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Peru since Independence, a Tortured History


Peter Klarén

George Washington University, US
About Peter

Peter Klarén is Professor Emeritus of History and International Affairs at George Washington University, where he taught for more than forty years. He directed GWU’s Latin American Studies Program from 1987 to 1994. He also taught at Dartmouth College, Johns Hopkins University (SAIS), Georgetown University, Washington State University, and the University of California, Irvine. His Formación de las haciendas azucareras y los orígenes del APRA recently appeared in a third edition from the Instituto de Estudios Peruanos’ Colección Clásicos series (2017), as did the seventh edition of his Nación y sociedad en la historia del Perú (IEP, 2004, 2017), a translation of Peru: Society and Nationhood in the Andes (Oxford University Press, 2000). In 2017 Klarén was awarded the Orden del Sol del Perú at a ceremony at the Peruvian Embassy in Washington, DC.

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This essay reviews the following works:


The Lima Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Edited by Carlos Aguirre and Charles Walker. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017, Pp. xv + 272. $26.95 paperback. ISBN: 9780822363484.


Perú. 5 tomos. America Latina en la historia contemporánea. Dirigido por Carlos Contreras Carranza. Madrid: Fundación MAPFRE, 2013–2015.


Tomo 1, Crisis imperial e independencia, 1808–1830. Coordinado por Scarlett O’Phelan Godoy. Madrid: MAPFRE, 2013. Pp. 11–336. ISBN: 9788430607884.


Tomo 2, La construcción nacional, 1830–1880. Coordinado por Carlos Contreras Carranza. Madrid: MAPFRE, 2014. Pp. 2–360. ISBN: 9788439607884.


Tomo 3, La apertura al mundo, 1880–1930. Coordinado por Oscar Gonzales. Madrid: MAPFRE, 2015. Pp. 11–304. ISBN: 9788430607884.


Tomo 4, Mirando hacia dentro, 1839–1960. Coordinado por Marcos Cueto. Madrid: MAPFRE, 2015. Pp. 13–312. ISBN: 9788430607884.


Tomo 5, La búsqueda de la democracia, 1960–2010. Coordinado por Antonio Zapata. Madrid: MAPFRE, 2015. Pp. 13–367. ISBN: 9788430607884.

How to Cite: Klarén, P. (2018). Peru since Independence, a Tortured History. Latin American Research Review, 53(4), 847–856. DOI:
  Published on 20 Dec 2018
 Accepted on 15 Oct 2018            Submitted on 16 Aug 2018

Multivolume histories have occasionally appeared in Peru, the most famous and enduring being that by Jorge Basadre (1903–1980), the dean of Peruvian historians, whose first edition appeared in one volume in 1939. His Historia de la república del Perú—now in its twelfth edition and expanded to fourteen volumes (Lima: El Comercio, 2005)—was chronologically organized. By the time of the appearance of the last edition under his authorship, which appeared shortly after his death in 1980 (sixth edition, 1981), Basadre had become a devotee of the Annales school, although with some reservations (Marxism). In particular, following Fernand Braudel’s monumental work which privileged the importance of the longue durée and Marxist material culture, Basadre sought a broader synthesis of materials from the social sciences, especially economy, sociology, geography, and demography, although chronology was still paramount.1

In a sense, as we shall see below, we can infer that the historians who have collectively contributed to Perú under review were influenced by Basadre and Braudel. For under the direction of Carlos Contreras Carranza, one of Peru’s preeminent historians, Perú follows the same broad, interdisciplinary social scientific themes that Basadre modified and adapted from Braudel and the Annales school: in this case the broad themes being “La vida política,” “Perú en el mundo,” “El proceso económico,” “Población y sociedad,” and “La cultura.”

More specifically in Contreras’s overall introduction to Perú, he establishes these overall topics and within each he also sets a chronological periodization and a subset of titles to be examined. For the nineteenth century these include independence and postcolonial turmoil, midcentury guano led growth and political stabilization, collapse in the Pacific War (1879–1883) and recovery, and the beginnings of modernization around the turn of the century. This is followed in the twentieth century by oligarchical rule and populist challenge in the first half century, demographic explosion and massive migration from sierra to coast beginning in the 1950s, military led radical reform (1970s), the War of the Shining Path (1980s), the onset of authoritarianism and neoliberalism (1990s) and finally redemocratization from 2000 to 2012. All of this is accompanied by structures of hierarchy, racism, and deep inequality as well as weak institutions and the struggle to create a democratic and socially just society.

The authors constitute a mix of established, older historians with an array of younger scholars most of whom were born, with some exceptions, in the third quarter of the twentieth century. By and large this means that the dependency theory (Cardozo and Faletto), which emerged and dominated historical writing in the 1960s and beyond, has been largely discarded as the reigning historical paradigm that scholars had overwhelmingly adopted to interpret the country’s past.2 It had cast this past in terms of unequal trade and international asymmetries that retarded the emergence of a nationalist, nation-building elite and therefore Peru’s relegation to perpetual underdevelopment and inability to form a truly independent nation.

