie, Peru became home to an unexpected box-office blockbuster. Between its premiere in late 2019 and the eruption of the pandemic in March 2020, close to 90,000 people went to theaters to watch Gonzalo Benavente Sacco’s La revolución y la tierra (2019), a documentary about the agrarian reform implemented by the military dictatorship of Juan Velasco Alvarado (1968-1975), a regime that branded itself a revolution. These are staggering numbers for a non-fiction film in Peru. They make it, comfortably, the most popular documentary in the history of the country. 

Based on interviews with leading academics and a visual archive of historical films, La revolución y la tierra presents the agrarian reform launched in 1969 as a process of singular significance within Peru’s history of deep inequalities. It was a long overdue, state-sanctioned effort to shake the country’s structures of racialized domination from their traditional core: the landed agrarian old regime and the rule of an oligarchy based on the enterprises and status of hacendados,terratenientes, and gamonales – rural elites who benefitted from a diverse but invariably exploitative set of arrangements to extract labor and hoard land from racialized, mostly indigenous, majorities.[2] In both the film and the rhetoric of the military regime, the 1969 agrarian reform is pitched as a crucial move to break from a persisting colonial legacy.[3]

Different academic approaches to Peru have emphasized the permanence of colonial structures and their adaptation to new circumstances and imperial overlords, the revolutionary potential at the heart of these long-term patterns, or how the threat of equality prompted new forms of racialized domination.[4] For all the important, often explicit differences found in these interpretations, they share a framework: the history of Peru is that of the mismatches and power struggles in the encounters between an “official” Peru and a “deep” Peru.[5]

With good reason, the idea of the “colonial legacy” has been heavily scrutinized by historians. Classic and recent studies about the Velasco regime, the agrarian reform, and more broadly the politics of ethnicity in Peru question important parts of this equation between the agrarian old régime and persisting inequalities. By extension, they also provide nuance to the Velasco military dictatorship and the agrarian reform as definitive breaks with the past. For example, notions of indigeneity have been constantly renegotiated in relation to cultural status.[6] By the second half of the twentieth century, Peru had become a majority urban country, which entailed major social and political transformations.[7] As could have been expected, many aspects of the Velasco regime in general and the agrarian reform in particular were experienced as deeply conflictive affairs at all levels. This was also true for the reform’s beneficiaries, the heterogeneous populations that suddenly became, in the vocabulary of the Revolutionary Government, known as “peasants.” Inter- and intra-community conflicts were a major part of rural life before, during, and after the reform. The military regime’s top-down, authoritarian, momentum meant that although the redeeming rhetoric and the social justice aims of the agrarian reform were valued, their interventions could be experienced as disruptions of long-standing local struggles, or simply fail to live up to its promises or exacerbate conflicts. The National System of Social Mobilization, SINAMOS (phonetically “without masters”), the ambitious apparatus intended to connect the military elite to the grassroots, which played a major role in the agrarian reform, could be experienced as an oppressive political machine.[8]

Fine-grained scholarly disagreements notwithstanding, the notion that the anti-indigenous racism and obscene inequities that blemish Peruvian society were at least partially rooted in the country’s agrarian old regime still holds deep sway in scholarship and popular understandings of Peruvian history. Peru’s trajectory was complex and not devoid of drastic demographic, economic, social, political, and cultural changes, but the exploitation of the country’s indigenous peoples in the countryside and the authoritarian practices associated with rural life remain a fundamental matrix for ubiquitous forms of domination, servitude, and deference. At the heart of the framework remains Mariátegui’s dictum that ethnic inequalities were based on the socio-economic order of the countryside: the “Indigenous problem” was inseparable from the problem of land, el problema de la tierra, and Perú was still a semi-colonial country. Not by coincidence, in a world deeply shaped by the decolonization wave of Asia and Africa, the military regime presented itself as explicitly anti-colonial and anti-imperialist.[9]

By the 1960s, the problem of land had become hegemonic, not in the sense of being part of the arsenal of elite discourses to produce consent (after all, the habitus of the ruling classes remained decisively linked to the rural order) but as part of the “common material and meaningful framework for living through, talking about, and acting upon social orders characterized by domination.”[10] Land grabs by peasant and indigenous communities, as well organized rural unions pushed the issue from below.[11] The economic decay of the hacienda, political parties across the ideological spectrum, factions of the conservative media and the Armed Forces, and the United States-funded, modernization theory-fueled Alliance for Progress were willing to consider different versions of agrarian reform, even if often only to contain the revolutionary potential of social movements in the polarized context of the Cold War. 

