What to Read on Peruvian Politics

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, Peru was something of a contradiction. On the one hand, things appeared to be going well. Its economy was booming -- it grew faster between 2002 and 2011 than that of any other Latin American country, save Panama -- and its politics were peaceful and democratic. The contrast with the 1980s, an era of savage insurgency, and the 1990s, when authoritarianism took hold under the government of President Alberto Fujimori, was stark. On the other hand, though, Peruvians themselves were discontent. In public-opinion surveys, Peruvians' satisfaction with democracy was among the lowest in Latin America.

As the selections below indicate, the explanations for the apparent contradiction are many. One problem is that Peru was still scarred by its past; the 1980s and 1990s had wracked the country too severely for Peruvians to readjust in one decade alone. Another was that the country's export-led growth was a mixed blessing; despite considerable reductions in poverty, most Peruvians did not believe that they were getting a fair share of the pie. Finally, Peru's democratic foundations were still shaky; in 2001, 2006, and 2011, for example, Peruvians elected presidents who campaigned on center-left platforms but shifted rightward once in office, debilitating their political parties and their citizens' confidence in the political process.

Before the Shining Path: Politics in Rural Ayacucho, 1895-1980. By Jaymie Patricia Heilman. Stanford University Press, 2010.
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In the 1970s, in the remote mountainous province of Ayacucho, a Maoist movement, inspired by the Gang of Four, was founded by Abimael Guzmán. In what became known as the Shining Path insurgency, the movement expanded not only throughout the highlands but into Lima as well, ultimately threatening the state. In more than a decade of violence, about 70,000 people died. In contrast to other Latin American insurgencies, where the government's response caused the most casualties, the Shining Path was responsible for more than half of the deaths during the years of its campaign.

Scholars and journalists have explored the political, economic, and cultural reasons for the advance of such a brutal insurgency in a relatively democratic, middle-income Latin American country, as Peru was at this time. Heilman's book is a welcome addition to the literature. Its story remains relevant years after the violence because Heilman shows that political action for social justice has been a virtual constant in some Andean communities since at least the late nineteenth century. Although the Shining Path's campaign was uniquely savage, peasants' frustration and political involvement were common. Heilman also makes a tragic and important point: even today, both Caucasians in Lima and self-defined notables within Andean communities hold anti-indigenous views.

Intimate Enemies: Violence and Reconciliation in PeruBy Kimberly Theidon. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.
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What happened in the Andean communities after the insurgency? Some community members, even those who had not fought with the Shining Path, had sympathized with it. Others, including army veterans and widows and orphans, had not. Kimberly Theidon, a medical anthropologist, describes their painful adjustments to coexistence. She shows that public confessions and apologies, healing rituals and storytelling, and degrees of punishment and reparation helped to "settle accounts." More than any other scholar of Peru's war, Theidon humanizes the legacy of the violence and indicates just how much the trauma still burdens Peru today.

Fujimori's Peru: Deception in the Public Sphere. By Catherine M. Conaghan. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005.
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A political outsider, Fujimori was elected president in 1990 but chafed at the checks and balances of Peru's democracy. Charging that the "traditional political class," with its penchant for lots of talk but little action, was the cause of Peru's problems, he executed his own coup in 1992. A few months later, Abimael Guzmán, the leader of the Shining Path, was captured. The police unit that apprehended him had been established under the preceding government, and Fujimori was out fishing at the time of his capture. Nevertheless, he claimed the credit -- and got it. From there, Fuijmori and his spymaster, Vladimiro Montesinos, achieved a level of control over the media and a capacity to manipulate public opinion that Venezuela's Hugo Chávez might envy. The president attempted to maintain a veneer of democracy but, in truth, he ravaged democratic institutions. Conaghan's riveting book reads almost like a detective story: When and how will this masquerade be exposed? Not until 2000, when a video showing the spymaster bribing a congressman was leaked by Montesinos' secretary and former mistress and broadcast. Fujimori resigned and fled to Japan; democracy was restored; and both Montesinos and Fujimori were arrested, tried, convicted, and imprisoned.

Toledo's Peru: Vision and Reality. By Ronald Bruce St. John. University Press of Florida, 2010.
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This book is a lucid, thorough account of the government of Alejandro Toledo, who was Fujimori's strongest challenger in a rigged election in 2000 and won an election in 2001. Toledo became Peru's first freely elected president of indigenous descent. St. John assesses Toledo's key successes and failures. Among the achievements were his free-market policies, including negotiations with the United States for a free-trade agreement, which spurred economic growth; his promotion of democratic rights; and his government's unprecedented decentralization initiative. The failures included limited gains in poverty reduction, education, and health care; tepid advances in the struggle against racism; and a lack of reforms within the security institutions that had run amuck in the 1990s. In addition, although human-rights advocates were pleased by the judicial processes against both Montesinos and Fujimori, they were dismayed by the government's response to the 2003 report of Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The report attributed 44.5 percent of the deaths to the armed forces and recommended holding human-rights violators accountable. The military and conservative sectors' backlash was fierce, and Toledo demurred.

