Rural Communities and the Making of Modern Peru (Review)

In his new book, historian Javier Puente chronicles how rural communities in the Andean highlands played a key role in the making of state power in twentieth-century Peru.

April 28, 2023

The Rural State, University of Texas Press, January 2023.

Peru today seemingly confirms the persistent fractures and social divisions that have characterized the country even before it became an independent nation-state. During his 2021 presidential campaign, rural school teacher Pedro Castillo faced a host of accusations that spoke to a long-lasting coloniality and a recent past shaped by the traumatic memories of the Internal Armed Conflict (IAC, 1980-2000) and the Alberto Fujimori dictatorship. Some called him a “terruco” a derogatory and racially-charged accusation of terrorism, despite the fact that Castillo formed part of the Rondas Campesinas organized in the 1980s to defend peasant communities from Shining Path guerrillas in the name of national defense and civic duty. Following his unexpected electoral victory, opponents linked to the oligarchic Right used the image of a hat-wearing donkey to ridicule the president, while also subjecting him to racist epithets like “cholo de mierda.” Peru, so it seems, continues to exist as an incomplete, divided state project.

But the history of Peru also contains other themes, other visions that gesture toward a more inclusive nation. In his impressive new book on rural highland communities, The Rural State: Making Comunidades, Campesinos and Conflict in Peru’s Central Sierra, historian Javier Puente presents alternate frameworks with which to understand 20th-century Peruvian history. Puente preserves the Spanish “comunidades in his text, arguing that “community” doesn’t capture the political weight of state-sanctioned definitions/categories of comunidad and comunero. While not discounting conflict and division as persistent historical themes, Puente argues that fleeting moments of proximity and convergence between the countryside, rural communities, and the state formed modern Peru. These short-lived efforts offered the country alternative visions of the nation that, had they been followed, may have mitigated the horrifically violent trajectories unleashed by the IAC beginning in 1980.

This is a book about highland country people who helped make a state. Puente, an Associate Professor of Latin American and Latino/a Studies at Smith College, tells a dynamic story about historical transformation driven from above and below: how rural, colonial pueblos in Peru’s Central Sierra became legally recognized comunidades and how Indigenous peoples became campesinos over the course of the 20th century through different forms of state intervention. Yet these rural Andean communities also participated in shaping and modifying those interventions involving, most especially, questions over land and land tenure. Using different modalities of protest, negotiation, and dialogue, rural communities like San Juan de Ondores—the community of focus in this study— stimulated the creation of state reforms, institutions, and agendas that sought to protect local communal autonomy and improve everyday life in the rural highlands. In helping to make the Central Sierra knowable for government authorities—politically, economically, and geographically—these comunidades helped Peru momentarily move away from what historian Alberto Flores Galindo famously termed an exclusionary “republic without citizens” and become a state steeped in rurality.

Yet this is also a bittersweet story for communities like San Juan Ondores. Helping the Peruvian state “see” the Central Sierra from 1920 to today did not necessarily engender a lasting reciprocity in kind and scale. The promise of participating in state formation to ensure the protection of local communal autonomy—particularly land “as a means of life” as Puente terms it—at times led to unintended consequences shaped by national and international events and processes. Communal control over “the means of life and death” has become much more difficult for the people of San Juan Ondores as neoliberalism and mining threaten the very survival of this and many more rural communities within and beyond Peru. Many villagers have left in search of a better life. The global countryside is full of ghost towns.

In this “reappraisal” of the Andean country’s twentieth century history that seeks to bring the rural back into Peruvian historiography, Puente places San Juan Ondores at the very center of The Rural State. This is an intensely local community history that simultaneously integrates regional, national, and international scales into its historical scope. From the turn of the century capitalist dreams of state officials and foreign travelers who imagined the possibilities of highland agrarian industrialization, to the failed 1960s agrarian reforms that helped set off the bloody 1980s-90s, Puente shows a highland community with a vibrant internal life in constant interface with external agents and developments. Shaped by communal ideals like consensus-based politics, along with a vertical mountain ecology that made livestock (sheep) grazing and wool production its principal economic activities, San Juan Ondores provides a vantage point from the rural margins to track the ebb and flow of key historical processes that marked the last 10 decades of Peruvian history. Puente also shows how those margins took a more central stage during certain moments. Ensconced high up in the Central Sierra, the history of this community of shepherds, “masters of pastoralism,” has much to teach about state formation, capitalism, agrarian development and de-development, and the local rural roots of political violence.

Legibility is a central theme of this deeply and creatively researched study. Beginning in the early 20th century, the Peruvian state proved unable to read a Central Sierra rich in diverse geographies, agrarian economies, land tenure configurations, and rural communities even as it imagined the region as an ideal space for capitalist development and profit making. Policies that transformed “indios” into exploited wage laborers working on estates and in mines led to perpetual conflict between capital and labor, state and villages, culminating in some of the country’s largest labor strikes to date by the late 1910s. The very form of profit-making, dictated from above without local input, produced antagonisms that made the Central Sierra “a space of enduring conflicts.”

