WHAT is striking about Peru's place among South American countries is the complexity of its society, paralleling to a degree its variety as real estate.
Those two elements are what make Peru especially interesting. They are also what has made the history of its governance troubled, to the degree of close to tragic.
In spite of waves of wealth flowing into the country from a range of sources, starting with gold and silver, the primordial development problem was - and remains - the high percentage of Peru's population living in terrible poverty, from Indians in the Andes mountains to the estimated quarter of the population who have poured into the capital, Lima.
I began studying Peru's history prior to spending nine days there this month. Peruvians now number 28 million. Peru's population of 9 million when the Spanish conquered the Inca in 1532 dropped to 600,000 during the first hundred years under Spanish rule. On the Pacific, it is a seventh the size of the United States. It is divided roughly into three zones: desert along the coast, a mountainous spine in the center with inhabited areas as high as 13,365 feet, and Amazon jungle in the east.
The difficult part of this geographic element of Peru's essence is that, unlike the United States, a nation of immigrants except for the Native Americans, each of these areas has had different kinds of native peoples living in them since at least 3500 B.C. Then add the Spanish in the 16th century.
The last census that had people describe themselves by ethnicity was in 1940 and showed 53 percent whites and Indian-plus-whites, 46 percent Indians, and the rest descendants of African slaves, Chinese and Japanese, including the notorious Alberto Fujimori, president from 1990 to 2000 when he fled to Japan in disgrace.
The country should be prosperous. It has experienced waves of wealth, starting with the gold and silver that the Spanish systematically stole from the Indians until the independence wars of the early 19th century. Just as in the United States, power passed at that point from Madrid to the Spanish living in the colony. The Indians were scarcely in the game at all.
Other waves of prosperity have come over the years from sales of guano (bird droppings) for fertilizer, nitrates, wool, sugar, cotton, rubber, coffee, fish, and, most recently, coca derivatives. The majority Indians have always been the primary producers of these export products, but have remained for the most part poor. In 1991, an estimated 60 percent of Peruvians lived in extreme poverty. In 2003 this was still 54 percent.
The answer across Peruvian history clearly lay in misgovernment, corruption, and mismanagement on the part of whoever was in power. Spanish rule was brutal and unspeakable, colonialism carried out by a society that was crumbling itself. Peru's own presidents, from independence in 1821 until the present, do not appear to have been notably better. There were 69 of them in 183 years. Many were military officers who seized power in coups d'etat.
Peruvians in general don't think much of military officers, although at least one, Gen. Juan Velasco Alvarado, had a good run at much needed agrarian land reform. It was estimated that fewer than 200 families owned most of the country.
One aspect of military rule is a dismal Peruvian 2-4 won-lost record in post-independence wars, with Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Spain and twice with Chile. The worst loss, to Chile, cost Peru its southern nitrate-producing areas.
The presidential picture seemed to be taking a step toward improvement in 2001 when Alejandro Toledo succeeded Mr. Fujimori as president. Mr. Toledo's great attributes included the fact that he was partly Indian from a poor family, he has a doctorate in economics from Stanford, and he was elected with 53 percent of the tally.
Hopes rose again with his election. But Mr. Toledo's popularity rating now stands at 10 percent and an anti-corruption commission is studying his and his family's financial records. His leadership profile seems to have dropped to zero.
U.S. involvement in Peruvian affairs has been a mixed bag. The United States is Peru's biggest trading partner. One hyperactive U.S. ambassador in the 1880s had us thinking about annexation. U.S. companies invested heavily in Peruvian industries, particularly mining and oil. The Peruvians dearly loved JFK's Alliance for Progress development-oriented approach.
Since 1979, U.S. policy for the most part has been all-drugs, all-the-time. U.S. military and other efforts have sought to involve Peru's military and government in suppressing coca cultivation, which dates from at least Inca times. This has put the Peruvian government between a rock and a hard place: Should it offend the United States, or its own farmers?
I don't want to stress the gloom and doom of Peru, even though its history has been hard. It is a wonderful place to visit. Tourism is, in fact, for Peru the potential El Dorado of this century. The Inca and then Spanish colonial capital Cusco is a spectacular, syncretic combination of two cultures and religions.
The Andean mountains, with Indian women still in traditional dress by custom, not for visitors, is high-plains drifting at its very best. Vast Lake Titicaca, at 12,000 feet and the site of the Inca creation myth, has villages floating on reeds.
The Peruvians are welcoming, and very interesting people. They deserve richly any break they get.
Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
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