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An Andean Nation in the Making

Part 3: Growth of a monster

While these national changes were taking place, Lima was growing into a metropolis. Today, the capital has come to represent all that went wrong with Peruvian development. One city now concentrates most the country's economic capital, services and other resources, but they are grossly inadequate to sustain its 6 million inhabitants. Lima concentrates all the political power in its hands as well (though a belated attempt to decentralize power into the hands of novice regional governments began in 1990, but ended in 1993). Regional poles of development like Trujillo on the northern coast, Arequipa in the south, Cusco in the Sierra, and Iquitos in the Amazon are dwarfed by Lima's overbearing gravity.

However, in the 1960s and 1970s, Lima seemed like the promised land to Peru's disadvantaged provincial resident. An invasion of migrants from places like Ayaviri, Bambamarca and Huaráz gradually turned Lima into an Andean city. Urban authorities were unable to create conditions in which they could satisfy basic needs. For lack of adequate housing, squatters seized idle lots in the surround wasteland. They threw up rustic huts made out of reed mats as their first shelter. These settlements gradually changes into more permanent neighborhoods, with churches, schools and clinics. Deprived of water, electricity and paved streets, each neighborhood had to organize its own lobbying effort to press for attention. Frequently, more than petitions were required. Protest marches, sit-down strikes and rallies drove home the message that only those willing to take to the street would win even the simplest skirmishes for survival.

Haphazard development

Westerners often take for granted the virtues of the 20th century. In Peru, democracy, urbanization, industrialization, consumer markets, the mass media and accelerated technological innovation are an inflammable mixture. The forced march of modernization has crammed huge behavioral changes into the span of a generation. In developed countries, these changes took place over 300 years. In Peru, the leap in expectations, frustrations and sensitivity to injustice has outrun the capacity of the government and other institutions to deliver. This lesson was driven home with a vengeance in the 1980s. That was when the Peruvian economy proved unable to sustain living standards acquired during the preceding three decades. The second presidency of Fernando Belaúnde (1980-85) was an attempt to turn the political clock back when the Creole, cosmopolitan faction was in control. But the old power elites did not have the same command of the system as they used to, nor was the country the same. Forces like the Shining Path guerrilla insurgency in the Andes and drug trafficking in the Amazon began to threaten the state.

Even a pillar of the old order, the Catholic Church, changed tremendously in recent decades. The Peruvian hierarchy, at least the most socially sensitive clergy and the foreign religious, assumed the Vatican Council II's conclusions with missionary zeal. The idea was to make the Church relevant to a temporal world, which in Peru meant reaching outside the traditional pastures. The archbishop of Lima moved out of his palatial residence on the Plaza de Armas to a modest neighborhood. Not only were the masses said in Spanish, bust also in Quechua, Aymara and other dialects. The National Bishops Conference issued communiqués that challenged politicians to reduce poverty, injustice and inequality. Throughout the country, the parish house and chapel became a rallying point for the poor. Though not all of the hierarchy and faithful were convinced that the Church should play a political role in changing the country, its language and methods have been irrevocably transformed.

The Catholic Church's more socially active role was also spurred by the growing popularity of Protestant and Evangelical congregations in shantytowns and the countryside. Today 5 percent of the population belong to non-Catholic denominations. The Evangelicals have become a political force since they tend to vote as a block.

Responding to the new order

Just as the resourcefulness and creativity of Peruvians have allowed them to resist aggression, the challenge of a modern era has opened a window of opportunity to join th present. Over the past three decades, the rapid pace of change has created many new institutions and grassroots organizations. Bootstrap capitalism has taken roots in the shantytowns. Small entrepreneurs have by-passed the state barriers to building an "informal economy," accounting for 40 percent of all employment. Meanwhile, communal soul kitchens allow the poor to survive under the most severe conditions through solidarity in misery.

The ability of all Peruvians to vote is actually a very recent innovation. For instance, women did not get the vote until 1956 and the illiterate could not cast ballots until 1980. It could be argued that modern mass politics did not reach Peru until the 1980s. Representative institutions, like the Presidency, Congress and municipal government, are still tinged with the authoritarian traits of the past. Other institutions, like law enforcement agencies and the courts, have failed to modernize. All are prone to the abuse and misuse of power. The past decade has underlined the failings of the status quo. The government is incapable of meeting the needs of the population or generating the economic growth needed to sustain the burst of population and expectations.

An incipient liberation has also come to women in Peruvian society. In both the traditional realm of Creole and Andean society, women had fixed roles: In the former, women were confined to the kitchen, child bearing and rearing and tending to their husbands. On the Andean side, women may have had fuller roles, with rights and obligations in the productive cycles of farming and cattle-raising. One of the women's losses in the shift to Western acculturation was the spread of machismo. It oppressed women into a stereotype of subservience to men. Even when feminism was at its peak worldwide, it found little receptive ground in Peru.

Advances have come more silently. Middle and upper class women acquire university education and professional careers and began to venture into business on their own. In the working class, the upheaval of the 1980s has intensified the struggle for survival. Women had to supplement their spouses' income by working part-time or setting street vendor stalls. To make meager budgets stretch, they set up communal soup kitchens and took leadership roles in the community. Though far from having equal standing with men, women have conquered a cornerstone of self-esteem that would have been undreamed a decade ago.

This decade of social and political change came to a head in the 1990 general elections. The Peruvian electorate rejected a presidential candidate like novelist Mario Vargas Llosa -- cosmopolitan, plugged into the fashionable intellectual circles and well financed. Instead, Peruvians picked the son of a Japanese immigrant, Alberto Fujimori.

For many poor Peruvians, it's easier to vote for a Japanese than for a white. For that matter, there is little that separates migrants or their offspring from the Andes from an migrant from Japan. As president, Fujimori is an outsider who has not been locked into the power network that has kept large portions of Peruvians from gaining access to the system. They saw him as an impartial arbiter who left open the prospect of a fairer shake in government. For many, voting for Fujimori was an exercise in ironic wit and even a bit of inverse racism. Despite their powerlessness before the entrenched interests that control banks and factories, they could take revenge by voting for an underdog candidate who would most offend the powerful.

One of the crucial question being asked at the start of the 1990s is whether Peru is a viable society. But despite the social upheaval, the economic crisis, the squandered opportunities, many see Peru on the threshold of a new era, close to resolving old social problems -- not by overt design, but by the sheer weight of the dynamics set loose by the 20th century. The resources are to be found in the Peruvians themselves, the unique capacity to resist and renew themselves under adverse conditions. Like the image-makers of Ayacucho, they can take human materials -- earth, water and their experience -- and turn them into a lively and living creation.