Maitan Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Livio Maitan

Cuzco: Land and Death

Revolt of the Peruvian Campesino

(Spring 1965)

From International Socialist Review, >Vol.26 No.2, Spring 1965, pp.38-41.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The peasant movement of the Cuzco region has been the epicenter of the revolutionary struggle in Peru in recent years and remains of crucial importance despite tangible changes in the economic and social structure in some districts, despite Belaunde’s “reformist” maneuvers, and despite repressive victimization of many of its leaders and cadres.

This peasant movement has now found an intelligent and sensitive chronicler who understands its deep-going causes and who has caught its moving spirit in both faithful and dramatic sketches. There is nothing novel, of course, in a journalist outside the revolutionary movement achieving a better living synthesis of a revolutionary process than authors whose main resources are their political ties and outlook. What others have done for other countries in other circumstances, Hugo Neira has done for the Cuzco movement in Peru. His book Cuzco: Tierre y Muerte [Cuzco: Land and Death] [1] thoroughly merits the immediate success it enjoyed; and it deserves to be translated and circulated, at least among revolutionary circles, in all countries of the world. [2]

In a one-page introduction, Neira succinctly summarizes the background of his trip to Cuzco and his account:

“Subject: In December 1963, the city of Quillabamba was taken by unions carrying out an order to go on strike issued in Cuzco by the Federation in order to win the release of imprisoned union leaders, among them, Hugo Blanco. Because of this, ‘Civic Committees’ were organized in the cities against the trade union league of the Cuzquena federations ... Then I was sent to Cuzco to determine what was going on among the peasants.

“Time: From December 1963 to March 1964. But it can occur again at any time and with greater seriousness.

“Basic Problem: Ownership of the land in the South.

“Departments: Cuzco and Puno.

“Social Situation: Out of 9 million hectares of arable land and natural pastures, 3% of the owners possess 83% of the farm area and 97% of the owners possess 17% of the remaining area.

“Reason for the Conflict: There is no adequate agrarian law and the peasants, organized in unions, oppose the tenant system, demanding ownership of the land.

“Additional: They live in very bad conditions with a daily intake of less than 1,200 calories, comparable to that of a concentration camp. High infant mortality – smallpox, tuberculosis, whooping cough and dysen-tary. Three million exploited peasants at the margin of society.

“Maximum wage: Eight soles [about $0.32] a day.”

Land Occupation

Thus the account opens at a phase of the movement marked by a new wave of land occupation. In certain zones at least, the struggle had already reached a climax – it is sufficient to note that the main inspirer and organizer of the peasants, Hugo Blanco, had already been held long months in prison at Arequipa. However, Neira shows us the Cuzco Peasant Federation in all its strength and prestige in action under the leaders who came forward with the arrest of Hugo and continued the struggle. He shows us a movement that has undergone many experiences, that has matured, is capable of struggling in different fields, that has gained real positions, maintaining in some zones at least the embryo of dual power.

He shows us leaders with whom the landlords have had to negotiate humbly at times, leaders who have acquired a style of their own in demonstrations and tests of strength. In other words, he shows us the elemental and irresistible powers of the masses and at the same time the audacity and sagacity of the leaders: all this on the backdrop of the ancient capital of the Inca empire, where the landlords, filled with fright and hate, wanted to avoid any rough and dangerous direct confrontation with the peasants in revolt.

A Peasant Demonstration

The book opens with the description of a solemn demonstration of mourning over the death of a trade-union leader killed in a highway accident:

“Since dawn, along all the roads, the copper-colored people had been coming toward Cuzco, ‘center of the world.’ The crowd swelled in narrow Recoleta street, all the way to Tullu-mayo and Tres Cruces. In the midst of this taciturn multitude was the headquarters of the Federacion de Campesinos [Peasant Federation]. Here in a sea of trade-union banners, they were paying their respects before the remains of Emiliano Huamantica ...

“Down through the streets, like a serpent of olden times, the cortege descended, this ancient people stirring from their lethargy to conduct in the sacred city one of the major ceremonies of Cuzco ...

“I set out walking in the midst of this multitude, almost all of them in rags and tatters. They had an air, an obstinate fervor, a visible will to be, to persist despite the misery ... I have never seen such faces – like the blind – resistant and bitter with sorrow ... In the Avenue of the Sun, the funeral procession moved by the thousands. Other thousands watched from the sidewalks ... But those going along the cobblestones were the politicalized Indians or mestizos.”

The young daughters of the bourgeoisie or petty bourgeoisie watched the cortege from above, from the windows of their homes:

“In response to the terrible spectacle at their feet, they showed the same awesome lack of consciousness as the bourgeoisie in the capital in face of powerful demonstrations that, in desperation, could tear their world, their pleasures, their privileges up by the roots.”

Politicalized Vanguard

The people participating in the demonstration felt a common emotion – they were united in a common grief. However, the Cuzco movement has a politicalized vanguard that reflects – in a relationship of forces particularly favorable to the revolutionary left – the differentiations in the world workers movement. Neira does not fail to catch this:

“Thunderbolts were hurled at ‘Yankee imperialism,’ ‘the oligarchy and the bosses.’ Today Raul Acosta, in his final days as General Secretary of the PCP [Peruvian Communist party], could be heard and one could feel the desperation or decadency of the old Stalinist guard. His speech was the weakest, the most inappropriate and heavy. This afternoon, Huamantica inspired Raul Acosta. The political career of this Arequipa artisan was already finished – his heavy party machinery could not sustain the pressures of the world crisis of socialism. A few days later, in Lima, a lawyer ... Saturnine Paredes was publicly presented as the General Secretary of Acosta’s party. In Cuzco, then, I heard his political testament. He appealed, almost implored, for unity. That was all. The peasants looked at him, disconcerted ... Who, finally, inherited Huamantica’s place? This would be equivalent to knowing who commanded in Cuzco. No one completely. Those who spoke over his remains dwelt on the differences among Trotskyists, Communists in the party and out of it, Castroists and others. The Trotskyists associated their positions with the prestige of Chaupimayo, the region where Hugo Blanco demonstrated the advantages and also the defects of direct action. Thus when Luis Zarate, from Chaupimayo, spoke that afternoon, there was a rustling among the crowd.”

This big demonstration of mourning was, in the final analysis, nothing but an opening expression of the fundamental situation reigning in that part of Peru:

“Because of the meeting, alarm arose among the hacendados [rich land owners]. This could be seen the following day. They were fear-stricken. From the neighboring valleys men began to arrive whose names were synonomous with wealth, permanent power and haciendas [big land holdings]. They did not pause at the Cathedral or any office. With long strides they went to the Perfectura [the authorities]. Their aim: to demand guarantees. Or, which comes down to the same, to solicit the dispatch of detachments of assault guards to their haciendas threatened by invasions.

“The situation was tense. The Prefect lacked orders to unleash police reprisals. The peasant leaders had thrown into the scales this multitude who had gathered together to say farewell to Huamantica. If they were looking for a sounding board, they had found it. It is difficult to imagine that the owners would remain impassive in face of an indigenous movement that publicly asked for their heads. Surreptitiously, they were arming two armies. One of owners. Another of invaders. It was a crafty way of waging war under a government that was inert or in complicity and which had decided not to take sides. Social war.

“Something had happened much more serious than an earthquake – the ownership of the land was being discussed. One invasion followed another. The peasants did not call them that. They gave them a different name: ‘recuperation of the land’.”

Occupation of the Land

Against this general background, Neira describes with vigor the development of the drama in its various aspects – from occupation of the land to more “peaceful” confrontations, which nevertheless disclose the depth of the crisis.

Here is a page on the occupation of the land:

“The invasions are peaceful. A crowd composed of peasants from neighboring localities, invades, almost always at dawn, the fields of a hacienda. But the ranch-house or neighboring home, and the servants of the bosses are left alone. Nothing is further from the character of the indigenous masses than to run wild. To invade, then, is not to sack, steal, burn or rape. It is simply to enter on the prohibited land of the hacienda. From their wooden balconies, the hacendados can see how their holdings change hands. But their lives are safe ...

“They invade when the police are away. For the custodians of the law and order of the owners the game varies between boredom and the terrible. In places where the police wait, nothing happens. But the peasants invade other places. The Federation is more extensive than the steel helmets. There are more union locals than police garrisons ...

“The invaders wait for the authorities to become aware of the deed and to give it a form of lawfulness. The hacienda then has already been invaded. Thousands of peasants have installed themselves in a semicircle. They are an imposing force. More than a political party, they are a people on the march ...”

It is scarcely necessary to state that sometimes these occupations end up in a bloody repression and the authorities, naturally, blame it all on “ Communist agitators.” Neira does not fail to emphasize, as against the official lies, the real logic of the phenomenon.

“It is not true, then, that the peasant masses are inspired by ‘Communist extremists.’ This is the most stupid accusation that can be made and it shows the most serious lack of understanding of the Cuzco events.

“The extremists are the masses themselves. They are tired of waiting. To imagine the opposite is to maintain that the Indian is incapable of thinking. It means believing once again in racial inferiority ... A new human condition is appearing. It is called intransigeance and desperation ... In Cuzco there is no militia; there are assemblies. And in these everyone is both the mass and the command at the same time, governors and governed in this Andean pattern of direct democracy.

“The whole Sunday I scouted around in the provinces and districts surrounding Cuzco. In every village I found assemblies in which people were voting to continue the struggle for the land. In any other place in the Republic, among any other social classes is there more equality in reaching decisions than here? In any other level of our society is there an equal capacity for sacrifice?”

The pressure of the peasant mobilization and the power of the union organization were such that the landlords were compelled to go to the union if they wanted to negotiate an agreement. Sometimes they even had to let the leaders of the Federation decide on their differences with the peasants.

“In Recoleta street there is a house with flimsy green balconies ... It is the headquarters of the powerful Federacion de Campesinos of Cuzco.

“Men and women come here from all corners of the Department. They talk to the leaders in Quechau ...

“And the hacendados themselves go there.

“It is the best way to reach a quick agreement. The peasants won’t budge an inch unless they are told to by their local, affiliated to the Federation ...

The Federation

“Because of this the hacendados come to Recoleta. They go to discuss with them. In this way they avoid judges, loss of time, invasions, hostilities, etc. The Federation is the true Ministry of Indigenous Affairs.”

The correspondent of Expreso seeks to understand not only the fundamental significance but also certain specific characteristics of the essentially revolutionary process of which he was a witness. Two short chapters appear to us especially worthy of attention.

In the chapter, The Peasant Enters the Peruvian Scene, he writes:

“We have here an evident fact: the peasant unions are organizing under banners carrying the slogan ‘Land or Death, We Will Win.’ Yes, this is the influence of Cuba, let us then recognize this reality. Is it perhaps a case of better penetration of the Communist party in this region? Not necessarily. Besides, everybody knows what a headache Cuba and the innumerable Castroists – the example of the violent road and guerrilla warfare – are for the bureaucratic Communist cadres of Latin America. We face a genuinely radical phenomenon. We live in a smaller universe. The geographical frontiers are enormous. But the evils of Peruvian society are even more enormous ... And the radio reaches the most remote hamlets. In the cold of the jalca [high Andean tableland] or in the hot, malarial valley bottoms, between loneliness and hunger, the peasants listen.

“‘Land or death.’ Up to now, only death.”

As for the more properly political lineaments of the movement, Neira states in another chapter:

“This peasant movement is bringing together new multitudes. We should not fool ourselves: under the old poncho, in the midst of an apparently traditional or routine scene, these people have learned and consequently have changed. Unionism is a mutation. A spark can set fire to the whole sierra.

“For the moment no party as yet holds a monopoly on this network of realities. The leaders come from various groups. It seems that those with the most weight are from the FIR [Frente de Izquierda Revolucionario – Front of the Revolutionary Left], the MIR [Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria – Movement of the Revolutionary Left], Trotskyist people. But there are also peasant leaders of great capacity linked to the PCP ...

“Whether Valer is a Trotskyist, Sumire a Communist doesn’t interest the peasants much. The peasant brushes these things aside. He only knows that these men are his leaders. As in the Gospel, only deeds count – the revolutionists are the ones who are with them physically in their demands to take the land from the usurpating hacendados ...

“And his allies are only those who speak to him – and in Quechua. Thus the peasants only respect those who understand that the land must be theirs, here and now, without delay ...”

Peasant Leaders

Sketches of a number of union and peasant leaders appear in Neira’s pages. Emiliano Huamantica, a Communist who represents “the prudent left,” Saturnine Huilca, “the new Indian,” Manuel Concha Llerena, embodiment of the “fighting spirit” of the Federacion of Convencion, Angel Baca, “the reformist.” Among the Trotskyists, the most outstanding figure is Vladimiro Valer.

“Vladimiro Valer spoke. Like almost all the Cuzqueno leaders, he is very young. A thick mustache, still thicker glasses, the bearing of a serious university student. And he is. But not in an academic way. He has studied the living reality of the peasant, and he discovered a weapon that no custom house can confiscate because it is more in the consciousness of men than in any thing or object – the weapon of union organization. This is what he calls, paying tribute to his brother-in-law Hugo Blanco, the spirit of Chaupimayo ...

“Valer spoke calmly. They had told me that he is a Trotskyist. I asked him and he replied frankly:

“‘Certainly, I am a Trotskyist. Our party is the FIR, and its chairman is Hugo Blanco.’ And he added: ‘What is important for us is that the leadership should be unionist, revolutionary.’

“‘And if it happens to involve members of the Communist party?’ I asked him.

“‘We hold discussions on theory. But the peasant movement is unifying the left.’”

As we have said before, Neira’s report covers a period six to nine months after the arrest of Hugo Blanco. But Hugo Blanco, whose name appears almost everywhere on the walls of the houses in Cuzco, and is even painted on the Inca ruins, astonishing the few American tourists, dominates the scene everywhere as the main inspirer, the genuine leader of the revolutionary peasant movement. The Indians acclaim him in their meetings and are waiting for him to resume his place. In the Cuzco prison, the prisoners told a journalist who was questioning them. “He is our union leader.” “He is the leader of the peasants.”

Here are some more quotations from the book:

“Fought by the right, his image distorted by prestige due to erroneous reports about him being a guerrilla fighter, injured by the silence, if not sabotage, of the traditional, bureaucratic groups of Communism, extolled by the FIR, feared and hated by the unorganized yanaconas [Indians bound to personal service to the landlords] and the hacendados, admired by the union ranks, Hugo Blanco looms over the whole South.

Hugo Blanco

“This is the straight truth, without falsification, of what this man, who is a prisoner today in Arequipa, means to the peasant masses ... ‘We owe him everything,’ say the peasants. In fact every change in Convencion and elsewhere in the country, was accelerated due to the danger they saw in the peasants having no hope other than hope in the revolutionary unionism of Blanco.

“Devotion to Blanco is total; they don’t dare bring him to trial. I am referring to the unionized peasants. ‘ He is our chief,’ they say ... And in every peasant’s home there is an empty bed. It’s the one that was waiting hopefully for the leader when he was going around the region organizing or when he was passing during the night, under the stars, fleeing from the police ...

“In the Plaza de Armas in Cuzco, the evening came, dressed in red, flaming. The meeting of the peasants was languishing. The crowd, disciplined, standing, listened, applauded, laughed or yawned.

“Then a student came forward. It could have been Valer or Fausto Cornejo. He took the mike and shouted in Quechua:

“Causachu companero cuna. Hugo Blanco ...

“The crowd awoke and responded with great shouts:

Causachu, causachu, causachu.

“Long live! Long live! Long live!

“I saw this repeated throughout the South. No other name arouses greater fervor among the men in striped ponchos who speak the euphonious Quechua. The shadow of Hugo Blanco was present at all the interviews I conducted in the South.

“I am not exaggerating: the unity of this agrarian movement that has no limits, like an immense ocean, whether in ideology or comportment, which can just as well turn peaceful and co-operative as explode in blood and gunfire, has, nevertheless, a name that unites the people of the mountains and the valleys, of the hacienda and the community – Hugo Blanco ...

“The peasant hasn’t forgotten and he is waiting. The persecution, the anemia and troubles suffered by Blanco have converted him, perhaps more than his political theories, into a man whom the South will not forget.”

During the period covered by Neira and immediately after, the police repression came down violently on the Cuzco movement and on its main leaders. Almost all of them were imprisoned or deported. When I visited Cuzco at the end of November, its frightful prison still held almost two hundred peasant leaders of the region, including some forty Trotskyists. And of course Blanco, along with Molina, Cartolin and Huallpa – all Trotskyists – were still held in Arequipa. This massive repression created grave difficulties for the Federation and inspired terror throughout the region.

Nevertheless, the government and the landlords cannot delude themselves. The movement described by Neira in his magnificent account has profound roots and has already attained such a level of consciousness and organization that any “success” for the repression will prove quite ephemeral.



1. Problemas de Hoy, Lima. 1964. Available in Spanish only.

2. Hugo Neira was correspondent of the Lima Expreso, and part of the book consists of his articles. The first two editions, although rather sumptuous with their evocative photographs, were quickly sold out. A more popular new edition was issued in mid November.

Maitan Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 17.12.2005