LIMA – Former President Juan Velasco Alvarado remains a divisive figure in Peru more than four decades after being driven from power, with some regarding him as a hero who freed peasants from slave-like conditions on large plantations and others slamming him as a resentful dictator who expropriated land from the wealthy.
That debate has heated up with the release of the documentary “La revolucion y la tierra” (Revolution and Land), directed by young filmmaker Gonzalo Benavente.
Featuring a narrative that strays from the official story of Velasco’s military government, it has become the most-watched film in its genre in Peruvian history.
“Although very important studies exist and were taken into account in making the film, they haven’t transcended (their academic confines) and become cultural products,” Benavente told Efe in explaining the reasons for a film about Velasco’s reform agenda.
He said he and his team spent a year investigating the time period spanning the before, during and after of Gen. Velasco’s military dictatorship.
“We struck a balance between our responsibility to tell something (that was) so important for so many people, for the first time in a long time, and trying to tell a story in the best way possible,” the filmmaker added.
MORE THAN AN AGRARIAN REFORM
Velasco enacted the most important agrarian reform law in the Andean nation’s history on June 24, 1969, while his fiery discourse still remains fresh in the minds of tens of thousands of Peruvians aged 60 and over because “it was the first time the state spoke directly to campesinos,” journalist and anthropologist Carla Colona told Efe.
“When he said, ‘Campesino, never again will the landowner feed off of your poverty!” the state was talking to a person who had no soul and no power because they were toiling in a regime of semi-slavery. It was as if they had told the ants, ‘from now on, you’re citizens too,’” Colona said of the enormous social repercussions of the agrarian reform.
That reform abolished latifundios and minifundios and carved out agrarian cooperatives via the expropriation of property from large landowners.
Although the measure was considered extreme at the time, landholders received sovereign bonds in exchange for their properties and were able to use them to set up new businesses in the cities.
Others who did not cash out those agrarian bonds at the time are still battling the Peruvian state in court and demanding payment under a methodology that restores the original value of the bonds and cancels out the effects of hyperinflation in the 1980s.
“La revolucion y la tierra” begins with footage from documentaries and fiction films of the 1960s, prior to Velasco’s 1968-1975 military regime.
Those historical images show film-goers a reality experienced by hundreds of thousands of campesinos in the years before Velasco’s agrarian reform, laying bare the humiliations and abuses they suffered at the hands of powerful landowners.
“It may seem like the Spain of the 18th century, but it’s Peru of the 20th century,” an off-camera narrator says over the footage.
Those scenes offer a piece of the story that, according to Benavente, “had not been part of the dominant narrative that was installed in the Peruvian consciousness.”
“In the playgrounds of upper middle-class schools, it was more common to hear ‘Velasco expropriated it from my grandfather,’ rather than other positive comments about the Velasco government,” the filmmaker said, adding that “those who saw (the reform) as positive were careful not to speak up because it could even be dangerous.”
In that regard, any positive assessment of a government that granted greater rights to peasant populations has been associated for decades with communism and even terrorism.
This attitude has persisted even though Velasco (1910-1977) was not supported by the Marxist movement of that era and was not considered a particularly leftist president.
“Velasco was not of the left. He fits more into what’s being shouted today in the streets of Chile or in Haiti. He came from below and his discourse was what you’re hearing in Chile: ‘we’re from below and we’re coming for those from above, those who have stolen from us, who have exploited us,” Colona said.
But the documentary also has its detractors, with conservative columnist Aldo Mariategui lamenting that the film “virtually whitewashes Velasco,” the “local version of Hugo Chavez.”
Peruvian-born novelist and essayist Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature in 2010, also has been a harsh critic of Velasco’s government and his economic policies.
But the film has struck a profound chord with many of the more than 70,000 Peruvians who have seen it.
“People applaud when the movie ends. That’s when you realize that there are a lot of people who have been unable to tell their story,” Benavente said.
Movie-goers also cry in the theaters and recognize their own stories on screen. “It resonates and touches a wound that’s still there, because although there have been social advances stemming from Velasco’s reforms, racism and classism haven’t disappeared yet in Peru, and the system of slavery isn’t the brutal and merciless one (of the past), but a subtle one does persist.”