From this perspective, the myriad conflictive perspectives that add nuance to the vision of a persistent and ever-present agrarian old regime can be interpreted as crucial nodes of contact in the evolving hegemonic process. Today, half a century later, the extraordinary impact of a documentary about the agrarian reform is a confirmation that the constitutive struggles of the same hegemonic process remain unresolved.

Since its premiere, both La revolución y la tierra and the issues it examines have been at the center of public debate in Peru. Most recently, TV Perú, the country’s public television broadcaster, announced that it would air the documentary. As the April 11, 2021, general election approached, however, right-wing personalities denounced the transmission and successfully pressured TV Perú to delay it for after the election, largely because the platform of Verónika Mendoza, a leading progressive presidential hopeful from the Cusco region, who was surging in the polls, promises what she calls a “second agrarian reform.” As soon as it became clear that censorship prevailed, a pirate copy of the film became available and widely circulated on Youtube.  Even at the height of the film’s commercial popularity, one of the country’s three largest commercial movie theater chains refused to air it. Later, when the brutal effects of the pandemic and a major political crisis where hitting Peru, in November 2020, the nation witnessed the eruption of deadly conflicts over labor conditions in large-scale, export-oriented, supposedly “modern” agribusiness landholdings, which many saw as the neoliberal iterations of an agrarian old regime. 

The film’s social media accounts have been an important part of its platform, and have stayed active since before the premiere. A savvy media strategy playfully invoked the iconic imagery of the revolutionary government’s agrarian reform, including memes and merchandise that featured its famous pop art posters, slogans, and anti-oligarchic rhetoric, and, sometimes, provocatively, its more demagogic and authoritarian traits – with jokes about expropriations and the phobias of the country’s upper classes. In other cases, especially during the critical period of the congressional coup of November 2020, the massive protests and repression that ensued, and the agrarian unrest of the following month, the film’s accounts showed a strong commitment to democratic institutions, accountability, and human rights. 

The shockwaves caused by the documentary are related to three main factors. First, the Velasco government and its agrarian reform remain among the most contentious issues in Peruvian history, arguably alongside the insurgent-counterinsurgent war unleashed by the Shining Path since 1980 (which includes the first government of Alan García’s APRA, 1985-1990, and the dictatorship of Alberto Fujimori, 1990-200), and, back in time, the War of the Pacific of 1879-1983.[12] As contributions to this forum argue, there was a large, unsatisfied demand for critical discourses about it. 

Second, La revolución y la tierra was capable of providing these discourses in a format that resonated with contemporary audiences and with the political impetus that drive them. Importantly, it managed to do so without losing its commitment to academic rigor. As contributions to our forum show, there are numerous grounds for disagreement about the historical interpretations advanced by the documentary, but its narrative is ultimately driven by dozens of interviews with scholars, supplemented by curated images from the archive of Peruvian film history. As our forum contributors also point, the film is a deliberate intervention in the realm of public history rather than a scholarly work, but it is not devoid of scholarly legitimacy. 

The third, more complex factor, is the film’s self-presentation in the public sphere. Its social media presence echoed the aesthetic and rhetoric of Peru’s Revolutionary Government of the Armed Forces. This, in turn, responded to several distinct issues. The military regime was at is strongest in the realm of political propaganda, with innovative communication campaigns that featured path-breaking artwork, revolutionary catchphrases, and concerted efforts to renew Peru’s political culture. This is one of the best-studied facets of the regime: its use of history, deployment of Túpac Amaru, work with artists and local organizers, and generally its willingness to lead the way to cultural change.[13] The content of these interventions and the broader social agenda of Velasco’s government, moreover, clearly filled a gap within Peru’s contemporary media landscape, almost completely monopolized by conservative coverage. The documentary presents an array of perspectives, including critical ones. Still, part of its success is related to the perception that it adds to a growing recuperation, even celebration, of Velasco, especially among younger generations, and that it provides a sympathetic account of its progressive program. More problematically, of course, Velasco was a military dictator and his rule was authoritarian. Despite the limitations of the democracy he toppled and of that of present-day Peru, his military regime turned its contempt for civilian rule into a motto.[14] Whether some of the nostalgia for velasquismo is also a longing for authoritarian rule is an open question.

