Remembering (or forgetting) Velasco

29 September 2018

3 October is the 50th anniversary of the coup d’etat that brought to power the so-called ‘Revolutionary Government of the Armed Forces’ in Peru, led by General Juan Velasco. 3 October 1968 was a turning point in Peruvian history: whether for good or for bad is still a matter of controversy and debate.

The Velasco regime initiated a period of major changes. It greatly accelerated the pace of agrarian reform, effectively putting an end to the country’s old landed oligarchy. It set about nationalising key industries, including the petroleum industry, most of the mining industry, banking and communications. It introduced laws that forced employers to allow workers’ representatives on to their boards. It ushered in a period of anti-US vitriol in Peru’s foreign relations, and the country’s alignment with the so-called Non-Aligned.

For people on the right of the spectrum, the Velasco government was (and still is) seen as an abomination. Not only did it overturn an elected (moderately reformist) government, but perhaps more importantly it is seen as trampling on the principle of private property. Although landowners, for instance, were compensated with government bonds, these were (and still are) effectively worthless pieces of paper. Industrialists hated the laws which forced them to admit workers’ representatives onto their management boards.

For those on the left, views varied diametrically. Some, on the more radical fringes, accused Velasco of being fascist or leaning in that direction. Others, however, supported the regime, believing it to be Peru’s best hope of engineering social change in the interests of the majority of citizens. These views shifted under the so-called ‘second phase’ of the military government after 1975, when General Francisco Morales Bermúdez ousted Velasco and took the regime in a much more conservative direction.

These events, 50 years ago, still have echoes today, not least because conservative politicians see the 1968 coup ushering in the sort of leftish nationalism that is diametrically opposed to the globalised economic liberalisation that has made business groups exceptionally wealthy and powerful in the last 25 years. Velasco, for them, remains a bogeyman whose reforms led (albeit indirectly) to the sort of economic crisis that rocked the country in the late 1980s. The influence that Velasquismo apparently exercised over Venezuela’s former president Hugo Chávez does nothing to mitigate such hatred.

The left, today much diminished in power and influence, may look back wistfully to a time in which the old social order was largely demolished and a new one created. Although some may still argue that the reforms were not as revolutionary as they might have wished, others view it as the last moment in which they (or their forebears) exercised considerable influence over the pattern of events.

What is sure is that there will be no official celebration of the anniversary, an anniversary which those currently in office have no reason to highlight.

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    The Peru Support Group exists to promote social inclusion, sustainable development and the observance of human rights in Peru. To that end the PSG highlights shortcomings in observance of established norms, whether international or local in nature, in its research, advocacy and publications. In so doing, it underscores the relationships that exist within the political system, how institutions work, and the effectiveness of policies that aim to reduce poverty and inequality within the context of sustainable development.

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