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Peru Table of Contents



Peru's transition from more than three centuries of colonial rule to nominal independence in 1824 under President Bolívar (1824-26) proved torturous and politically destablizing. Independence did little to alter the fundamental structures of inequality and underdevelopment based on colonialism and Andean neofeudalism. Essentially, independence represented the transfer of power from the Spanish mainlanders (peninsulares) to sectors of the elite creole class, whose aim was to preserve and enhance their privileged socioeconomic status. However, the new creole elite was unable to create a stable, new constitutional order to replace the crown monolith of church and state. Nor was it willing to restructure the social order in a way conducive to building a viable democratic, republican government. Ultimately, the problem was one of replacing the legitimacy of the old order with an entirely new one, something that many postcolonial regimes have had difficulty accomplishing.

Into the political vacuum left by the collapse of Spanish rule surged a particularly virulent form of Andean caudillismo. Caudillo strongmen, often officers from the liberation armies, managed to seize power through force of arms and the elaboration of extensive and intricate clientelistic alliances. Personalistic, arbitrary rule replaced the rule of law, while a prolonged and often byzantine struggle for power was waged at all levels of society. The upshot was internal political fragmentation and chronic political instability during the first two decades of the postindependence era. By one count, the country experienced at least twenty-four regime changes, averaging one per year between 1821 and 1845, and the constitution was rewritten six times.

This is not to say that larger political issues did not inform these conflicts. A revisionist study by historian Paul E. Gootenberg shows in great detail how the politics of trade (free or protectionist) and regionalism were central to the internecine caudillo struggles of the period. In this interpretation, nationalist elites--backing one caudillo or another--managed to outmaneuver and defeat liberal groups to maintain a largely protectionist, neomercantilistic, postcolonial regime until the advent of the guano boom at mid-century. This view stands in opposition to the dominant interpretation of the period, according to which unrestricted liberalism and free trade led to Peru's "dependency" on the international economy and the West.

However bewildering, the chaotic era of the caudillo can be divided into several distinct periods. In the first, Bolívar tried, unsuccessfully, to impose a centralist and utopian liberal government from Lima. When events in Colombia caused him to relinquish power and return to Bogotá in 1826, his departure left an immediate vacuum that numerous Peruvian strongmen would try to fill. One of the most successful in terms of tenure was the conservative General Agustín Gamarra (1829-34) from Cusco, who managed to crush numerous rebellions and maintain power for five years. Then full-scale civil wars carried first General Luis de Orbegoso (1834-35) and then General Felipe Salaverry (1835-36) into the presidential palace for short terms. The power struggles reached such a chaotic state by the mid-1830s that General Andrés de Santa Cruz y Calahumana marched into Peru from Bolivia to impose the Peru-Bolivia Confederation of 1836-39. This alliance upset the regional balance of power and caused Chile to raise an army to defeat Santa Cruz and restore the status quo ante, which, in effect, meant a resumption of factional conflict lasting well into the 1840s.

The descent into chronic political instability, coming immediately after the destructive wars for independence (1820- 24), accelerated Peru's general postindependence economic decline. During the 1820s, silver mining, the country's traditional engine of growth, collapsed, while massive capital flight resulted in large external deficits. By the early 1830s, the silver-mining industry began to recover, briefly climbing back to colonial levels of output in the early 1840s. Economic recovery was further enhanced in the 1840s as southern Peru began to export large quantities of wool, nitrates, and, increasingly, guano.

On the other hand, the large-scale importation of British textiles after independence virtually destroyed the production of native artisans and obrajes, which were unable to compete with their more technologically advanced and cost-efficient overseas competitors. For the most part, however, the economy continued in the immediate decades after independence to be characterized by a low level of marketable surplus from largely self-sufficient haciendas and native communities.

The expansion of exports during the 1840s did help, finally, to stabilize the Peruvian state, particularly under the statesmanlike, if autocratic, leadership of General Marshal Ramón Castilla (1845-51, 1855-62). Castilla's rise to power, coming as it did at the onset of the guano boom, marked the beginning of an age of unparalleled economic growth and increasing political stability that effectively ended the country's postindependence decline. Indeed, to many observers, Peru during the so-called guano age (1845-70) seemed uniquely positioned to emerge as the preeminent country in all of South America.

Data as of September 1992

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Peru Table of Contents