What is clear is that the problem of land, the agrarian reform and what they represent politically, a sense of a break with the legacies of the colonial past, are still very much part of the political struggle in Peru. Mariátegui placed the issue in the political and intellectual agenda of the nation in the 1920s. It then became entrenched in the hegemonic process since the 1960s, enacted by a variety of actors, and fully operationalized, materially and ideologically, by the Revolutionary Government of the Armed Forces between 1969 and the mid-1970s, with mixed results. This created the sense of an incomplete process – so much so that in 1991, during his second address to Congress, the neoliberal president (soon-to-be dictator), Alberto Fujimori vaunted his lifting of restrictions to rural land markets as “a reform of the agrarian reform.”[15] In today’s climate, when the most ruthless market paradigms are finally losing ground, La revolución y la tierra and its reception remind us that a crucial hegemonic contest of the twentieth century remains open.

In the spirit of contributing to discussions about this process, this forum collects short essays about different aspects of the film and its impact written by Peruvian and foreign scholars of the history of Peru and Latin America, in Spanish and English. Besides reviews by Renzo Aroni, María Luisa Burneo, Anna Cant, Lourdes Hurtado, Gonzalo Romero, and Tony Wood, the forum includes rejoinders by Matteo Stiglich, one of the lead researchers of the documentary, and its director, Gonzalo Benavente Sacco.[16]

To go back to Mariátegui one last time: “Perhaps the best method to explain and translate our time is in part journalistic and in part cinematographic.”[17]



Forum:


Adrián Lerner Patrón is the lead editor of this forum. He is a Mellon Fellow in Architecture, Urbanism & the Environment at Princeton University and a scholar of Latin American, environmental, and urban history, and of the history of science and technology.

Endnotes:

[1] José Carlos Mariátegui, Siete ensayos de interpretación de la realidad peruana (Lima: Minerva, 1928).

[2] Dennis L. Gilbert, La oligarquía peruana: historia de tres familias (Lima: Editorial Horizonte, 1982); François Bourricaud et. al. La oligarquía en el Perú: tres ensayos y una polémica (Lima: IEP, 1969). For different approaches to the Peruvian elites, see Felipe Portocarrero Suárez, Grandes fortunas en el Perú: 1916-1960: Riqueza y filantropía en la élite económica (Lima: Universidad del Pacífico, 2017); Carmen McEvoy, Un proyecto nacional en el siglo XIX: Manuel Pardo y su visión del Perú (Lima: Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, 1994); Alfonso Quiroz, La deuda defraudada. Consolidación de 1850 y dominio económico en el Perú (Lima: Instituto nacional de Cultura, 1987).

[3] See Jeremy Adelman, “Introduction: The Problem of Persistence in Latin American History” in Colonial Legacies. The Problem of Persistence in Latin American History, edited by Jeremy Adelman (New York and London: Routledge, 1999), 1-14.

[4] See, for influential examples of successive generations, Heraclio Bonilla, Guano y burguesía en el Perú. Segunda edición (Lima: IEP, 1984 [1974]); Alberto Flores Galindo, Buscando un Inca: Identidad y utopía en los Andes (Lima: SUR, 1984); Cecilia Méndez, “Incas Sí, Indios No: Notes on Peruvian Creole Nationalism and Its Contemporary Crisis,” Journal of Latin American Studies, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Feb., 1996), 197-225.

[5] For critical genealogies and assesments that historize these ideas and point to their often problematic implications in specific historical junctures, particularly during the insurgent-counterinsurgent war of the 1980s-1990s, see José Luis Rénique, Incendiar la pradera. Un ensayo sobre la revolución en el Perú (Lima: La Siniestra, 2015); José Luis Rénique, Imaginar la nación: Viajes en busca del “verdadero Perú”, 1881-1932 (Lima: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 2014); and concretely in the context of the insurgent-counterinsurgent war of the 1980s-1990s, Orin Starn, “Missing the Revolution: Anthropologists and the War in Peru,” Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Feb., 1991), 63-91; Enrique Mayer, “Peru in Deep Trouble: Mario Vargas Llosa’s “Inquest in the Andes” Reexamined,” Vol. 6, No. 4 (Nov., 1991), 466-504; Cecilia Méndez, “The Power of Naming, or the Construction of Ethnic and National Identities in Peru: Myth, History and the Iquichanos,” Past & Present, Vol. 171, Issue 1 (May 2001), 127–160.

[6] Marisol de la Cadena, Indigenous Mestizos: The Politics of Race and Culture in Cuzco,

Peru, 1919–1991 (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2000).

[7] See among others Anibal Quijano, Dominación y Cultura. Lo cholo y el conflicto cultural en el Perú (Lima: Mosca Azul, 1969); David Collier, Squatters and Oligarchs: Authoritarian Rule and Policy Change in Peru (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976); José Matos Mar, Desborde popular y crisis del Estado: veinte años después (Lima: IEP, 2004 [1984]); Julio Calderón Cockburn, La ciudad ilegal: Lima en el siglo XX (Lima: Fondo Editorial de la Facultad de Ciencias Sociales UNMSM, 2005). 

