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A History Of Ayacucho


new internationalist
issue 321 - March 2000

A history of Ayacucho

Early bones, Waris, Pocras and Chancas
Some of the earliest human remains in South America, dating back 20,000 years, have been found in Ayacucho. Pre-Inca inhabitants of the region included the Pocras, the Chancas and the Wari. The last, whose civilization flowered between 1000 and 1500 AD, created a sophisticated city of 40,000 people, called Wari. The empire-building Incas conquered the tribes of the area between 1438 and 1532, but not without resistance from the Pocras and the Chancas. Inca Emperor Huiracocha launched a genocidal campaign against these groups, witnessing for himself the final bloody battle which was to give Ayacucho its ill-fated Quechua name – ‘corner of the dead’. Those few Pocras and Chancas who survived Inca ire escaped into the remotest highlands. They are, it is said, the ancestors of some of Peru’s poorest and most isolated peasants of modern times, the Iquicha (see next article).

The orderly Incas
The Incas took over the ancient city of Vilcashuaman in Ayacucho. Strategically placed on the Inca grid of major routes that linked a massive Andean empire, Vilcashuaman became an important military-religious centre. Inca civilization was hierarchical and tyrannical, but wiser and less chaotic than many of the regimes that followed it. State-sponsored irrigation and terracing projects were expanded to bring more land under cultivation. Inca administrators were careful not to disrupt the existing tribal traditions of reciprocity and group work. But they also imposed taxes and forced labour for public, military and agricultural works. Inca civilization was well-organized, hard-working and nobody starved. But this orderliness was achieved at a price. Those who paid it were the disenfranchised medley of tribal societies who became the first historically documented peasantry of Peru.

Spanish extraction
Spanish oppression according to chronicler Guamán Poma de Ayala. When Spanish conquistadors, led by Hernando de Soto, arrived in the region they sought a mandate from Pizarro to found a city. Ayacucho City was established some time between 1537 and 1540. Looters and plunderers par excellence, the colonizers nonetheless gleaned much from the Incas about administration and ‘extracting surplus’. But Spanish exploitation went much further. Under the encomienda system Spanish colonizers could receive a royal grant to Indian land and extract tributes and labour from all Indians within a certain boundary. The grantee could demand anything without payment: sheep, poultry, firewood – even Indian women for sex. Many Indian communities fell apart, vagrancy and migration became common. There were many attempts at rebellion; most famous was the resistance led by the Inca Túpac Amaru which was crushed in 1572. By 1590 an Inca population that had stood at 8 million before the Conquest had fallen to just 1.3 million, due mainly to the violence, poverty and exploitation wrought by their new masters.

The flowering of Ayacucho
During the seventeenth century the colonial city of Ayacucho flourished, becoming a hub of commerce and culture. Fine colonial houses and a great many churches were built. There are also reports of upper-class Incas who embraced Spanish ways and did well for themselves as landowners and money-lenders. It was during this period that Ayacucho peaked artistically, with its own school of painting, stone-carving, silver-filigree work and ceramics. The Catholic Church was the main patron and local craftspeople prospered. In 1677 the University of San Cristóbal de Huamanga was established. Meanwhile, the condition of the rural Indians only got worse. Unlike the Incas, the Spanish colonizers put virtually nothing back into the lands they exploited. Andean terraces fell into disrepair, yields dropped and peasants revolted, sporadically and unsuccessfully. The most significant Indian rebellion at this time was led from Cuzco by José Gabriel Condorcanqui (Túpac Amaru II) in 1780. It lasted two years and cost 100,000 lives.

Viva la República!
In the final years of the colony the city of Ayacucho declined. This was mainly thanks to the growing popularity of Lima among the ruling classes who began to move there, leaving their estates to be managed by administrators. Meanwhile the desire for independence from Spain was spreading like wildfire across South America. In 1821 Peru declared its independence; the battle that sealed it was fought on the Pampa of Ayacucho near the small present-day town of Quinua in December 1824. Vastly outnumbered, 5,780 republicans managed to beat a force of 9,310 royalists. On 15 February 1825 the South American Liberator Simón Bolívar said: ‘The Victory of Ayacucho has affirmed for ever the total independence of the republic.’ But during the years of the Republic the decline of Ayacucho accelerated. Agriculture was flourishing in the coastal, but not the highland, areas. And peasants still had to pay the tribute – but to the Republic instead of the Spanish.

Plucking peasants from the Andes
During the 1870s the coastal sugar industry was booming – but short of labour. Planters looked to the Andes for workers. Under a forced-labour draft known as enganche planters’ agents cajoled highland Indians into signing labour contracts which committed them to extensive work periods on coastal plantations. But soon the entire country was thrust into deep depression, then national bankruptcy, precipitated by the disastrous 1879-83 war with Chile over nitrate fields. In Ayacucho the university was forced to close for lack of funds. By the 1900s, however, foreign investment – much of it from Britain and the US – was flooding into and dominating the economy of Lima and coastal Peru. And once again, more peasants had to be obtained from highlands areas like Ayacucho under the enganche system.

The Day of the Indian
Two of the most original and radical thinkers to emerge in South America in the early twentieth century were the Peruvians Gonzales Prado and José Carlos Mariátegui. They developed ‘indigenismo’, a new way of seeing Peruvian reality in terms of class, race and imperialism. Moreover they combined Marxist socialism with elements of indigenous Inca tradition. Mariátegui’s Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality, published before his premature death in 1930, was to be a profound influence on generations of students and intellectuals. Also influential was Victor Haya de la Torre, who founded the APRA party in 1930 and preached a mix of anti-imperialism and nationalism. But in 1968 General Juan Velasco seized power in a bloodless left-wing military coup. The following year he had this announcement to make to the Peruvian people: ‘Today is the day of the Indian... the Revolutionary Government presents the peasant with the best of tributes... a law that will end for all time an unjust social order… Campesino: the master will no longer feed on your poverty!’

General Juan Velasco - an unusual coup

Costs of a failed revolution
Velasco’s speech raised sky-high the hopes of some – and the fears of others. But the programmes of agrarian reform, collectivization and industrial nationalization that followed were fundamentally flawed and between 1961 and 1975 income distribution in Peru actually worsened. Although agrarian reform benefited 400,000 families, most belonged to the richer strata of peasants. The poor majority of a million rural families got nothing. In Ayacucho land reform proved hard to apply because it rarely related to local forms of land tenure. Local communists were not too impressed either: one of them, Osmán Morote – later to become Sendero Luminoso’s second-in-command – was arrested and imprisoned for disrupting land reform. In 1975 Velasco was ousted by the more conservative General Morales Bermúdez. In 1980 democratic elections brought conservative President Fernando Belaúnde Terry to power. In the same year, on 17 May, Sendero Luminoso launched its armed struggle in the Ayacucho village of Chuschi. In the years that followed the name ‘Ayacucho’ was to become synonymous with terror. (see previous article)

Decade of blood
Abimael Guzmán, as portrayed in a rare Sendero Luminoso pamphlet. In 1982 President Belaúnde sent in troops and declared a state of emergency in Ayacucho, Apurímac and Huancavelica. Thousands died in the dirty war that followed. President Alan García’s promises to improve human rights when he came to power in 1985, leading the APRA party, failed to materialize. In Accomarca, Ayacucho, soldiers massacred 39 adults and 23 children and in 1986 protests by Sendero Luminoso inmates at three Lima jails were met by aerial bombardment and summary executions, killing 400. Sendero violence spread. Under President Alberto Fujimori, coming to power in 1990, such gross human-rights abuses abated but democracy was undermined when he dissolved Parliament and introduced draconian anti-terrorism laws. Arrests soared: most notable was that of Sendero leader Abimael Guzmán in 1992. Meanwhile public resistance to Sendero Luminoso mounted, in the countryside and towns alike. The leaders of a smaller revolutionary organization, the MRTA, were killed when the Japanese Ambassador’s residence which it had seized was stormed by troops in 1996, leaving Fujimori in an even stronger position.

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