Modern Peru is no less complicated than its past. The country's recent history of suffering -- 2 decades of political mayhem and corruption, surprise attacks from homegrown Maoist "Shining Path" terrorists, cocaine trafficking, and violent street crime -- is well documented. Throughout the 1980s and early '90s, Peruvians fled the capital and the countryside, fearful of attack; few travelers were brave enough to plan vacations in the troubled nation.
Though Peru is rich in artifacts and culture, it remains very poor, a society thoroughly dominated by elites. Half the population lives at or below the poverty line. The horrendous violence of 2 decades ago has now almost completely abated, and outside of areas deep in the jungle, there are no areas where visitors should not feel welcome to travel. Indeed, rumors of a Shining Path revival have not been borne out, even though at least two major attacks in the last decade, including a bombing near the U.S. embassy in Lima, have been attributed to the group.
The disgraced former president Alberto Fujimori, who fled the country to live in exile in Japan, was arrested in Chile in 2005 attempting to return to Peru in a surprise bid to run for president. Extradited to Peru and jailed in 2006, Fujimori stood trial at the end of 2007 on charges of ordering the murders of suspected Shining Path guerrillas and their collaborators by death squad (he remains in a jail in Lima, sentenced to 25 years for his role in ordering death squads, along with three other concurrent sentences, including for abuse of power, bribery and illegal wiretapping of phones). The trial marked the first time in Peruvian history that a former president has been tried for crimes committed during his administration.
With the 2001 election of Alejandro Toledo, the country's first president of native Indian origin, many Peruvians believed that the country had finally turned a corner and that the 21st century would bring stability, progress, and prosperity. But although the economy grew at an impressive rate and Peru is now safer and more stable than it has been in recent memory, it remains a country beset by widespread poverty and unpredictability. A former president, Alan García -- who himself had also fled Peru after a disastrous term in the 1980s -- returned from exile and, improbably, captured the 2006 presidential election.
The Peruvian economy has expanded steadily in the last decade, but much of that growth has been stimulated by foreign investment in mining and other sectors, from which few Peruvians benefit. Like previous governments, Toledo's administration was plagued by instability, abuse of power, and poor management, opening the door for García, a one-time populist, who positioned himself as a centrist, seeking to put a clamp on inflation and pursuing free-market policies. Most notably, he pushed aggressively for a free-trade agreement with the United States, a treaty that was ratified by the U.S. Congress in December 2007 and which entered into force in February 2009 (Peru is seeking similar agreements with Mexico and Canada). The Peruvian economy recorded a robust growth rate of 9.2% in 2008, a 15-year high and one of the most impressive in the world, and to date the García presidency -- which runs until 2011 -- has been largely stable and peaceful. The pace of growth dropped by half in 2009, though.
Despite those recent economic successes, fears remain that continued peasant uprisings in neighboring Bolivia, triggered in part by U.S. military efforts to eradicate coca growing, could still spread to Peru. The move of Bolivia's president, the leftist Evo Morales, to nationalize energy concerns and legalize coca farming speaks to a growing influence of disenfranchised Amerindian populations in Andean countries. And as proof that past sins are easily forgotten in Peru, one of the leading contenders for the presidential election in 2011 is Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of the jailed former president and a right-wing lawmaker whose candidacy is apparently largely based on her desire to free her father from incarceration
In Peru, the divide between rich and poor, coastal elites and indigenous highlanders, and modern and traditional, continues to loom large. Even against that backdrop, though, Peru is more welcoming than ever for visitors. Too many unfortunate years of corrupt politicians, lawlessness, and economic disarray succeeded in clouding but never eclipsing the beauty and complexity of this fascinating Andean nation.
Peruvian People & Culture
Peru's nearly 30 million people are predominantly mestizo (of mixed Spanish and indigenous heritage) and Andean Indian, but the population is a true melting pot of ethnic groups. Significant minority groups of Afro-Peruvians (descendants of African slaves, living mainly in the coastal area south of Lima), immigrant Japanese and Chinese populations among the largest in South America, and smaller groups of European immigrants, including Italians and Germans, help make up Peru's population of 28 million. In the early days of the colony, Peruvian-born offspring of Spaniards were called criollos, though that term today refers mainly to coastal residents and Peruvian cuisine.
After Bolivia and Guatemala, Peru has the largest population by percentage of Amerindians in Latin America. Perhaps half the country lives in the sierra, or highlands, and most of these people, commonly called campesinos (peasants), live in either small villages or rural areas. Descendants of Peru's many Andean indigenous groups in remote rural areas continue to speak the native languages Quechua (made an official language in 1975) and Aymara or other Amerindian tongues, and for the most part, they adhere to traditional regional dress. However, massive peasant migration to cities from rural highland villages has contributed to a dramatic weakening of indigenous traditions and culture across Peru. (The government of Alejandro Toledo, himself a proud cholo, or person of direct Andean Indian roots, committed itself to a valorization and preservation of native language and traditions, though.)
Watch Your Language -- The term cholo is often used to describe Peruvians of color and obvious Amerindian descent, usually those who have migrated from the highlands to the city. It is frequently employed as a derogatory and racist term by the Limeño population of European descent, but former President Alejandro Toledo has claimed the term for himself and all mestizos (those of mixed race) of Peru, in an attempt to demonstrate pride in their common culture and to take the sting out of the term. Afro-Peruvians are more commonly called morenos(as) or negros(as). Using any of these terms can potentially be a complicated and charged matter for foreigners, especially those who have little experience in the country or fluency in the language. At any rate, it's best for gringos (foreigners; almost always not a derogatory term) simply to steer clear of such linguistic territory. It's better to refrain from making distinctions among races and colors than to risk offending someone.
Peruvians are a predominantly Roman Catholic people (more than 90% claim to be Catholic), although Protestant evangelical churches have been winning converts, a fact that is worrisome to the Catholic Church. Animistic religious practices (worship of deities representing nature), inherited from the Incas and others, have been incorporated into the daily lives of many Peruvians and can be seen in festivals and small individual rituals such as offerings of food and beverage to Pachamama, or Mother Earth.
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