[8] See among other important works Enrique Mayer, Ugly Stories of the Peruvian Agrarian Reform (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009); Miguel La Serna, The Corner of the Living. Ayacucho on the Eve of the Shining Path Insurgency(Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012); Mercedes Crisóstomo (editora), Urin Parcco y Hanan Parcco. Memorias sobre el tiempo de la hacienda y la reforma agraria: testimonios de sus protagonistas (Lima: CISEPA, 2017); Alejandro Diez Hurtado, “Reforma agraria y procesos comunales: las comunidades de las SAIS Cahuide y Túpac Amaru en la sierra central del Perú,” Boletín del Instituto Riva-Agüero, vol., (2020), 299-337; Manuel Llamojha Mitma and Jaymie Patricia Heilman, Now Peru is Mine. The Life and Times of a Campesino Activist (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016); Javier Puente, “The Military Grammar of Agrarian Reform in Peru: Campesinos and Rural Capitalism,” Radical History Review, no 33 (2019), 78-101; Anna Cant, Land without Masters. Agrarian Reform and Political Change under Peru’s Military Government (Austin, University of Texas Press, 2021).

[9] Carlos Aguirre, “The Second Liberation? Military Nationalism and the Sesquicentennial Commemoration of Peruvian Independence, 1821–1971” and Charles Walker, “The General and His Rebel: Juan Velasco Alvarado and the Reinvention of Túpac Amaru II” both in The Peculiar Revolution. Rethinking the Peruvian Experiment Under Military Rule, edited by Carlos Aguirre and Paulo Drinot (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017).

[10] William Roseberry, “Hegemony and the Language of Contention,” in Everyday Forms of State Formation: Revolution and the Negotiation of Rule in Modern Mexico, edited by Gilbert M. Joseph and Daniel Nugent (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994), 361. 

[11] Rolando Rojas, La revolución de los arrendires: Una historia personal de la reforma agraria (Lima: IEP, 2019).

[12] Paulo Drinot has written about memory struggles related to both issues the War of the Pacific and Velasco: “Website of memory: The war of the Pacific (1879-84) in the global age of YouTube,” Memory Studies, No. 4, Vol. 4 (2011), 370-385 and “Remembering Velasco: Contested Memories of the Revolutionary Government of the Armed Forces,” in The Peculiar Revolution, eds. Aguirre and Drinot, 95-122.

[13] Aguirre, “The Second Liberation?;” Walker, “The General and His Rebel;” Anna Cant, “Land for Those Who Work It’: A Visual Analysis of Agrarian Reform Posters in Velasco’s Peru,” Journal of Latin American Studies, Vol. 44, No. 1 (2012), 1-37; Christabelle Roca-Rey, La propaganda visual durante el gobierno de Juan Velasco Alvarado (1968-1975) (Lima: IFEA / IEP, 2016); Raúl H. Asensio, El apóstol de los Andes: El culto a Túpac Amaru en Cusco durante la revolución velasquista (1968—1975) (Lima. IEP, 2017); Juan Martín Sánchez, La revolución peruana: ideología y práctica política de un gobierno militar, 1968-1975 (Sevilla: Escuela de Estudios Hispano-Americanos, 2002); Miguel Antonio Sánchez Flores, editor, Mitologías velasquistas : industrias culturales y la revolución peruana (1968-1975) (Lima: Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, 2020). 

[14] Dirk Kruijt, Revolution by Decree: Peru, 1968-1975. 2nd ed (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2003 [1994]).

[15] Alberto Fujimori, “Mensaje del Presidente Constitucional del Perú, Ingeniero Alberto Fujimori Fujimori, ante el Congreso Nacional, el 14 de mayo de 1991,” http://www.congreso.gob.pe/Docs/participacion/museo/congreso/files/mensajes/1981-2000/files/mensaje-1991-1.pdf

[16] I am extremely thankful to all the participants for their contributions, and to Javier Puente and the team of Age of Revolutions for providing this space.

[17] José Carlos Mariátegui, La escena contemporánea (Lima: Minerva, 1925), 11. The translation is my own. For an analysis of Mariátegui and cinema, see Chrystian Zegarra, “José Carlos Mariátegui y el cine: Entre Hollywood y un Charlot desnudo,” Hispamérica, vol. 39, no. 117 (2010), 3-14.

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