After 1930 both the military, now firmly allied with the oligarchy, and the forces of the left, particularly the APRA, became important new actors in Peruvian politics. This period (1930-68) has been characterised in political terms by sociologist Dennis Gilbert as operating under essentially a “tripartite” political system, with the military often ruling at the behest of the oligarchy to suppress the “unruly” masses represented by the “American Popular Revolutionary Alliance” (APRA) and the Communist Party of Peru (PCP). Lieutenant Colonel Luis M. Sánchez Cerro and then General Oscar Benavides led another period of military rule during the turbulent 1930s.

The Trujillo Rebellion

In the presidential election of 1931, Sánchez Cerro capitalising on his popularity from having deposed the autocrat Augusto Leguía, barely defeated APRA’s leader Victor Raúl Haya de la Torre, who claimed to have been defrauded out of his first bid for office. In July 1932, APRA rose in a bloody popular rebellion in Trujillo, Haya de la Torre’s hometown and an APRA stronghold, that resulted in the execution of some sixty army officers by the insurgents. Enraged, the army unleashed a brutal suppression that cost the lives of at least 1,000 Apristas (APRA members) and their sympathisers (partly from aerial bombing, used for the first time in South American history). Thus began what would become a virtual vendetta between the armed forces and APRA that would last for at least a generation and on several occasions prevented the party from coming to power.

Politically, the Trujillo uprising was followed shortly by another crisis, this time a border conflict with Colombia over disputed territory in the Letícia region of the Amazon. Before it could be settled, Sánchez Cerro was assassinated in April 1933 by a militant Aprista (APRA activist), and Congress quickly elected former president Óscar Benavides complete Sánchez Cerro’s five-year term. Benavides managed to settle the thorny Letícia dispute peacefully, with assistance from the League of Nations, when a Protocol of Peace, Friendship, and Co-operation was signed in May 1934 ratifying Colombia’s original claim. After a disputed election in 1936, in which Haya de la Torre was prevented from running and which Benavides nullified with the reluctant consent of Congress, Benavides remained in power and extended his term until 1939.

Export-oriented Growth

During the 1930s, Peru’s economy was one of the least affected by the Great Depression. Thanks to a relatively diversified range of exports, led by cotton and new industrial metals (particularly lead and zinc), the country began a rapid recovery of export earnings as early as 1933. As a result, unlike many other Latin American countries that adopted Keynesian and import-substitution industrialisation measures to counteract the decline, Peru’s policymakers made relatively few alterations in their long-term model of export-oriented growth.

Under Sánchez Cerro, Peru did take measures to reorganise its debt-ridden finances by inviting Edwin Kemmerer, a well-known United States financial consultant, to recommend reforms. Following his advice, Peru returned to the gold standard, but could not avoid declaring a moratorium on its USD 180-million debt on 01 April 1931. For the next thirty years, Peru was barred from the United States capital market.

Repression Against the Left

Benavides’s policies combined strict economic orthodoxy, measures of limited social reform designed to attract the middle classes away from APRA, and repression against the left, particularly APRA. For much of the rest of the decade, APRA continued to be persecuted and remained underground. Almost from the moment APRA appeared, the party and Haya de la Torre had been attacked by the oligarchy as antimilitary, anticlerical, and “communistic.” Indeed, the official reason often given for APRA’s proscription was its “internationalism,” because the party began as a continent-wide alliance “against Yankee imperialism” – suggesting that it was somehow subversively un-Peruvian.

Haya de la Torre had also flirted with the Communists during his exile in the 1920s, and his early writings were influenced by a number of radical thinkers, including Marx. Nevertheless, the 1931 APRA program was essentially reformist, nationalist, and populist. It called, among other things, for a redistributive and interventionist state that would move to selectively nationalise land and industry. Although certainly radical from the perspective of the oligarchy, the program was designed to correct the historical inequality of wealth and income in Peru, as well as to reduce and bring under greater governmental control the large-scale foreign investment in the country that was high in comparison with other Andean nations.

The intensity of the oligarchy’s attacks was also a response to the extreme rhetoric of APRA polemicists and reflected the polarised state of Peruvian society and politics during the depression. Both sides readily resorted to force and violence, as the bloody events of the 1930s readily attested – the 1932 Trujillo revolt, the spate of prominent political assassinations (including Sánchez Cerro and Antonio Miró Quesada, publisher of the Lima daily “El Comercio”), and widespread imprisonment and torture of Apristas and their sympathisers. It also revealed the oligarchy’s apprehension, indeed paranoia, at APRA’s sustained attempt to mobilise the masses for the first time into the political arena. At bottom, Peru’s richest, most powerful “forty families” perceived a direct challenge to their traditional privileges and absolute right to rule, a position they were not to yield easily.

Manuel Prado’s Second Term – APRA’s Re-emergence

When Benavides’s extended term expired in 1939, Manuel Prado y Ugarteche, a Lima banker from a prominent family and son of a former president won the presidency. He was soon confronted with a border conflict with Ecuador that led to a brief war in 1941. After independence, Ecuador had been left without access to either the Amazon or the region’s other major waterway, the Río Marañón, and thus without direct access to the Atlantic Ocean. In an effort to assert its territorial claims in a region near the Río Marañón in the Amazon Basin, Ecuador occupied militarily the town of Zarumilla along its southwestern border with Peru. However, the Peruvian Army responded with a lightning victory against the Ecuadorian Army. At subsequent peace negotiations in Rio de Janeiro in 1942, Peru’s ownership of most of the contested region was affirmed.

On the domestic side, Prado gradually moved to soften official opposition to APRA, as Haya de la Torre moved to moderate the party’s program in response to the changing national and international environment brought on by World War II. For example, he no longer proposed to radically redistribute income, but instead proposed to create new wealth, and he replaced his earlier strident “anti-imperialism” directed against the United States with more favourable calls for democracy, foreign Investment, and hemispheric harmony. As a result, in May 1945, Prado legalised the party that now re-emerged on the political scene after thirteen years underground.


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