Rather, the new historicism of this latest generation of scholars places emphasis on local actors and places, although they do not entirely eschew the influence of external factors or the international arena in their analysis. But in their view, alluding to Marxism, Peru’s evolution is too complex to obey, in a mechanistic way, certain universal “laws,” in order to explain the course of history. History is better understood by privileging, along with material change, important demographic and cultural influences. The latter, moreover, allows ample room for the cultural turn in this historical analysis.

Each contributor, according to Contreras, is given a degree of freedom to construct his or her own interpretative narrative of history or, as he puts it, “poetic intuition” of events. Finally, there is a recommended bibliography after each section for readers as well as a display of splendid color period portraits and images at the end of each volume.

The first volume is entitled Crisis imperial e independencia: 1808–1830 and is introduced by leading colonialist Scarlett O’Phelan Godoy, who also writes the chapter “Población y sociedad.” She asserts that the long-standing and initially highly controversial thesis—that independence was “conceded,” in this last bastion of royalist power and weak creole resistance, to outsiders José San Martín and Simón Bolívar—was a myth and overly simplistic interpretation. In her earlier 1985 article O’Phelan argued rather that the independence movement evolved in two stages that should be combined: the first stage comprising the initial formation of a series of juntas as early as 1812, with disenchanted Peruvian creoles among the leadership, and a second military stage in 1821 and thereafter with “foreign” leadership and absent Peruvians.3 This seems to be a sensible method of approaching this issue—what she calls “independencia contestada” rather than “independencia concedida”—since the earlier thesis became highly politicized and partisan at the time of the two hundredth anniversary of independence celebrated in 1971, when it cast doubt on the legacy of honoring the country’s patriotic “founding fathers.”

Independence is often breezily interpreted as a shift from Spanish control to British dominance, echoing Prime Minister Canning’s famous quip in 1825 that “Spanish America is free and if we do not mismanage our affairs, she will be English.” Susy Sánchez Rodríguez effectively drills down on this suggestion from an economic perspective by examining the deterioration of Peru’s transatlantic trade with Spain, the collapse of the silver mines and government revenues, the problem of establishing a stable currency, the pendulum swings of revenue from the on and off Indian tribute and the massive indebtment of the fledgling governments to England and others. The latter debt, a total of eight million pounds, led to bankruptcy, momentarily annulling Canning’s grand imperial scheme for Peru. But free trade eventually would yield a bonanza to Manchester involving massive exports of textiles to Peru and thus greater overall British influence in the fledgling country.

In another carefully argued chapter on the politics of independence, Víctor Peralta Ruiz demonstrates that it was the ongoing crisis of the Spanish monarchy from 1810 to final defeat in 1826 that facilitated the disintegration of the viceroyalty and the creation of the new nation. Its final demise in fact occurred earlier when San Martín opted for monarchy, which was rejected by Peruvians disenchanted with his abrasive rule by “foreigners.” Eventually they chose to support Bolívar and republicanism but were unable to make it viable in the chaotic postindependence era of caudillo rule.

In the succeeding chapter Hugo Pereyra Plasencia adroitly details Peru’s interaction with the world, including emerging neighboring countries, in sections entitled “El fin de la era virreinal (1808–1830),” “Etapas sanmartiniana y bolivariana (1820–1826),” and “La república peruana (1827–1830).” These include numerous subsections covering topics such as the exogenous forces for independence, the process of establishing Peru’s new frontiers mostly coinciding with the former viceregal borders, the liberators’ meeting in Guayaquil, and the nationalist and largely protectionist initial policies of the new governments.

Noteworthy is the chapter on culture since it is a theme in tune with the cultural turn in historical studies. In a fascinating chapter subsection on Pancho Fierro, Ramón Mujica Pinilla provides a revealing interpretation of the autodidactic, popular artist who depicted, in picturesque watercolors, typically dressed limeños of the early postcolonial period. He states that rather than being viewed, erroneously, as an early exponent of romantic costumbrismo, Fierro was actually a direct descendent of both the casta artists and other painters of flora, fauna, and native costumes of a much earlier era. The latter had accompanied the European scientific collectors of the enlightenment who traveled to Peru to gather and categorize examples of the New World Andean environment in the late eighteenth century.

Volume 2, La construcción nacional, 1830–1880, traces Peru’s postindependence descent into political instability and civil war, only to rise at midcentury on sudden guano enrichment but ending in defeat and ruin in the Pacific War in the early 1880s. It is an extraordinary story interpreted from differing perspectives, beginning with Carmen McEvoy, who first pioneered new writing on the long-ignored history of the nineteenth century.

