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Peru—a radical history of resistance

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Pedro Castillo’s election win in Peru has cheered the left. Sophie Squire looks at the country’s history of struggle but also sounds some warnings for the future
Issue 2759
Perus new left wing president Pedro Castillo on his campaign trail
Peru’s new left wing president Pedro Castillo on his campaign trail (Pic: Twitter/ @PedroCastilloTe)

“No more poor ­people in a rich ­country” was the campaign slogan of Peru’s presidential ­winner Pedro Castillo.

It will have resonated with millions of Peruvians who know that despite living in a mineral rich country the poor only get poorer.

And this slogan, in many ways, connects with the history of Peru where greed first and foremost was the motivation behind its brutal colonisation.

Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro was the first European to lead the charge to colonise Peru after hearing that it was a land filled with gold.

The land that is modern day Peru was then part of the powerful Inca empire. It was itself built on the conquering and consolidation of different tribes in the region.

This empire stretched across Latin America encompassing parts of what are now Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, Columbia and Argentina as well as Peru.

After two failed attempts, Pizarro in 1531 led a major campaign to seize control of the area that would come to be known as Peru.

The Inca people fought back but thousands were slaughtered by the Spanish. Their cities were ransacked and raided for gold.


With colonial rule in place, the Spanish found ways to further exploit the labour of the indigenous population.

Before Spanish rule the Inca elite used the system of Mita—that meant every man over the age of 15 had to work some days a year for the government.

In 1605 the Spanish ­introduced the practice as a system of slavery which forced the indigenous population into the mines to dig for gold, silver and mercury.

Forced labour and war, as well the deadly diseases the Spanish brought, led to millions dying in a period of just over 100 years.

One estimate is that the population of Peru was reduced by 93 percent as a result of Spanish colonisation.

The colonisers justified the slaughter by falsely describing their victims as savages who would benefit from their rule.

Left with a shrinking source of labour the Spanish increasingly bought African slaves to build their colonial project.

But in the face of genocide the indigenous people who survived never simply submitted to colonial rule.

They revolted against the colonisers again and again.

One such revolt occurred in 1780, at the height of colonisation, when attempts by the Spanish state to more tightly regulate trade hit the local population hard.

Indigenous rebels, led by Jose Gabriel Tupac Amaru, ­kidnapped and then executed the local administrator of the Tinta district. Amaru and his followers then travelled across Peru calling for the end to the system of forced labour and demanding reforms.

Rebels occupied the provinces of Tinta, Calca, Quispicanchis and Cotabambas, killing the colonisers who lived there and raiding their property.

Despite Amaru being ­captured and executed by the Spanish in 1781, the revolt continued, but was brutally crushed a year later.

Spanish rule ended in 1826 after the Peruvian war of independence, in which sections of the elite fought to break free from the empire. But Peru remained very much the same as it was under ­colonial rule.

And the very rigid hierarchy that placed the Europeans at the top, and indigenous people and black people at the bottom persisted. Moving into the twentieth century Peru’s economy industrialised quickly, and this in turn gave birth to ­workers’ struggle.

Right wing plots and manoeuvres after left wins Peru’s election
Right wing plots and manoeuvres after left wins Peru’s election
  Read More

The country saw its first ­general strike, led by anarchists, in the textile industry in 1911. And in 1919 general strikes in the factories won an eight hour working day.

But bosses refused to grant the higher wages that ­workers demanded.

The strike continued and focused on ­calling for the former president, Augusto B Leguia, to be ­reinstated, believing that he could bring change.

Leguia was brought back. But instead of being an ally to the worker’s movement he worked to suppress it, moving Peru towards dictatorship.

During Leguia’s time in power he worked to repress the publications of the left and drive out its leaders.

One of these leaders who was exiled was Jose Carlos Mariategui.

Mariategui was a historian, journalist and trade union organiser who is one of Latin Americas’ most important Marxist thinkers.

His studies of the Peruvian economy both before Spanish colonisation and after offered a vital insight into how ­colonisation worked in the region.

Mariategui also spoke about the importance of the overlaps between race and class in the fight for socialism.

He wrote in 1927 that, “Socialism orders and defines the demands of the masses, of the working classes. And in Peru those masses are four‑fifths indigenous. Thus our socialism must declare its solidarity with the native people.”

For Mariategui it was clear that Marxism was not ­something that was rigid or fixed. He believed it could be used as a tool by all oppressed people in the fight for true liberation.

At times Mariategui put too much emphasis on indigenous struggle as a mechanism for overthrowing the system.


Here he failed to fully account for the way the state felt far more able to repress these types of struggle than the mass strikes which were taking place across Latin America.

After his death in 1930, the right tried to bury Mariategui’s ideas, but they resurfaced, especially in the indigenous struggles of the 1960s.

This period also saw the beginning of three decades of guerrilla struggle fought by groups that claimed to identify with the left. They included the Maoist Shining Path and the “Marxist-Leninist” Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement.

Battles between these groups and the government were bloody, and resulted in the deaths of up to 70,000 people.

But for all the sacrifice, armed struggle proved to be ineffective in bringing about real change in Peru.

The state’s violence was at its height in the 1980s and 1990s. But later governments and right wingers have used brutal methods against the left.

The vast ­inequalities in the country mean that left wing struggle has never been completely stamped out. And the left has been able to make an impact on electoral politics.

In 2011 Ollanta Humala was elected president with mass support from trade unions and the indigenous movement after proclaiming his “­socialist principles”.

His presidency was also ­supported by many of the ­leaders of Latin America’s “Pink Wave”. This was the movement of largely ­reformist—but often ­radical‑­sounding—­leaders who swept to office in the early 2000s.

But like them, his promises of reform and change fell short. Humala’s time in power was as repressive as many of the right wing governments that came before him.

In 2012 Humala ordered the smashing of protests against the construction of a new mine owned by US company Newmont. Several people were killed in the battles.

Since Humala, Peru has been led by a succession of right wing presidents. Most have been implicated in corruption and scandal.

But workers’ ­movements have also strengthened.

In 2017 a teachers’ strike, led by Pedro Castillo, brought the education system to a standstill for two months.

Peruvian elections are a challenge to the elite
Peruvian elections are a challenge to the elite
  Read More

An estimated 200,000 teachers participated in the action.

The teachers’ action followed a nationwide miners’ strike that demanded union rights.

At the start of this year ­healthcare workers went on strike to demand better salaries and conditions.

It is this wave of ­workers’ struggle that has carried Castillo from relative anonymity to ­winning enough votes to become Peru’s next president.

But lessons must be learnt, not just from the experience of those who have posed as left wing to come to power and then betrayed their supporters—but also from the legacy of the Pink Tide.

Mass movements against neoliberalism propelled left wing leaders of countries including Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia into office, and ­terrified the ruling classes.

But these governments ­steadily made concessions to the rich and imperialism.

This was the inevitable result of believing that socialism can come about through parliamentary methods.

The grave danger of the approach is that it leaves the capitalist state intact, and ­repeatedly fails when faced with the organised power of the bosses.

The power of the working class has been demonstrated in Peru and across Latin America on many occasions. The task is to turn those struggles into political and economic power, rather than using it simply to win elections.

The long history of exploitation of people and of nature that has so characterised Peruvian history will only come to an end when the whole system is brought down.

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