The Velasco Government

Peru Table of Contents

The economic strategy of the Velasco government was shaped by a conception frequently advocated in Latin America but rarely put into practice. The idea was to find a "third way" between capitalism and socialism, with a corporatist society much more inclusionary than that possible under capitalism but without rejecting private ownership or adopting any of the compulsory methods identified with communism. Under this strategy, land reform was designed to override existing property interests in order to establish cooperative ownership, rejecting both individual private farming and state farms. Promoting worker participation in ownership and management was intended to reshape labor relations. Foreign influences were reduced through tight restrictions on foreign investment and nationalization of some of the largest foreign firms. On a more fundamental plane, the Velasco government saw its mission as one of eliminating class conflict and reconciling differences among interest groups within its own vision of a cooperative society.

Land Reform

The most striking and thorough reform imposed by the Velasco government was to eliminate all large private landholdings, converting most of them into cooperatives owned by prior workers on the estates. The reform was intended to destroy the basis of power of Peru's traditional elite and to foster a more cooperative society as an alternative to capitalism. Such socialpolitical purposes apparently dominated questions of agricultural production or any planned changes in patterns of land use. It was as if the questions of ownership were what mattered, not the consequences for output or rural incomes. In fact, the government soon created a system of price controls and monopoly food buying by state firms designed to hold down prices to urban consumers, no matter what the cost to rural producers.

As mentioned earlier, the cooperatives had very mixed success; and the majority were converted into individual private holdings during the 1980s. The conversions were authorized in 1980 by changes in the basic land reform legislation and were put into effect after majority votes of the cooperative members in each case. The preferences of the people involved at that point clearly went contrary to the intent of the original reform. But the whole set of changes was not a reversion to the pre-reform agrarian structure. In fact, the conversions left Peru with a far less unequal pattern of landownership than it had prior to the reform and with a much greater role for family farming than ever before in its history.

Labor and Capital in the Industrial Sector

In line with its basic conception of social order, the military government also created a complex system of "industrial communities." Under this system, firms in the modern sector were required to distribute part of their profits to workers in the form of dividends constituting ownership shares. The intent was to convert workers into property owners and property ownership into a form of sharing for the sake of class reconciliation. But in practice, the system never functioned well. The firms did all they could to avoid reporting profits in order to postpone sharing ownership, sometimes by setting up companies outside the system to which they channeled profits, sometimes by adjusting the books, and in general by keeping one step ahead of intended regulations. A small fraction of the industrial workers gained shares in firms, but as a rule workers were not so much interested in long-term claims of ownership as they were in immediate working conditions and earnings. For organized labor, the whole approach seemed an attempt to subvert any role for union action and to make organization irrelevant. The system was not popular with either side. It was quickly abandoned when the more conservative wing of the military took power away from General Velasco in 1975.

Attempted reform of labor relations in the mid-1970s also included severe restrictions on rights to discharge workers once they passed a brief trial period of employment. A review process set up to examine disputes was implemented in a way that made discharges practically impossible. Businesspeople circumvented the restrictions to some degree by hiring workers on a temporary basis up to the point at which they would have to be kept and then letting them go before the restrictions applied. Businesspeople remained unremittingly hostile to this type of regulation, primarily on the grounds that it took away their main means of exercising discipline over their workers. This form of regulation was also eliminated shortly after Velasco lost power.

Protection and Promotion of Industry

Along with the intention of resolving internal class conflict, the Velasco government determined to lessen Peru's dependency on the outside world. The two most important components of the strategy were a drive to promote rapid industrialization and an attack on the role of foreign firms. In contrast to the industrialization strategies of most other Latin American countries, the intention of the Velasco regime was to industrialize without welcoming foreign investment.

The preceding Belaúnde administration had started Peru on the path of protection to promote industry, and in this respect the Velasco government reinforced rather than reversed the existing strategy. Beyond the usual recourse to high tariffs, Velasco's government adopted the Industrial Community Law of 1970 that gave any industrialist on the register of manufacturers the right to demand prohibition of any imports competing with his products. No questions of exceptionally high costs of production, poor product quality, or monopolistic positions fostered by excluding import competition were allowed to get in the way. Before the succeeding government of General Francisco Morales Bermúdez Cerrutti (1975- 80) began to clean up the battery of protective exclusions in 1978, the average tariff rate reached 66 percent, accompanied by quantitative restrictions on 2,890 specific tariff positions.

In addition to the protective measures, the Velasco government promoted industrial investment by granting major tax exemptions, as well as tariff exemptions on imports used by manufacturers in production. The fiscal benefits given industrialists through these measures equaled 92 percent of total internal financing of industrial investment in the years 1971 through 1975.

Investment rose strongly in response to these measures, as well as to the concurrent rise in aggregate demand. But the tax exemptions also contributed to a rising public-sector deficit and thereby to the beginning of serious inflationary pressure. In addition, the exemptions from tariffs given to industrialists on their own imports of equipment and supplies led to a strong rise in the ratio of imports to production for the industrial sector.

Nationalizations and State Firms

The industrialization drive was meant to be primarily a Peruvian process not totally excluding foreign investors but definitely not welcoming them warmly. In that spirit, the Velasco regime immediately nationalized IPC in October 1968 and, not long after that, the largest copper mining company, while taking over other foreign firms more peacefully through buy-outs. The government put into place new restrictions on foreign investment in Peru and led the way to a regional agreement, the Andean Pact, that featured some of the most extensive controls on foreign investment yet attempted in the developing world.

