Peruvian Agrarian Reform, 1968–1975


A review of Representations of the Peruvian Agrarian Reform, 1968–1975, by Anna Cant.

More than four decades on, the Peruvian agrarian reform of 1969 remains a point of strong contention in the country itself – as does the regime that carried it out, the military dictatorship of Juan Velasco Alvarado. Hailed by some as having finally brought an end to a feudal system that had long oppressed the rural population, the Velasco reform has been assailed by others for supposedly leaving the Peruvian economy in ruins. Anna Cant’s dissertation looks at the debates surrounding the agrarian reform, and at its impact on regional politics, education and the mass media. She argues that it “was consistently understood as a question of major social change rather than agricultural productivity,” and that, despite its many failings in the economic sphere, it had far-reaching and positive political consequences: in its wake, Peru’s peasants “were for the first time both important agents and objects of national politics” (Summary; p. 2). The result was a lasting transformation in terms of national identity, political participation and citizenship.

Cant’s work should primarily be situated in relation to two bodies of scholarship, one on the Peruvian agrarian reform, and one on the Velasco period more broadly. As she explains in her introduction, much of the existing literature on Peru’s agrarian reform was produced in its immediate aftermath, during the 1970s. Methodologically, the bulk of these studies took a localized and empirical approach, measuring the effects of the reform on property structures and agricultural output in a particular area. Studies on the Velasco regime, on the other hand, have tended to operate at the national level, and to emphasize on the top-down process of making policy – hence Dirk Kruijt’s characterization of velasquismo as a “revolution by decree.” (Dirk Kruijt, La revolución por decreto, Lima: Mosca Azul Editores, 1989.) Cant’s adoption of a regional focus in that sense represents an attempt to bridge the national and the local, integrating two levels of analysis that have hitherto been separate. Just as important, however, is her interest in exploring how the agrarian reform played out on the ground, and how its implementation “created new spaces in which popular politics could develop and – in the long term – challenge the exclusionary practices of Peruvian democracy.” (p. 10)

After staking out her position relative to the existing literature, Cant devotes a first chapter to the history of the land question in Peru, from the colonial era through to the 1960s. She notes in particular the emergence of huge inequalities in ownership of and access to land, and the various stances on the land question that were adopted over time by different actors: political parties, governments, and peasants themselves. By the 1960s a broad consensus in favor of agrarian reform had nonetheless developed, resulting in a series of partial measures early in the decade, and then the more far-reaching reform of 1969.

Cant’s second chapter looks at the implementation of the agrarian reform at the regional level, taking the cases of Cuzco, Tacna and Piura. These regions differ hugely in terms of their physical geography, climate, economic base, demographic make-up and political traditions. The comparisons allow her to map out the Velasco government’s attempts – not always successful – to build local alliances and adapt its program to regional realities; in her view these suggest a degree of tactical flexibility with which the regime has not often been credited. She devotes particular attention to its attempts of mobilizing popular support for its program. Many Peruvian critics have dismissed such efforts as empty propaganda, merely designed to provide populist cover for policies the military intended to carry out anyway. Cant argues that they need to be taken seriously, and that the Velasco government on some level did genuinely intend to foster a profound change not only in material conditions but also in social consciousness. To that end, it forged new structures for popular participation – foremost among them being SINAMOS, the Sistema Nacional de Apoyo a la Movilización Social (whose acronym also handily translated as “without masters”). In that sense the Velasco regime was attempting not simply to carry out a set of policies, but to construct a broader political hegemony in rural areas.

Chapters 3 and 4 deal with two areas in which the Velasco government sought to secure ideological legitimacy – respectively, education and the media. In regard to the former, Cant describes a series of initiatives that accompanied the agrarian reform, which notably included not only rural training programs, but also literacy campaigns and reforms to the educational system. In a country where literacy was one of the basic criteria for suffrage, and where education was a solid boundary between the privileged and the poor, these measures had a dramatic effect. Cant’s argument here, indeed, is that as well as transforming Peru’s socio-economic structures, the Velasco land reform was accompanied by a shift in political discourse, opening the way to much greater popular participation in national political life as well as a broader definition of Peruvian citizenship. In Chapter 4, Cant similarly argues that the Velasco government’s use of the mass media – expanding the state’s media presence, sponsoring creative projects, fostering the use of Quechua in print and on the radio – was an attempt to create what for Peru was an unprecedented social dialogue. Again, this served to open up the realm of representation – political as well as iconographic – to a much wider range of people than before. It also had lasting consequences, as Cant observes: “the legacies of this moment can be seen in the subsequent development of community radio stations and the increasing (though still limited) presence of indigenous culture in the mass media.” (pp. 206-7)

In her fifth chapter Cant addresses the historical memory of the Velasco reform – that is, “the back-and-forth relationship between individuals’ memories of the agrarian reform and the public discourse that surrounds it as a period in Peru’s history.” (p. 209) As Cant explains, perceptions of the Velasco period are filtered through the experiences of the intervening years – Velasco’s displacement by a more conservative general in 1975; the return of democratic government in 1980; the Shining Path insurgency and state counter-insurgency, which lasted from 1980 into the late 1990s; and the authoritarian rule of Alberto Fujimori (1990–2000). While many of the policies of the Velasco era retain their popularity among broad segments of the population, they remain unthinkably radical within the country’s current political set-up; Cant points, in fact, to the “silencing of a radical agrarian reform agenda in recent decades,” a phenomenon that “has a direct bearing on the kinds of policies that it is possible to discuss and implement in contemporary Peruvian politics.” (p. 213)

Yet as Cant observes in her conclusion, the land reform “is not a closed chapter in Peru’s history.” (p. 268) Many of the issues that it raised remain pressing to this day, as do the political fractures that appeared in its wake. Examining Peru’s land reform, she argues, allows us to shed light on several specific aspects of recent Peruvian history. But her arguments also relate to broader questions – notably our understanding of Latin America’s democratic “transitions,” which are often framed in terms of human-rights agendas promoted at a transnational level. Cant’s thesis ends by arguing that the forms of popular participation encouraged by the agrarian reform constituted an important, highly concrete and localized experience of democratic practice for hundreds of thousands of ordinary Peruvians.

Cant’s dissertation builds on reassessments of the Velasco era such as Enrique Mayer’s Ugly Stories of the Peruvian Agrarian Reform (New Haven: Yale University Press 2009). As she herself notes, documentary sources on this period are often dispersed, fragmentary or even non-existent; Cant has made deft use of many other kinds of material, from propaganda posters and documentaries to newspapers and oral interviews. In that sense it is an important contribution to our understanding of a period in Peruvian history that remains relatively under-explored. But its argument for the political impact of the reform will also be of wider interest, above all to scholars working on the complex relationship between states and citizens, on the transformative role of education and media, and on the origins and effects of popular participation.

Tony Wood
History Department
New York University

Primary Sources

Archivo de la Dirección Regional de Agricultura – Cuzco and Tacna
Confederación Campesina del Perú
CIPCA (Centro de Investigación y Promoción del Campesinado), Piura
Centro Bartolomé de las Casas, Cusco
Archivo General de la Nación, Lima

Dissertation Information

University of Cambridge. 2015. 268 pp. Primary Advisor: Gabriela Ramos.

Image: Pamphlet of the Sistema Nacional de Movilización Social – SINAMOS, ca. 1973, private archive.

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