Juan Velasco Alvardo

(b. 1910)

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(b. Piura, 16 June 1910; d. Lima, 24 Dec. 1977)

Peruvian; President 1968–75 Originating from a poor family descended from Chinese immigrants, Velasco entered the Chorrillos military academy on the outskirts of Lima, rapidly rising to the rank of general. He became a supporter of the reformist current within the Peruvian armed forces, who on national security grounds argued that several decades of social change was rendering the oligarchic political system untenable, therefore socio-economic reforms aimed at increasing economic growth and enhancing national unity needed to be implemented—the gulf between the state and the population, especially the indigenous peasantry of the Andean highlands, made the nation vulnerable. Such attitudes were encouraged by the Cuban Revolution and the appearance of a guerrilla movement in the mid-1960s.

Given the inability of Fernando Belaúnde's government (1963–8) to address these issues, on 3 October 1968 Juan Velasco led a bloodless coup and in the following years pushed through key reforms aimed at fomenting industrialization, reducing the power of the oligarchy, minimizing external dependence and laying the foundations of a more modern democratic society. A comprehensive land reform was undertaken, strategic foreign interests in oil, mining, and telecommunications nationalized, as was the fishing industry and other activities. Multinationals engaged in the production of consumer durables were encouraged to invest. Worker participation in decision-making and profit distribution was introduced. Under Velasco, Peru became a prominent member of the non-aligned movement, education and social security provision was expanded, and Quechua made a second official language.

While this ambitious programme of reforms was being implemented, Velasco's health declined: he had a leg amputated in 1973 and it became increasingly difficult for him to run the government. Initially no move to oust him occurred due to the high regard with which he was held within the officer corps. Eventually, however, in August 1975 a bedridden Velasco was removed in a bloodless coup which ushered in the ‘second phase’ of the military government (1975–80). The new rulers reversed economic policy, pursuing IMF-style ‘stabilization’ programmes, and halted the reforms. Velasco eventually succumbed to his illness in December 1977. Several hundred thousand cramming the streets of Lima to accompany the funeral cortège to the cemetery, took control of the coffin and turned the procession into an impressive popular protest against the government's policies. Juan Velasco's administration proved a watershed in twentieth-century Peruvian politics; it changed everything while—paradoxically—changing nothing. He was an honest, sincere leader who inspired loyalty and affection; according to all recent opinion polls, by a large margin he remains the most popular president in living memory.

Subjects: Politics.

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