If illegibility produced violence, legibility offered the opportunity to create a common, constantly contested framework of understanding and negotiation between state and village. For Puente, this framework begins in 1920 during Augusto B. Leguía’s autocratic Nueva Patria regime (1919-1930) with the promulgation of a new constitution that legally recognized Indigenous rural villages as comunidades. The extension of state power into the highland countryside in the form of land surveys, road construction, and new federal offices with local outposts dedicated to the protection of Indigenous territorial and labor rights introduced a new form of governance dependent on state-comunidad communication—communication enabled by a new shared legal vocabulary. Later 1930s laws that sought the regulation of internal communal political life and organization also helped the state monitor the inner lives of rural communities. In turn, such communities used legal recognition and laws to protect their people, lands, livestock, and property rights. State formation by rural cadaster.

Focusing on San Juan Ondores enables Puente to show the local results of this unstable new relationship through the 1940s and into the Cold War decades. Granted unprecedented access by the community to its archived minutes from weekly assemblies (actas comunales) dating back to 1937, censuses, and council meetings, he reveals an internally stratified community held together by shared communal values that fueled the broader struggle to maintain political, economic, and social autonomy. At times, as during the 1940s and 50s, this struggle converged with the state’s efforts to industrialize agricultural production in the countryside. Endeavors to modernize and subsidize “sheep-based communal economies” integrated the shepherds of San Juan Ondores into the global wool trade and markets in the United States and Europe. Contrary to state designs that ultimately sought the centralization of political and economic power, rural modernization actually enhanced communal autonomy as the villagers used newfound economic prosperity, the legal system, and state institutions to protect local lifeways–especially against neighboring haciendas.

Such moments of economic dynamism, Puente argues, created unity within San Juan Ondores and a general willingness to work through official state channels. In contrast, economic stagnation undermined “the material grounds of communal organization” and allowed violence to emerge as a “legitimate discourse and praxis.” Puente traces how proximity transformed into violent divergence beginning in the early 1960s. Communal conflicts with haciendas sparked mass direct actions in the form of land invasions and incipient guerrilla movements during the early 1960s throughout the Central Sierra. By 1965, according to former CIA agent Victor Marchetti, the agency had created “a miniature Fort Bragg” to help defeat these revolutionary expressions of rural discontent that expanded to multiple regions.

Within this tumultuous 1960s context, agrarian reform emerged as a milder form of counterinsurgency to contain peasant militancy and attempt a more equitable economic development at the national level. The two versions signed into law in 1965 and 1969—the latter implemented by a leftist military government that seized power in 1968—raised the expectations of thousands of rural communities that had hoped for the return of lands usurped by haciendas and foreign corporations on their terms, according to their local needs. Indeed, the comuneros of San Juan Ondores legally achieved the recovery of land previously owned by the massive Atocsaico hacienda after years of litigation in 1969. Yet, the community’s plans for how to use the recovered lands soon clashed with a military government that sought to placate campesino demands for land without undermining agricultural productivity or antagonizing the United States.

The result, according to Puente: an agrarian reform radical only in discourse but that in practice implemented a centralized, state-led model of cooperativization that dispossessed San Juan Ondores comuneros of their lands, undermined their communal organization, and ultimately deprived them of autonomy. They officially became campesinos—after the General Juan Velasco Alvardo-led military “revolution” changed the nation’s “Día del Indio” to “Día del Campesino” in 1969—coerced into working for a rural state cooperative named after the anti-colonial Indigenous leader Túpac Amaru. San Juan Ondores became one of many “disenfranchised usufructuaries of land and agrarian resources” in the Central Sierra. And true to their history, these “new” campesinos would mobilize, challenge, and contest anew.

For Puente, the failure of the military revolution set the stage for things falling apart in the bloody 1980s and 90s. He reads the IAC from the Central Sierra as primarily local and agrarian, rooted in the long history of the state-comunidades relationship. The ouster of General Velasco in 1975 by generals more willing to deploy violent repression to quell renewed campesino resistance in the countryside hastened radicalization, especially among younger generations of campesinos. For San Juan Ondores, the massacre the community suffered at the hands of police special forces after they invaded Atocsaico lands in late 1979 marked their local experience of a national phenomenon. “Violence,” Puente argues, “became the new language between the state and comunidades.” The introduction of a third agent beginning in 1980—Sendero Luminoso and its “unrestrained political violence”—led to the “ultimate collapse of state-comunidad relations.”

Internally, violence undermined the very communal structures of comunidades like San Juan Ondores at the moment they needed them the most. Communality historically did not mean egalitarianism but consensus decision-making that offered some power to the poorest households. Radical politics, polarization, and violence prevented consensus and delegitimized communal institutions. Internally fractured and facing horrific levels of violence, San Juan Ondores turned once again to the state. By 1989, it achieved legal ownership over the state cooperative’s land that comuneros had invaded in 1979. While the official ceremony marking the transfer of land ownership suggested a new proximity between the Peruvian state and the comunidad, “political violence had changed circumstances forever.”

An evocative, rich and meticulously researched study, The Rural State ends with the possibility of a “third communal remaking” with Castillo’s presidential victory in 2021. Yet, the Peruvian state that emerged from the IAC and the Fujimori dictatorship proved different from its predecessors. It instead enacted neoliberal policies that marginalized and disenfranchised highland communities. Castillo represented a promise, riven by contradictions and limits, yet a promise–one that is now sitting in a Lima jail cell while comuneros take to the streets resisting anew. 

Alexander Aviña is an Associate Professor of History in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies at Arizona State University. He is the author of Specters of Revolution: Peasant Guerrillas in the Cold War Mexican Countryside (Oxford University Press, 2014).

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