Ugly Stories of the Peruvian Agrarian Reform: Enrique Mayer

Enrique Mayer’s Ugly Stories of Peruvian Agrarian Reform, a “people-oriented kind of oral history,” provides a memory study of the 1969 land reforms enacted by Peruvian President Juan Velasco Alvarado. Written from the perspective of historical stakeholders and incorporating Mayer’s lifelong participation in the reforms as an academic observer, he weaves a series of testimonies into a larger narrative chronicling this period of “revolutionary reforms gone astray.” Along the way, he covers much of the theoretical ground explored by earlier scholars almost entirely through the use of oral history.

Mayer wants to be more optimistic on the results of the reform than neoliberal critiques, but he also carefully documents how local politics, bureaucratic incompetence, corruption, and differing political agendas limited the potential of the reforms.  In the face of these problems, peasants left the agrarian cooperatives formed by Velasco’s administration and developed a smallholding economy instead. In Mayer’s words, “what Velasco expropriated, the peasants took from him.” 

Mayer’s most important contribution to the study of the land-reform process is his ability to puncture stereotypes and humanize heroes and villains who are often portrayed as static figures. Part of this success is due to the distance that more time provides, allowing a more dispassionate analysis than those of scholar activists, such as Rivera and Montoya. His work also benefits from not assuming the transition to capitalism was necessary or desirable, allowing him to cast a critical eye on liberal and conservative policies, as well as Leftist groups who he says were interested in co-opting rural workers for their political movements, too.  As noted above, this argument was also made by other scholars from Latin America writing in earlier periods.

In terms of the issues raised by Guerrero around the decline of hacienda culture in the pre-reform period, Mayer’s chapter on landowners sheds light on how much of a financial burdens these paternalistic traditions represented for hacendados and why many could no longer afford to continue them. Mayer also tries to upend the patron-client archetype by giving examples of the complex relationships between patrons and clients that belie static interpretations that focus on exploitation. To this end, he tells the story of a hacendado who borrowed money to pay for his son’s school fees from a local peasant tenant and who after the reform took a 10-hectare allotment and lived as a colono for the rest of his life. He also gives the example of a patrona who was defended by her ex-workers for treating them well and others who were left destitute, but while he is sympathetic to their experiences, he is also critical. 

Overall, Mayer’s work is one of the most complete monographs written on the subject, in terms of its incorporation of the various debates surrounding Andean agrarian reform, but it could not exist in a vacuum. His work is so successful because the voices he chooses each embody a historiographic debate and shed light on how their experiences were shaped by different social, political, and economic events. As he says, these are “ugly stories” and important ones.

Enrique Mayer, Ugly Stories of the Peruvian Agrarian Reform, Latin America Otherwise (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).

By N. H. Gill
Chapel Hill, 2019

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