Peru’s recent history of suffering—2 decades of political mayhem and corruption, hyperinflation, 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 poor and a society dominated by elites. Although a quarter of the population lives at or below the poverty line, in recent years the level of extreme poverty has dropped considerably, to 3.8%. 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. 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 and now ailing 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, Fujimori was convicted on charges of ordering the murders of suspected Shining Path guerrillas and their collaborators by death squad (he remains in a jail in Lima 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. Although the economy initially grew at an impressive rate, the road to a safer and more stable Peru ran into more than a few bumps along the way. Like previous governments, Toledo’s administration was plagued by instability, abuse of power, and poor management, opening the door for former president Alan García, who returned from exile abroad and improbably captured the 2006 presidential election. García positioned himself as a centrist, seeking to put a clamp on inflation and aggressively pursuing free-market policies. Most notably, he pushed aggressively for a free-trade agreement with the United States, a treaty entered into force in 2009. 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.
But Peru’s political realities continue to be unique, if not surreal. The former army officer Ollanta Humala was elected in 2011, defeating Keiko Fujimori, the right-wing daughter of former (and you’ll recall, jailed) Alberto Fujimori. Humala, previously a firebrand and outspoken nationalist, battled Shining Path guerrillas, led a military uprising against Fujimori in 2000, and is saddled with a controversial family (including a brother jailed for kidnapping and killing police officers). But he posited himself as a non-ideological reformer in the model of Brazil’s transformative former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a one-time leftist labor union leader who oversaw Brazil’s rise to global economic prominence. Like Lula, Humala argued that he was poised to cement Peru’s economic and social transformation into a modern, stable democratic nation; however, he has been accused of money laundering and is awaiting trial. After Humala came former Wall Street investor Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who resigned in March 2018 just 19 months into his presidency while embroiled in a corruption scandal. He was replaced by his vice president, Martín Vizcarra.
The Peruvian economy has continued to expand, dropping off slightly in recent years as demand for raw products has slowed. Although much of that growth has been stimulated by foreign investment in mining and other sectors, from which few Peruvians benefit, there is a growing sense of optimism. Tourism growth has averaged 10% annually, with record-setting numbers of travelers (nearly four million) embarking on ecotourism in Peru’s protected natural areas, and a dizzying number of swank new hotels (both Peruvian and internationally owned) springing up across the country, including in far-flung places like the banks of Lake Titicaca, Colca Canyon, and the formerly ramshackle, hippie beach destination Máncora. Peru has become the third-largest coffee producer in South America, and is projected to register one of the highest growth rates and lowest inflation rates in the Americas. The capital Lima, experiencing a real-estate boom, has undertaken construction of a better mass transit network. Mario Vargas Llosa, Peru’s most famous novelist (and former presidential candidate), won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010, becoming the first Peruvian to do so, and also for the first time, a Peruvian film, The Milk of Sorrow, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. The acclaimed Afro-Peruvian singer Susana Baca was named Peru’s Minister of Culture in 2011 (becoming the first black minister in Peru’s history), and major international pop stars like Bono of U2 have descended on Cusco, Machu Picchu, and Tambopata National Reserve, validating Peru’s rising profile.
Though there’s an incipient national swagger that’s been sorely missing for decades, based on the prospects of prosperity for some and the renewed growth of a middle class, in Peru the divide between rich and poor, coastal elites and indigenous highlanders, and modern and traditional, continues to loom large. Without a doubt, a newly confident Peru is more welcoming than ever for visitors. All those unfortunate years of corrupt politicians, lawlessness, and economic disarray may have clouded but never eclipsed 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.)
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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