McEvoy underlines how in Peru, in contrast to other countries, the right to vote remained relegated to a small fraction of the population, with Indians alone—over 60 percent of the population—excluded and locked into structures of a feudal past (still subjects not citizens). Avenues for indigenous mobility were open only in the church and the military. With independence led by outsiders who eventually left (San Martín and Bolívar) and few home-grown political leaders, Peru devolved into what she calls a “Darwinian process of selection” among jefes militares who competed for power. In this scenario constitutions calling for elections were bypassed by perpetual golpes de estados and revolving presidential doors. A sprawling geography and differing regional economic interests represented by conservative, protectionist inclined Trujillo-Lima (north) and liberal, free trade Cuzco-Arequipa (south) further complicated the political picture.

More importantly, however, both McEvoy and subsequent interlocutor Cristóbal Aljovín de Losada assert that the principal caudillos of the period were not the ignorant, atavistic war lords often depicted in the traditional literature on the period. On the contrary, echoing Charles Walker’s consummate study of Cuzco’s Black Angel, two-time president Agustín Gamarra (1829–1833, 1838–1841), they “knew how to build alliances, constructed programs and ran the state.” Indeed, as Walker has put it, they debated intensely in the press and public forums about the major issues confronting the nation at its outset.4

Cristóbal Aljovín de Losada, another major interpreter of the new nineteenth century history, in his excellent selection, “Perú en el mundo,” adds another dimension to McEvoy’s depiction of postindependence. He shows how the pursuit by all the new South American nations of outlets to the Pacific or Atlantic or Amazonian rivers, as well as access to natural resources to fill empty coffers, led to perpetual wars over border areas. These border wars became entangled with the internal national struggles for power, exacerbating the anarchy and civil conflicts engulfing the country at its very outset.

Contreras in his masterful piece “El proceso económico” modifies the widely held notion that the guano bonanza and General Ramón Castilla’s two presidential terms at midcentury served to pacify and consolidate the state. He agrees but sagely points out that Peru was not freed from internal or external wars, had no plan as to how to spend the bonanza on development, and there was little progress on defining the national community, other than the rise of costumbrismo depicting the local in the early literature and paintings of the period. Moreover, guano wealth, he avers, deepened already wide social cleavages by distributing the benefits in a totally unequal and arbitrary way. As for liberalism’s impact in the 1850s, it was relatively mild and limited, compared to other nations, due to the size and diffusion of national territory. Here, however, he should take into account the contrary large impact of midcentury liberalism on Mexico, a country similar in size and sprawl as Peru.

In the section “Población y sociedad,” Jesús Cosmalón Aguilar, following the dictum that “demography is destiny,” examines critically the various censuses of 1849, 1874, 1876, and 1940. Despite the egalitarianism proclaimed in the republican constitution, racial terms like “white” (European), “Indian,” and “Negro” (slavery despite abolition in 1854) became customary, to which however were increasingly added “mestizo” and “casta,” as the former became ever more evident in the urbanizing coast as the century progressed. Race as a category was reinforced by the scientific racist theories that arrived from Europe by midcentury, only to be slowly undermined by other factors such as income, education, honor, and the like, as class eventually began appearing as another dimension of status and census counting.

Finally, Marcel Velázquez Castro contributes a fine section on culture in which he points out the repeated use of the term civilización in novels and elsewhere as well as examining subjects like costumbres, modas, alimentación, and fiestas públicas. He rightly emphasizes the importance of these together with the development of the press in contributing to gradually evolving democratizing and nationalizing visions of Peru. But his analysis would have been strengthened by consulting Sara Castro-Klarén and John Chasteen’s Beyond Imagined Communities, a critique of Benedict Anderson’s formula of imagined communities in the formation of the concept of the nation.5 Castro-Klarén and Chasteen and their contributors go even further in identifying the specific sources and forces at work in contributing to the formation of a national consciousness and the nation-state in the postindependence and later nineteenth century.

The keys to volume 3, entitled Perú 1880–1930: La apertura al mundo, are well delineated by Osmar Alberto Gonzalez Alvarado in his introduction. They are the Pacific War (1880s), reconstruction (1890s), formation of the oligarchy (1900–1919), and Leguía (1920s). He also closes the volume with a lively discussion of “La cultura” in which he describes the impact on daily life brought about by the wave of new inventions that were then arriving in the country from abroad and were generating an array of exciting new experiences, sensations, and vibrant debates.

A good example of this was the arrival of the airplane in Peru and the news that Jorge Chávez Dartnell, a pilot of Peruvian parentage, had become the first person to fly across the Alps in 1910. These two events, according to a recent book by Willie Hiatt published too late for this series,6 fired the imagination of the masses about the impact of such new technologies and how they might lift Peru out of its self-perceived backwardness and propel the country into a new era of progress.

