Landlords and Peasant Revolts in the Highlands

Peru Table of Contents

In the great majority of highland provinces, political and economic leadership and power were based on traditional social elites, a landlord class that controlled the haciendas and, thus, very large proportions of the rural poor. In these contexts, powerful landlords (terratenientes) manipulated political affairs, either by themselves holding positions of authority, such as the prefectures, municipal offices, and key government posts, or influencing those who did. A tradition of ruthlessness, greed, and abuse is associated with this system (gamonalismo) throughout Peru. A gamonal is a person to be feared because he has extraordinary and extralegal powers to protect his interests and act against others. Although the agrarian reform of 1969 did much to cut this power, local affairs in many districts and provinces have remained under such domination, to the deep resentment of the rural poor, who most directly feel its consequences.

Since the late nineteenth century, various regional movements have arisen to address abuse. Historian Wilfredo Kápsoli Escudero had documented thirty-two peasant revolts and movements from 1879 to 1965, a number that is not exhaustive but which contradicts the view that Peru's native peasantry was passive in accepting its serfdom. Characteristically, virtually all of these efforts were specifically directed against the abuses of gamonales and hacendados, at least in their initial phases. The forces in the 1885 Ancash uprising, led by Pedro Pablo Atusparía, an alcalde pedáneo from a village near Huaraz, eventually captured and held the Callejón de Huaylas Valley for several months before federal troops reclaimed it.

Most peasant revolts were not as dramatic, but all testified to the burgeoning feelings of frustration, anger, and alienation that had built up over the centuries. In part, this anger and frustration stemmed from the fact that native American communities had been deprived of their communal holdings after national independence, which meant that extensive holdings passed from community control to private elite interests. Demands for redress of this situation led to the reestablishment of the official Indian Community in 1920 during the second presidency of Augusto B. Leguía (1919-30). Subsequently, communities that could prove they at one time had held colonial title to land were permitted to repossess it, a long and arduous bureaucratic process in which the most successful communities were those with active migrants in Lima who could lobby the government.

Another response was President Manuel A. Odría's (1948-56) sanctioning of the Cornell-Peru project in which the Ministry of Labor and Indian Affairs, in collaboration with Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, would conduct a demonstration of community development and land reform at Hacienda Vicos in Ancash Department, starting in 1952. It was Peru's first such development program and received extensive publicity around the country. This situation provoked consternation among landlords and elite interests, which purposefully delayed the conclusion of the project. The colonos of Vicos became an independent community in 1962, when they were finally permitted to purchase the estate they and their ancestors had cultivated for others for 368 years.

With its widespread publicity, the Vicos project helped to whet appetites for change. At that time, several hundred hacienda communities like Vicos were requesting similar projects and the freedom to purchase their lands. When the reluctant government of oligarch Manuel Prado y Ugarteche (1939-45, 1956-62) and the slow and corrupt mechanisms of the bureaucracy could not meet these rising demands, an explosive situation developed. Peasant invasions of hacienda lands began a few days after Fernando Belaúnde assumed office as president in 1963. He had promised to organize a land reform, and the native communities, in their words, were "helping" him keep his word. Hundreds of estates were taken over by peasants, provoking a national crisis that eventually subsided when Belaúnde convinced communities that his administration would fulfill its promises. It did not happen.

However, on the "Day of the Indian" (Día de la Raza--Race Day), June 24, 1969, General Juan Velasco Alvarado (president, 1968-75), head of the populist "Revolutionary Government of the Armed Forces," decreed a sweeping and immediate land reform, ending serfdom and private latifundios that included the sacrosanct coastal plantations. Hope and expectations of the peasantry had never been higher, but the succeeding years brought back the frustration; serious problems resulted from natural disasters, the withdrawal of significant international credit and support from the United States for reform programs, bureaucratic failures, and a lack of welltrained personnel. After the Velasco government gave way to more conservative forces within the army in 1975, a retrenchment began. In this phase of the process, some haciendas, including several in Ayacucho Department, were returned to their former owners, provoking bitter disappointment and further alienation among the peasants.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress