Impact of World War I

Peru Table of Contents

The Civilistas, however, were unable to manage the new social forces that their policies unleashed. This first became apparent in 1912 when the millionaire businessman Guillermo Billinghurst (1912-14)--the reform-minded, populist former mayor of Lima--was able to organize a general strike to block the election of the official Civilista presidential candidate and force his own election by Congress. During his presidency, Billinghurst became embroiled in an increasingly bitter series of conflicts with Congress, ranging from proposed advanced social legislation to settlement of the Tacna-Arica dispute. When Congress opened impeachment hearings in 1914, Billinghurst threatened to arm the workers and forcibly dissolve Congress. This provoked the armed forces under Colonel Oscar Raimundo Benavides (1914-15, 1933-36, and 1936-39) to seize power.

The coup marked the beginning of a long-term alignment of the military with the oligarchy, whose interests and privileges it would defend up until the 1968 revolution of General Juan Velasco Alvarado (1968-75). It was also significant because it not only ended almost two decades of uninterrupted civilian rule, but, unlike past military interventions, was more institutional than personalist in character. Benavides was a product of Piérola's attempt to professionalize the armed forces under the tutelage of a French military mission, beginning in 1896, and therefore was uncomfortable in his new political role. Within a year, he arranged new elections that brought José de Pardo y Barreda (1904-1908, 1915-19) to power.

A new round of economic problems, deepening social unrest, and powerful, new ideological currents toward the end of World War I, however, converged to bring a generation of Civilista rule to an end in 1919. The war had a roller coaster effect on the Peruvian economy. First, export markets were temporarily cut off, provoking recession. Then, when overseas trade was restored, stimulating demand among the combatants for Peru's primary products, an inflationary spiral saw the cost of living nearly double between 1913 and 1919.

This inflation had a particularly negative impact on the new working classes in Lima and elsewhere in the country. The number of workers had grown sharply since the turn of the century--by one count rising from 24,000, or 17 percent of the capital's population in 1908, to 44,000, or 20 percent of the population in 1920. Similar growth rates occurred outside of Lima in the export enclaves of sugar (30,000 workers), cotton (35,000), oil (22,500), and copper. The Cerro de Pasco copper mine alone had 25,500 workers. The growth and concentration of workers was accompanied by the spread of anarchic ideas before and during the war years, making the incipient labor movement increasingly militant. Violent strikes erupted on sugar plantations, beginning in 1910, and the first general strike in the country's history occurred a year later.

Radical new ideologies further fueled the growing social unrest in the country at the end of the war. The ideas of the Mexican and Russian revolutions, the former predating the latter, quickly spread radical new doctrines to the far corners of the world, including Peru. Closer to home, the indigenista (Indigenist) movement increasingly captured the imagination of a new generation of Peruvians, particularly urban, middle-class mestizos who were reexamining their roots in a changing Peru. Indigenismo (Indigenism) was promoted by a group of writers and artists who sought to rediscover and celebrate the virtues and values of Peru's glorious Incan past. Awareness of the indigenous masses was heightened at this time by another wave of native uprisings in the southern highlands. They were caused by the disruption and dislocation of traditional native American communities brought about by the opening of new international markets and reorganization of the wool trade in the region.

All of these social, economic, and intellectual trends came to a head at the end of the Pardo administration. In 1918-19 Pardo faced an unprecedented wave of strikes and labor mobilization that was joined by student unrest over university reform. The ensuing worker-student alliance catapulted a new generation of radical reformers, headed by Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre--a young, charismatic student at San Marcos University--and José Carlos Mariátegui--a brilliant Lima journalist who defended the rights of the new, urban working class--to national prominence.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress