Mike Phipps reviews We the Indians: the Indigenous Peoples of Peru and the Struggle for Land, published by Merlin, Resistance Books and the IIRE.
Hugo Blanco is a lifelong revolutionary land activist in Peru, whose organising among the rural poor earned him several jail sentences and deportations. This collection of his writings, aimed at passing on the lessons of the struggles he engaged in, is quite remarkable.
The feudal system of land ownership in Peru gave the landowners absolute power over their workers and Blanco details many instances of vicious cruelty against them that he personally encountered. But the capitalist system that replaced it was no better, forcing rural workers into debt and evicting them from their ancestral lands. Blanco recounts several episodes of mass resistance to evictions, which landowners had to abandon due to the huge displays of solidarity among the campesinos.
Blanco was involved in many rural strikes in the late 1950s and early 1960s. While a factory strike is a sacrifice for workers due to the loss of earnings, a campesino strike can be longer and less impoverishing, because it gives those involved more time to work on their own plots. Here’s a resolution passed in one meeting after a nine month long land strike: “Till today we have been asking the landowner to talk to us and he didn’t want to. From today we no longer want to speak to him, even if he wants to. Today the strike finishes and the agrarian reform begins. From this moment the land belongs to those who work it… Land or death!”
This was no rhetorical flourish. Attacks on the movement by armed police in cahoots with landowners led to the union arming itself in self-defence. Equipped with dynamite, Blanco led a raid on a police station to obtain weapons.
He received a 25 year jail sentence for his exploits. After long years in prison, he was invited by a more reforming government to help administer its land reform programme - the delayed result of the mass action which he had led. Blanco turned the offer down, preferring jail to selling out. A general amnesty for all political prisoners secured his release, but Blanco’s continued uncompromising attitude led to his being deported.
Blanco was in and out of jail for his activities. Even here, he does not rest, documenting the brutal torture fellow inmates endured. Blanco himself was severely beaten on several occasions and was present when the police massacred unarmed demonstrating campesinos. Blanco wrote of the demonstrators: “I have never seen such an absence of fear of death. Among dozens of angry voices, I managed to make out some words: ‘Murderers!’ ‘Cowards!’ ‘Let them kill us all!’”
In 2009, hundreds of indigenous people who were protesting against drilling, logging and mining by foreign corporations on their land, were murdered under the government of Alan Garcia, who was widely hailed as a ‘reformer’. Noting how little value is attached to the lives of ‘Indians’, Blanco pinpoints the racism central to neo-colonialism. During the repression, there was video evidence of flame-throwers being used. Those who reported the disappearance of relatives in the massacre were themselves put on trial.
These writings are wide-ranging. Beyond politics, they cover aspects of Qechua language and culture. But it’s the wholesale repression of the rural poor to which Blanco repeatedly returns.
Blanco recounts ten separate occasions on which he personally cheated death. This may sound a bit immodest, but the truth is this book doesn’t begin to quantify Blanco’s many achievements, the struggles he led or his political career from 1980 on - he came fourth out of sixteen candidates in a presidential election that year. His activities earned him a rare accolade from Che Guevara who said, “Hugo Blanco has set an example.”