Sociologist Alicia del Águila Peralta tackles “La vida política—Reconstrucción (1890s),” “República Aristocrática (1900–1919),” and Augusto B. Leguía’s “Patria Nueva” (1920s). An important point that she makes is how the closed political system and voting restrictions mentioned earlier were perpetuated and reinforced by the Civilistas (Partido Civil) at the dawn of oligarchical rule in 1900. Here she also shows how Piérola and his Partido Demócrata, paradoxically, fell victim to their own reforms by being outmaneuvered by their Civilista rivals at the end of the “Caliph’s” term in 1899. The Civilistas went on to win the presidency that year and thereafter by gaining control of the electoral process and manipulating it to their own advantage. This cemented their rule for the next two decades, labeled by Basadre “The Aristocratic Republic.”

Águila then recounts, in the context of rapid modernization and change engendered by the impact of World War I, the fierce intra-elite battles culminating in Leguía’s overthrow of the Civilistas in 1919. An intense struggle then ensued between the evolving dictatorship of Leguía and the mass movements that emerged in the 1920s representing socialismo and aprismo. The former was under the aegis of José Carlos Mariátegui, founder of the Partido Socialista Peruana in 1928, and his revisionist Marxist heterodox prescription for radical change. The latter, led by Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre, founder of the Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (APRA) in 1924, advocated anti-imperialism and a nationalist, populist version of the future.

Historian Daniel Parodi Revoredo, in “Perú en el mundo,” shows how the state moved to definitively secure Peru’s territorial limits with its neighbors in this period, a circumstance that after the Pacific War weighed heavily on public opinion and the maintenance of external peace. He also argues, correctly I think, that Haya’s APRA should be credited with being the first populist party in Latin America, not Cárdenas’s Partido Nacional Revolucionario (PNR, later PRI), nor Perón’s Partido Justicialista or Peronist Party. Another of Peru’s premier historians, Nelson Manrique Gálvez, provides an excellent economic review of the period that privileges dependency theory eschewed by others in this collection. For example, he assesses the role of foreign powers in constructing the export-dependent economy in league with local elites, producing an illusion of progress.

Such an illusion derived from Leguía’s “dance of the millions” during the 1920s, which saw foreign investment and loans pour into the Peruvian economy, predominantly from the United States, artificially inflating growth. When they were suddenly reversed and withdrawn late in the decade, the financial bubble burst and, in the wake of the Wall Street crash of 1929, Peru descended into depression and economic and political chaos.

In “Población y sociedad” Augusto Ruiz Zevallos explores the demographic changes that occurred from the end of the nineteenth century, propelling Peru’s population growth. Among the most important factors, aside from the well-known medical and hygienic advances that curtailed endemic diseases, were the multiple migrations to Peru from both Europe and Asia, which, in contact with Andeans, Afro–Peruvians, and mestizos, gave formation to the initial “lo peruano” (the historical mosaic of cultures, peoples, and classes that form the nation). In his analysis of the social structure, Ruiz supports Alfonso Quiroz’s interpretation, contrary to Basadre’s thesis of a predominantly staid aristocratic elite, that Peru was propelled during this period of modernization by a bourgeoisie of entrepreneurs and capitalists comprising a much larger elite than the usually referenced aristocratic forty families.7 The evidence can be seen among others in the intellectual generation of 1900, many of whom ideologically embraced positivism as well the necessity of integrating the Indian population into the nation.

The coordinator of volume 4, Perú 1930–1960: Mirando hacia dentro, Marcos Cueto, identifies the keys to the period and the virtual consensus of the contributors as to their efficacy and importance. Politically, the key is the authoritarian regimes that governed during the period. They resorted to populist policies to curry support from the working class (President Luis Miguel Sánchez Cerro and President Oscar R. Benavides, 1930s) and a new migrant population from the sierra (President Manuel A. Odría, 1950s) that was rapidly forming in Lima’s shantytowns as a potential clientele. Economically, Peru recovered relatively rapidly from the depression by continuing the same liberal, export-led growth policies, to the exclusion of import substitution industrialization (ISI) being adopted elsewhere.

Culturally, Americanization is embraced by the elites, but on another level there is a contrary tendency toward the embrace of indigenismo among a new generation of middle-class intelligentsia—academics, writers, and artists. Finally, in the demographic realm, the country underwent a shift away from the highlands to the coast in terms of population and economic weight and importance. All of these themes do not depart from the standard interpretations of the period, but each contributor drills down to elaborate on various details and nuances.

Alfonso W. Quiroz, in “El proceso económico,” attributes Peru’s relatively rapid recovery from the depression to the quickening foreign demand for Peru’s key commodities like cotton and minerals. Marcos Cueto adds to this an explanation for why Peru, unlike other countries, eschewed ISI policies while clinging to orthodox liberal, commodity-based, export policies to create growth. His answer is because Peru lacked an adequate industrial base, unlike Argentina and Mexico, on which to construct a viable nationalist, heterodox ISI policy. The more feasible course, with wartime recovery in the West and elite interests, lay with the embrace of Americanization via markets and investment as well as American cultural imports into Peru’s new media (radio and television), from before World War II to the Korean War and beyond.

Rolando Roja Rojas, however, emphasizes the contrary indigenismo tendency, citing the likes of the works of anthropologist Luis Valcárcel, painter José Sabogal, and writers José María Arguedas and Ciro Alegría, who rose to public prominence even as the new media reflected Americanization. But he notes the latter never rose to the supreme heights of indigenismo in Mexico.

Martín Monsalve Zanatti, in “Población y sociedad,” focuses his analysis on the two censuses of 1940 and 1960. One important shift occurs in the 1940 census as compared to that of 1876. Race is dropped as a category in 1940 as part of the state’s new political-cultural project of identifying Peru as a mestizo nation (as opposed to the previous “scientific racism” positing the desirability of a white/European population promoted by immigration and therefore progress, vs. a retrograde indigenous one). This is accomplished by combining the category of white with mestizo, thereby fortifying the concept of Peru as mestizo country (52 percent of the total population).

Another major concern analyzed by Monsalve is the importance placed by the state in carrying out a more technically sound “scientific” census than that of seventy years ago (1876). This is because of a new concern of the state “to know, protect and make believable” the country’s population as an indispensable resource for the development of the nation. In this respect, according to Monsalve, the government first expressed unhappiness with the slow growth of the population after 1900 and increasingly promoted a pro-natalist policy, with the support of the Roman Catholic Church.

However, the 1960 census revealed an accelerating annual population growth rate of 2.25 percent and Lima’s explosive growth to over half a million inhabitants, leading the government to question the former supposition that “Peru was an unpopulated country.” Pro-natalist policies were then reversed in order to control, with birth control and other methods, an unsustainably accelerating population growth, which was overflowing the boundaries of the state’s ability to provide the necessary infrastructure and services.8

Finally, Jorge Lossio’s focus in “La vida política” is logically on APRA, the principal populist contender to overturn the oligarchy, which was largely blocked from power by the military over the three decades leading up to the golpe of 1962. He reflects in his interesting piece recent scholarship that suggests that militants pushed the leadership to adopt radical policies, including the resort to golpes led by sympathetic military officers (1948 for example). Yet the majority of Apristas, he argues, betrayed their progressive beliefs in the justification that first it was necessary to accommodate with the oligarchical regimes in order to gain legitimacy for the party. This of course, was the strategy Haya mostly followed, although he did encourage militant calls for revolution, but then in the event withheld his support at the last minute.

The volume ends with a summation of the factors contributing to the growing popular frustration and dissatisfaction leading to the golpe of 1962 and thereafter. These included the movements for social reform, especially agrarian reform, and the rise of nationalism stemming from the popular rejection of big foreign mining companies, whose enclave operations at the local level did little to increase and spread employment and development while evading taxes and regulation by the state. The mounting popular frustrations had led to the disputed 1962 election of Haya, the golpe that followed to block him from power, and the subsequent election a year later of Haya’s reformist rival Fernando Belaúnde Terry (1963–1968).

The fifth and final book in this series, Perú 1960–2010: La búsqueda de la democracia, is ably introduced by political scientist Antonio Zapata, who also authors the first section, “La vida política.” The main key to this section is what he and others call the Peruvian pendulum, the tendency of governments to oscillate policy between opposing developmental models, democracy and authoritarianism or reform and status quo. So, for example, over the course of this period we see policy swings from liberalism in the 1950s to neoliberalism in the 1990s; with populist policies in the early 1970s and the late 1980s—the latter disrupted by a violent and costly internal war in the 1980s and early 1990s. One constant of this oscillation is the persistence of government corruption, which weakened the political fabric of the country leading to citizens’ increasingly losing faith in government. In sum, according to Zapata, from 1945 to 2000 Peru experienced five transitions to democracy and four golpes for a total of nine new regimes, a roller coaster, as he puts it, “from one band to another like a billiard ball.”

In this section Zapata also treats the internal conflict, which he characterizes as a war of no quarter, between the Shining Path and the armed forces. The latter finally prevails largely by adopting a new counterinsurgency strategy of arming the Indian communities as allies to defend themselves from the guerrillas, thereby enabling the military to better defend the great expanse of interior territory where the Shining Path had been able to virtually roam free and kill and destroy indiscriminately. Ultimately, Alberto Fujimori rose to the fore to decapitate the leadership and defeat the Shining Path while at the same time quelling rampant hyperinflation through a draconian austerity program. This in turn engendered the popular support and legitimacy that enabled “El Chino” to institute neoliberalism, engineer a resumption of growth, and to rule for a decade until his fall in 2000. All of this, too, is a familiar story to Peruvianist historians and political scientists.

