General San Martín immediately assumed political control of the fledgling nation. Under the title “Protector of Peru” he set about devising a workable constitution for the new nation – at one point even considering importing European royalty to establish a new monarchy. A libertarian as well as a liberator, San Martín declared freedom for slaves’ children, abolished Indian service, and even outlawed the term “Indian.” But in practice, with Royalist troops still controlling large sectors of the sierra, his approach did more to frighten the establishment than it did to help the slaves and peasants whose problems remain, even now, deeply rooted in their social and territorial inheritance.

The development of a relatively stable political system took virtually the rest of the 19th century, although Spanish resistance to independence was finally extinguished in the battles of Junin and Ayacucho in 1824. By this time, San Martín had given up the political power game, handing it over to Simón Bolívar, a man of enormous force with definite tendencies towards megalomania. Between them, Bolívar and his right-hand man, Antonio José de Sucre, divided Peru in half, with Sucre first president of the upper sector, renamed Bolivia. Bolívar himself remained dictator of a vast Andean Confederation – encompassing Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia – until 1826. Within a year of his withdrawal, however, the Peruvians had torn up his controversial constitution and voted the liberal José de la Mar as president.

The “Caudillos”

On La Mar’s heels raced a generation of “caudillos,” military men, often “mestizos” of middle-class origins who had achieved recognition (on either side) in the battles for independence. The history of the early republic consists almost entirely of internal disputes between the Creole aristocracy and dictatorial “caudillos.” Peru plunged deep into a period of domestic and foreign plot and counterplot, while the economy and some of the nation’s finest natural resources withered away.

Generals Andres de Santa Cruz and Agustin Gamarra stand out as two of the most ruthless players in this high-stakes power game: overthrowing La Mar in 1829, Santa Cruz became president of Bolivia and Gamarra of Peru. Four years later the liberal Creoles fought back with the election of General Luis José de Orbegoso to the presidency. Gamarra, attempting to oust Orbegoso in a quiet palace coup, was overwhelmed and exiled. But the liberal constitution of 1834, despite its severe limitations on presidential power, still proved too much for the army – Orbegoso was overthrown within six months.

Unable to sit on the sidelines and watch the increasing pandemonium of Peruvian politics, Santa Cruz invaded Peru from Bolivia and installed himself as “Protector” in 1837. Very few South Americans were happy with this situation, least of all Gamarra, who joined with other exiles in Chile to plot revenge. After fierce fighting, Gamarra defeated Santa Cruz at Yungay, restored himself as president of Peru for two years, then died in 1841. During the next four years Peru had six more presidents, none of notable ability.

The “Guano”-Boom

Ramon Castilla was the first president to bring any real strength to his office. On his assumption of power in 1845 the country began to develop more positively on the rising wave of a booming export in “guano” (birdshit) fertiliser. In 1856, a new moderate constitution was approved, and Castilla began his second term of office in an atmosphere of growth and hope – there were rail lines to be built and the Amazon waterways to be opened up. Sugar and cotton became important exports from coastal plantations and the guano deposits alone yielded considerable revenues. Castilla abolished Indian tribute and managed to emancipate slaves without social-economic disruption by buying them from their “owners”; guano income proved useful for this compensation.

His successors fared less happily. President José Balta (in office between 1868-72) oversaw the construction of most of the rail lines, but overspent so freely on these and a variety of other public and engineering works that it left the country on the brink of economic collapse. In the 1872 elections an attempted military coup was spontaneously crushed by a civilian mob, and Peru’s first civilian president – the laissez-faire capitalist Manuel Pardo y Lavalle – assumed power.


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