Fractured Politics: Peruvian Democracy Past and Present. Edited by John Crabtree. Institute for the Study of the Americas, 2011.
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This book explores the obstacles that the Toledo government and that of his successor, Alan García, faced. The overall emphasis is on inequality. Three of the book's chapters deal with initiatives for democratic reform and their largely disappointing results. Despite a sophisticated new law to institutionalize political parties -- which created numerous new requirements for registration, internal democracy, and financial transparency -- Peru's parties largely remain vehicles for their leaders. Meanwhile, Peru's decentralization has increased local political participation, but coordination among local and national actors has been wanting.

In their chapter, the analysts Gustavo Avila, Claudia Viale, and Carlos Monge tackle the issue of Peru's economic development in the twenty-first century. The chapter underlines the problem that bedeviled Toledo and García and continues to bedevil Peru's current president, Ollanta Humala: extractive industries, mining in particular, have boomed, with positive but also negative consequences. Although crucial for Peru's continued growth and for funds for anti-poverty and human-development programs, extractive industries have often devastated nearby communities' land and water. These communities are usually poor and indigenous. Toledo's government introduced a tax on mining companies that was expected to help the communities, but severe conflicts over land and water use continue.

Ethnicity and the Persistence of Inequality: The Case of Peru. By Rosemary Thorp and Maritza Paredes. Palgrave MacMillan, 2010.
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In their study, Thorp and Paredes first probe the concept of ethnicity and the dimensions of inequality in Peru. They emphasize that inequality is not only between the peoples of Peru's coast and its mountains but also, as Heilman indicates, between the lighter-skinned people in the urban areas of Peru's mountains and the darker-skinned people in rural ones. Then the authors put these inequalities into context. During most of the twentieth century, Peru pursued export-led growth, and the country's key exports were produced on the coast. This led Peru's economic and political elites to focus on the country's coast and to neglect its poorer, more indigenous interior.

A key question for Thorp and Pardes is: Given the severity of ethnic inequality, why has a robust pro-indigenous political party not emerged in Peru, as has happened in neighboring Bolivia and Ecuador? First, in the 1980s, Peru's political parties, including its leftist parties, failed to integrate indigenous representatives. Then, amid the violence of the Shining Path and the authoritarianism of the Fujimori government, indigenous political participation was expressly limited. Different peasant organizations thus arose in different parts of Peru; for example, peasants formed self-defense groups in the northern highlands, but in urban shantytowns peasants started soup kitchens. It is in part due to the absence of one pro-indigenous party, Thorp and Paredes argue, that in the twenty-first century indigenous mobilization is, once again, at times violent.

Power, Institutions, and Leadership in War and Peace: Lessons from Peru and Ecuador, 1995-1998. By David R. Mares and David Scott Palmer. University of Texas Press, 2012.
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For many reasons, few books take on Peru's foreign policy, and so this study is especially welcome. Overall, Peruvian foreign policy has been quite successful. Mares and Palmer indicate why: an increase in the quantity and quality of multilateral organizations in the hemisphere (some of which include Peru as a member and others of which do not); a new diplomatic ethos in the region, championing interstate interaction; the electoral incentives present, even in weak democracies; and better political leadership. The study shows that boundary disputes remain all too common in Latin America but that Peru's most serious -- its dispute with Ecuador over borderlands, dating back to the era of the countries' independence -- was resolved, making the case an important model for other conflicts.

"Peru's 2011 Elections," including "A Vote for Moderate Change," by Martín Tanaka, and "A Surprising Left Turn," by Steven Levitsky. Journal of Democracy, 22, no. 4 (2011).

Tanaka's and Levitsky's articles highlight the contradiction between Peru's economic growth and citizens' dissatisfaction. Both of the candidates who reached the runoff round in the 2011 election were outside the democratic establishment: Humala is a former military officer who first campaigned as a leftist, and Keiko Fujimori is the daughter of the ex-president. Humala won because he moved to the center, whereas Fujimori could not transcend her party's past. Tanaka and Levitsky agree that, in the context of Peru's virtually nonexistent parties and weak state, the Humala government is more likely to resemble Toledo's than Chávez's (as his opponents feared) or Lula da Silva's in Brazil (as his supporters hoped). Levitsky makes a critical concluding point: Whatever its flaws, Peru's democratic regime is now the longest-lived in the country's history. Happily, this time it appears likely to endure.

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