The decision to nationalize the foreign oil firm was immensely popular in Peru. It was seen as a legitimate response to many years of close collaboration between the company, which performed political favors, and a series of possibly selfinterested Peruvian presidents, who, in exchange, preserved the company's exclusive drilling rights. Nationalization was perhaps less a matter of an economic program than a reaction to a public grievance, a reaction bound to increase public support for the new government.

Subsequent nationalizations and purchases of foreign firms were more explicitly manifestations of the goals of building up state ownership and reducing foreign influence in Peru. The leaders of the military government subscribed firmly to the ideas of dependency analysis, placing much of the blame for problems of development on external influences through trade and foreign investment. Foreign ownership of natural resources in particular was seen as a way of taking away the country's basic wealth on terms that allowed most of the gains to go abroad. Ownership of the resources was expected to bring in revenue to the government, and to the country, that would otherwise have been lost.

In contrast to its abrupt nationalization of the IPC and then of the largest copper mining company, the government turned mainly to purchases through negotiation to acquire the property of the International Telephone and Telegraph Company (ITT) and foreign banks. Partly in response to United States reactions to the earlier nationalizations, and perhaps also partly in response to the realization that foreign investment might play a positive role in the industrialization drive, the government began to take a milder position toward foreign firms. But at the same time, it pursued a policy of creating new state-owned firms, in a sense competing for position against domestic private ownership, as well as against foreign ownership.

State ownership of firms was, of course, consistent with the nationalizations but reflected a different kind of policy objective. Whereas the nationalizations were intended to gain greater Peruvian control over the country's resources and to reduce the scope of foreign influence, the proliferation of state-owned firms was meant to increase direct control by the government over the economy. State firms were seen as a means to implement government economic policies more directly than possible when working through private firms, whether domestic or foreign-owned. The goal was not to eliminate the private sector-- it was encouraged at the same time by tax favors and protection-- but to create a strong public sector to lead the way toward the kind of economy favored by the state.

The new state firms created in this period established a significant share of public ownership in the modern sector of the economy. By 1975 they accounted for over half of mining output and a fifth of industrial output. One set of estimates indicates that enterprises under state ownership came to account for a higher share of value added than domestic private capital: 26 percent of GDP for the state firms, compared with 22 percent for domestic private firms. The share produced by foreign-owned firms dropped to 8 percent from 21 percent prior to the Velasco government's reforms.

Contrary to the expectation that the earnings of the state firms would provide an important source of public financing for development, these companies became almost immediately a collective drain. In some measure, the drain was a result of decisions by the government to hold down their prices in order to lessen inflation or to subsidize consumers. In addition, deficits of the state-owned firms were aggravated by the spending tendencies of the military officers placed in charge of company management and by inadequate attention to costs of production. The collective deficits of the state enterprises plus the subsidies paid directly to them by the government reached 3 percent of GDP by 1975. State enterprises were not able to finance more than about one-fourth of their investment spending. The government attempted to answer the investment requirements of the state firms by allowing them to borrow abroad for imported equipment and supplies. They did so on a large scale. The external debt rose swiftly, for this and for other reasons discussed below.

Nationalizations and the creation of new state firms stopped abruptly after Velasco lost power. In 1980 the Belaúnde government announced a program to privatize most of the state firms, but it proved difficult to find private buyers, and few of the firms were actually sold. In the opposite direction, the subsequent García government, in addition to nationalizing in 1985 the offshore oil production of the Belco Corporation, a United States company, tried in 1987 to extend state ownership over banks remaining in private hands. The attempted banking nationalization created a storm of protest and was eventually ruled to be illegal. The failures under both Belaúnde and García to change the balance left the state-enterprise sector basically intact until Fujimori implemented major changes.

Macroeconomic Imbalance: Domestic and External

Whatever the promises and the costs of the many kinds of reform attempted by the Velasco government, the ship sank because of inadequate attention to balances between spending and productive capacity, and between export incentives and import demand. The Velasco government inherited recessionary conditions in 1968, with a positive external balance and productive capacity readily available for expansion. It maintained effective restraint on spending and deficits for several years but then let things get out of control. The central government's deficit was no more than 1 percent of gross national product (GNP) in 1970, but its own deficit plus that of the greatly expanded group of state firms reached 10 percent of GNP by 1975. Correspondingly, the external current-account balance was positive in the period 1968-70 but showed a deficit equal to 10 percent of GNP by 1975.

The external deficit was driven up primarily by high rates of growth of domestic demand and production through 1974. But in addition, the government's policy of holding to a fixed nominal exchange rate, in an increasingly inflationary context, allowed the real exchange rate to fall steadily from 1969 to 1975. The government refused to consider devaluation for fear it would worsen inflation and managed to avoid it by borrowing abroad to finance the continuing deficit. By 1975 external creditors had lost confidence in Peru's ability to repay its debts and began to put on the brakes. Whether because of such external pressure or because of growing internal opposition to the increasingly arbitrary decisions of the government, the Peruvian military decided to replace Velasco in 1975. The experiment ended on a note of defeat, not so much of its objectives as of its methods.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress