In 2021, Peru marks the 200th anniversary of its declaration of independence after three hundred years of Spanish colonial rule. Once the center of Incan civilization, Peru suffered under Spain and has struggled since then navigating tensions between ethnic populations and a government that has fluctuated between military dictatorships and fragile democracy. Join Active Minds as we explore Peru’s glorious and challenging history and put it all in the context of Peru today and tomorrow.

Key Lecture Points

  • Human presence in Peru has been established some 15,000 years ago, but sophisticated remains date from 2,000 to 2,500 years ago.
  • The Incas emerged in the 12th century and over the next several decades built an empire that stretches from present-day Colombia to Chile.  Although they did not keep written records, the remains show evidence of a highly sophisticated transportation, building, and irrigation network centered in their capital, Cusco.
  • There are remnants of Inca civilization all through the Sacred Valley, but the best known of these is Machu Picchu.  Rediscovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911, the variety and sophistication of the architecture and construction combine with a spectacular, remote setting make it a global cultural site.
  • Spanish conquistadors arrived in Peru at the beginning of the sixteenth century, bringing with them diseases that devastated the native populations.  On the heels of a civil war fought for control of the Inca empire, the Spanish Conquistador, Francisco Pizarro captured the emperor and seized control of the empire, although warfare continues for several decades.
  • The viceroyalty of Peru emerged as the major Spanish colony in South America based on its wealth — gold, silver, and plantation crops.  As such, there was a strong military and overall Spanish presence.  As a result of the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century Spain independence movements begin throughout South America, but not in Peru.  Eventually, it was Argentine General José de San Martín, who seized Lima and declared Peru’s independence on July 26, 1821.
  • Independence did not make much difference to the indigenous people of Peru.  European descendants dominated government, the economy and society generally.
  • In the second half of the twentieth century, two notable strongmen came to power.  First, in 1969, General Juan Velasco Alvarado headed a leftist military government that took measures to improve the lives to the poor.
  • After he was deposed Peru saw the rise of guerrilla militias, most notably the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso).  Its actions, along with the government’s in combating them, resulted in some 69,000 people being killed until Sendero Luminoso’s leader was captured in 1992.
  • This occurred under the second strongman.  Alberto Fujimori was elected in 1990, and consolidated power over the legislature two years later.  Although his economic policies and defeat of the Sendero Luminoso were generally successful, in his second term his government was increasingly accused of corruption and human rights abuses.  Fujimori fled the country in 2000, but was later arrested, tried and imprisoned upon his return.
  • The twenty-first century has seen a series of governments marked by conflict between presidents, the congress, and various segments of the population.  Most recently there were four presidents within a two year period, and a June Presidential election resulted in a razor thin margin between conservative Keiko Fujimori (daughter of the imprisoned former president and Pedro Castillo, a relative political newcomer who has pledged to address the alarming rates of poverty in Peru, made worse by the COVID pandemic.
  • A new government will deal with such issues as post-COVID economic recovery, illegal coca and gold production.  Commentators point to the need for constitutional reform to finally address the dysfunctional government structure.

Exploration Questions

  • What in the Inca culture made it susceptible to such rapid subjugation to Spain?
  • Are there models in Central and South America that might serve Peru well in adopting an effective, functional government?

Reflective Questions

  • How can indigenous and other marginalized segments of the population exert effective influence on their government?
  • How can a country rich in natural resources, like Peru, balance the dynamics of economic growth, foreign political and economic influence, and true democracy?
  • What should be the role of the United States in Peru?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Adams, Mark.  Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time.  Dutton, 2012.  368 pages.  An entertaining account that weaves together Hiram Bingham III’s “discovery” of Machu Picchu in 1991 with speculation about the nature of the site, and the author’s own journey there.
    Click here to order
  • MacQuarrie, Kim.  The Last Days of the Incas.  Simon and Schuster, 2008.  544 pages.  The story of how the Inca empire fell to the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro through a combination of civil unrest, treachery and disease.
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  • Llosa, Mario Vargas.  The Green House.  Harper Perennial, 2005.  416 pages.  A novel by the Peruvian Nobel Prize winner that tackles issues of culture, class, and corruption.  The author ran for president of Peru in 1990, losing to Alberto Fujimori.
    Click here to order