In the second section, “El Perú en el mundo,” Juan Luis Orrego Penagos skillfully recounts Peru’s foreign policy zigzags from Belaúnde (1963–1967) through Fujimori (1990–2000). It is a policy that simultaneously seeks independence from the United States while maneuvering skillfully to gain favorable market access and other advantages. Orrego highlights Ronald Bruce St. John’s observation that this produced a certain ambiguity in negotiations with the United States, with nationalist tendencies colliding with cooperative efforts, all in a complex international environment of recurring economic crises.9

In the next section Humberto Campodónico examines “El proceso económico.” ISI began modestly at the end of the 1950s and 1960s until Juan Velasco Alvarado’s strong push for it in the early 1970s. Punctuated by the sweeping agrarian reform, Velasco also overturned the dominance of the landed oligarchy by ending the centuries-old hacienda system. Agrarian reform experimented for a time with cooperativismo, which deviated into minifundismo before finally giving way to the re-formation of a modernized form of latifundismo in the context of neoliberalism during the 1990s. What this section adds that is new is the shift today back to latifundismo, which again is becoming or has become the reality in Peru, but in a capitalist form, having in a way completed a full circle in the agrarian history of the country.

As for Velasco’s other reforms, they were doomed, Campodónico says, by the impact of the 1973 oil embargo that heralded the end of the golden age of capitalism, which had reigned in the global economy after the end of World War II in 1945. In the fifteen years since Velasco’s fall in 1975, a certain economic stasis prevailed until the crash of the late 1980s and the onset of hyperinflation. This opened the way for Fujimori, who, as we have said, embraced austerity and neoliberalism only to open the floodgates to foreign capital and multinational companies, which revived economic growth but with the adverse effect of “denationalizing” the economy, enriching a new elite, and widening the gap between the rich and poor by 2000.

In the following section, entitled “Población y sociedad,” María Isabel Remy Simatovic analyzes the all-important migrations that dramatically altered the face of the country’s demography. She traces the great population shift from country to city characterized by the push-pull factors that peaked in the decade of the 1960s, followed then by the flight of serranos from the violence and horrors of the internal war to the relative safety of Lima and other coastal cities. By 2000 this great movement of peoples finally diminished, leaving bulging new shantytowns that altered the course of politics as well as overwhelming, as Matos Mar showed, the ability of the state to provide infrastructure and public services.

In the final section, “La cultura,” Víctor Vich argues that the cultural myth of the mestizo and mestizaje, which had been promoted by the country’s intellectuals, writers, and artists for most of the twentieth century to define the country, had failed to produce a unified nation free of the racism and discrimination that had plagued the country since its founding. In its place, by the end of the century, they began to validate and espouse in their works a new conception of the country as a diverse, pluralistic, heterogeneous mosaic. This new paradigm of a multiethnic society coincided with the view abroad that diversity was in fact a good thing, synonymous with creativity and progress. Peruvian intellectuals now saw the country’s diverse, heterogeneous nature not as an obstacle or negative characteristic, but as a significant advantage to achieving national progress in an ideally harmonious, conflict-free society.

Vich proceeds to survey a broad swath of the country’s culture to illustrate his point. This includes superb analyses of its literature, music, the plastic and visual arts, television, and what he calls “el ensayo, el periodismo y la cultura de la calle.” This is a fitting conclusion to perhaps the best book in the series, which ends, as do the previous volumes, with a section of wonderfully illuminating photographs entitled “La época en imágines,” under the direction of Alejandra Cuya.

One area that seems underrepresented throughout the series is the role of women and their changing sociopolitical status in the country over time. While the importance of individual women, such as Flora Tristan, or later the final coming of women’s right to vote, are noted in the collection, the collective condition and situation of women is rarely treated or represented here as a whole. Absent too is any mention of the role and importance of women rebels in the Shining Path insurgency or, to take another example, the surprising absence of discussion of Fujimori’s recognition of the rising political influence of women during the 1990s. Nor does anything appear about the sterilization program undertaken by the regime, which roiled the country and contributed to Fujimori’s ultimate political demise.

One of the pioneers and leading scholars on women and society whose outstanding works span two decades is Cecilia Blondet.10 Perhaps her inclusion as one of the authors or as a member on the comité asesor for the series, particularly volume 5, would have ensured a more robust presence on women in a changing society.

To sum up, then, this new, highly accessible and professional multivolume history of modern Peru constitutes a broad synthesis and welcome scholarly update by a new generation of Peruvian historians. There are no large leaps into grand theory or sweeping revisionist breakthroughs or interpretations here. Having been buffeted and chastened by the convulsions of radical change from the upheavals of 1960s to the lost decade of the eighties and the horrible impact of the internal war, like most Peruvians the recent corps of historians evince a welcome moderation in their approach to interpreting the past. Marxism for the most part has been rejected or downplayed, so that the contributors to Perú are content to adopt a more incremental interpretive and unspectacular rendering of Peru’s past. However, they do lead the way in shifting the focus away from the Lima-centric narrative of the past to explore events in specific provinces, regions, and localities of the country.

That does not mean that the capital city, with upward of a third of the total population of the country and its historic place of power, is not still a very important object of historical analysis and widespread interest. This is verified with the appearance of The Lima Reader, which deserves attention here as a worthy complement to the five volumes reviewed above.11 An anthology of primary selections expertly edited by well-known Peruvianist historians Carlos Aguirre and Charles Walker, the book spans a spectrum of epochs and topics from the Incas and conquest to the modern day. It brings together an extraordinarily rich array of original sources such as travel accounts, historical documents, folklore, poetry, excerpts from short stories and memoirs, maps, and photographs, including translated selections of notable historical and literary figures as well as contemporary intellectuals, politicians, and scholars. In addition to exploring Lima’s identity through its food, sports culture, festivals, and sense of humor, these sources “address how Lima’s multiethnic population, class inequalities and debates of who is a ‘true’ limeño/a have evolved throughout the city’s history” (back cover).

The reader is organized into six chronological sections: “Pre-Hispanic, Conquest and Early Colony,” “Bourbon Lima,” “From Independence to the War of the Pacific (1821–1883),” “Modernizing Lima (1895–1940),” “Interlude: Nostalgia and Its Discontents,” and “The Many Limas (1940–).” The latter two sections are decidedly weighted toward the period since 1940, with a total of twenty-three entries (114 pages) versus the previous five centuries with thirty-one entries (134 pages). Given the projected readership, mainly university students and lay readers, this emphasis is entirely appropriate. Each section and selection or entry begins with a short introduction that concisely summarizes its contents.

The very first chapter, entitled “Pre-Hispanic Lima,” captures the beginning of what would become multiethnic Lima over the next five centuries. Francisco Pizarro and his fellow Spanish conquistadors vainly tried to separate themselves from the conquered indigenous by founding their capital city on the coast far from the Indian core, the Inca imperial capital Cuzco. Yet from the moment of its founding, the City of the Kings was intimately tied to the indigenous people, who not only surrounded it but had built a plethora of huacas, native holy shrines whose remains still dot the city landscape even today. The ensuing process of racial and cultural mixing with the Hispanic population would quickly doom the policy of dividing and segregating Peru into two republics, Spaniards and Indians, as dictated from Madrid.

Garcilaso de La Vega’s description of this early attempt at separation, of course, was not the only reason for the selection of coastal Lima as the new capital, since commerce and trade with Spain and Europe was also paramount. Over time that would bring other components that contributed to the multiethnic composition of the city and colony, such as African slave labor for nearby sugar plantations and as household servants. By the eighteenth century Lima would be described by some as a predominantly black city, as described in several entries, such as Flora Tristan’s “A Slave Plantation,” and another by Natalia Majluf on Pancho Fierro, the Afro-Peruvian watercolorist who brilliantly depicted the Afro population of the city. “Faces of All Colors” by Hipólito Ruiz adds an example of the ugly racial discrimination that the capital’s dominant “white” population subjected this dark-skinned underclass, but which ironically also tagged the creole elite as inferior to Europeans (Spaniards).

Fast-forward to the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when Lima’s population assumed still another racial dimension. This time Chinese and Japanese indentured servants were brought to work in the guano fields and plantations and in railroad construction, respectively, and many eventually found their way to Lima once completing their work contracts. Their ancestors are today’s Asian component that dominates the small retail or bodega trade as well as the famous Chinese restaurants of Lima, called chifas. A variety of Europeans, of course, arrived in Lima from abroad during this time as well.

However, not until the advent of the tidal wave of rural-urban migration that began to build after World War II, particularly during the lost decade of the 1980s economic crisis and internal war, did the ever growing indigenous and mestizo population inundate the capital city. The entry by anthropologist José Matos Mar entitled “A City of Outsiders” superbly chronicles the “Andeanization” of Lima, as does Gisela Canepa’s “Chicha and Huayno: Andean Music and Culture in Lima.” Lima’s population would increasingly resemble the mestizo nation that some argued Peru was becoming.

Numerous entries in the reader, of course, also treat the conflict and periodic violence that erupted as these disparate ethnicities struggled against the exploitation and discrimination they faced in everyday life. These include “A Failed Indian Uprising in the 1750s” (Anonymous), “Chinese Are Not Welcome” by Mariano Castro Zaldivar and, of course, various entries on the War of the Shining Path and accompanying human rights violations. Moreover, wars both external and internal are skillfully treated, such as in “The National Library and the Chilean Occupation” by E. W. Middendorf and numerous gripping entries on the Shining Path such as “The Great March of Villa El Salvador” by Jose María Salcedo, “The Day Lima Erupted” by Enrique Zileri, “The Tarata Street Bombing,” and “Shining Path: A Prisoner’s Testimony,” the latter two drawn from the 2002 Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación, Perú).12

Modernizing Lima, a city undergoing intense change at the turn of the twentieth century, features several notable entries such as José Gálvez’s “Transformation of Lima after 1895,” Luis Alberto Sánchez’s autobiographical description of “A Middle-Class House in 1900,” “The Growing Popular Taste for Soccer” from El Comercio; entries on religion and the church include “The Spiritual Diary of an Afro-Peruvian Mystic” by Ursula de Jesús, “Auto-da-Fé and Procession,” by Josephe and Francisco Mugaburu, and José Carlos Mariátegui’s “The Lord of the Miracles Procession.”

How to represent the enormous variety, diversity, and contrasts of Lima represents the great challenge to the editors of The Lima Reader. For in the city one finds affluent neighborhoods with manicured lawns of the great mansions; quaint, tidy middle-class sections; and new, teeming hilltop shantytowns. In the historic downtown center, belle époque buildings compete with colonial-era churches, monasteries, and convents and modern bustling business establishments and official buildings, all clustered together on narrow streets, together forming only 5 percent of the sprawling city. In this difficult endeavor, as perhaps one would expect, the editors succeed admirably in selecting the best passages (and photographs) that can be found to represent the rich material and cultural tapestry that unfolds in the City of the Kings over the centuries.


1See Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, 2 vols., translated from the French by Siân Reynolds (London: Collins, 1972–1973). See also Peter Klarén, “Algunas observaciones sobre Jorge Basadre en el contexto de la historiografía del siglo XX,” in Homenaje a Jorge Basadre: El hombre, su obra y su tiempo, edited by Scarlett O’Phelan Godoy and Mónica Ricketts (Lima: Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, Instituto Riva-Agüero, 2003), 87–102. 

2For a general survey see Peter Klarén and Thomas Bossert, eds., Promise of Development: Theories of Change in Latin America (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1985). 

3Scarlett O’Phelan, “El mito de la independencia concedida,” Histórica 9, no. 2 (1985): 155–191. See also Carlos Contreras and Luis Miguel Glave, eds., La independencia del Perú: ¿Concedida, conseguida, concebida? (Lima: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 2015). 

4Charles F. Walker, Smoldering Ashes: Cuzco and the Creation of Republican Peru, 1780–1840 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), 7. 

5Sara Castro-Klarén and John Charles Chasteen, eds., Beyond Imagined Communities: Reading and Writing the Nation in Nineteenth-Century Latin America (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press; and Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003). 

6Willie Hiatt, The Rarified Air of the Modern: Airplanes and Technological Modernity in the Andes (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016). 

7Alfonso W. Quiroz, Domestic and Foreign Finance in Modern Peru, 1850–1950: Financing Visions of Development (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1993). 

8José Matos Mar, Desborde popular y cri sis del estado (Lima: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 1984). 

9Ronald Bruce St. John, The Foreign Policy of Peru (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1992). 

10See for example Blondet, Las mujeres y la política en la década de Fujimori (Lima: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 1999), or Blondet et al., La situación de la mujer en el Perú, 1980–1994 (Lima: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 1994). One of the earliest books in English on the subject is Susan C. Bourque and Kay Barbara Warren, Women of the Andes: Patriarchy and Social Change in Two Peruvian Towns (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1981). Asuncion Lavrín, of course, was the pioneer on the subject. 

11See also its predecessor The Peru Reader: History, Culture, Politics, edited by Orin Starn, Carlos Iván Degregori, and Robin Kirk (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995; 2nd ed. 2005). 

12See Hatun Willakuy: Versión abreviada del Informe final de la Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación, Perú (Lima: Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación, 2004). 

Author Information

Peter Klarén is Professor Emeritus of History and International Affairs at George Washington University, where he taught for more than forty years. He directed GWU’s Latin American Studies Program from 1987 to 1994. He also taught at Dartmouth College, Johns Hopkins University (SAIS), Georgetown University, Washington State University, and the University of California, Irvine. His Formación de las haciendas azucareras y los orígenes del APRA recently appeared in a third edition from the Instituto de Estudios Peruanos’ Colección Clásicos series (2017), as did the seventh edition of his Nación y sociedad en la historia del Perú (IEP, 2004, 2017), a translation of Peru: Society and Nationhood in the Andes (Oxford University Press, 2000). In 2017 Klarén was awarded the Orden del Sol del Perú at a ceremony at the Peruvian Embassy in Washington, DC.