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Peru Mourns Death of Belaunde

(Originally posted on June 6, 2002)

Fernando Belaunde Terry, a bold visionary leader who was twice elected President of Peru, passed away on June 4 at the age of 89, about two weeks after suffering a severe stroke. Belaunde was a moderate reformer who faced numerous obstacles during his political career, most notably when he was unceremoniously thrown out of office by his country's armed forces in 1968. Yet in spite of major disappointments, he never succumbed to defeatism or cynicism, but rather maintained until the very end a fervent optimism in the possibilities of a better future for his countrymen.

Belaunde was born in Lima in 1912, but in 1924 he and his family became exiles in France after his father was jailed for opposing the dictatorship of Augusto Leguia. Belaunde later went to the United States and earned a degree in architecture from the University of Texas in 1935. Belaunde was deeply impressed by the leadership abilities of Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression. During my interview with President Belaunde in 1994, he exclaimed that FDR "raised the dead!" Likewise, the New Deal policies of reformist capitalism likewise seemed to Belaunde as the perfect nonviolent remedy for the historical inequities of Peruvian society. After returning to Peru in 1936, Belaunde practiced his profession as an architect and became active in politics; he was elected to Congress in 1945. In 1956 he ran for president as the country was emerging from another period of dictatorship, and from this campaign was born the political party Accion Popular.


Fernando Belaunde Terry,
President of Peru (1963-1968; 1980-1985)

This photo, which was taken during the sea trials of a cargo ship built in the dockyards in Callao, was reproduced from an inscribed copy of La Conquista del Peru por los Peruanos given to me by President Belaunde himself.

The reformist ideology of Belaunde's party was summarized in the slogan: "liberty, land, and shelter." He explained his philosophy and goals in more detail in his book La Conquista del Peru por los Peruanos (which means, "The Conquest of Peru by the Peruvians"), first published in 1959. He believed that Peru's deep-seated class and race differences could be reconciled by a grand national effort to colonize and develop Peru's vast interior jungle region. He proposed building a modern highway along the eastern slope of the Andes mountains, "taming the wild frontier" so as to open jungle lands to cultivation. He glorified Peru's Inca heritage, and his idea of "Peru as a doctrine" reflected the exceptionalist tendency to downplay external constraints on policy decisions. This was his tragic weak spot. Denying the need to choose between the capitalist and socialist systems (and the corresponding Cold War alignments), he declared, "Peru is heir to immortal civilizations, and it must search for its own road to development without accepting the premise that a dilemma must be imposed upon it." La Conquista del Peru por los Peruanos 3rd ed. (Lima: Editorial Minerva, 1994), p. 85.

Belaunde's first term (1963-1968) launched several reform programs, in keeping with President Kennedy's "Alliance for Progress," but partisan opposition in Congress frustrated his attempts to follow through. A bitter controversy arose over the U.S.-owned International Petroleum Company, and the inability to get satisfactory renewed contract terms paved the way for a military coup that deposed Belaunde, who spent the next decade in exile while the countries generals stirred up a great tempest of "revolution" but ultimately floundered.

His second election in 1980 was a personal triumph, but advserse circumstances once again foiled his ambitious agenda. Despite occasional friction with the United States he remained on cordial terms with President Reagan and cooperated with U.S. anti-narcotics efforts. This was made difficult by the growing alliance between drug traffickers and Shining Path terrorists, since U.S. policy aimed to avoid interfering in domestic politics. Belaunde tried to mediate between Argentina and Great Britain during the Falklands crisis in April and May, 1982, but the abrupt sinking of the cruiser Belgrano by a Royal Navy submarine ended hopes for peace. Margaret Thatcher's account of this momentous diplomatic interchange in her memoirs did not even mention Belaunde by name, a rather telling (and disrespectful) omission. One of Belaunde's persistent policy themes was promoting the economic integration of South America. In July 1983 he joined four other presidents in Caracas for an Andean Group summit meeting that was called to reverse the protectionism that was crippling intraregional trade and compounding the recession. Ever fond of dramatic gestures, he took the opportunity to promote development of the transportation network of the South American interior by traveling to Venezuela on board a riverboat via the Amazon River and the Casiquiare Channel, an anomolous natural waterway linking the Amazon and Orinoco river basins.

Belaunde remained a defiant New Deal Keynesian even as his government struggled to cope with the debt crisis that broke out in mid 1982. His own words best summarize his handling of fiscal issues:

It is very easy to resolve the fiscal problem in a financial balance. It is very difficult -- and such was our pledge -- to equilibriate a much more complicated balance: of arms with jobs, of mouths with food, of students with schools, of ill people with hospitals. In that contrast lies the fundamental mission of every government. That is why those who have only occupied themselves with the problem, which is certainly important, of equilibriating outflows with incomes, but ignoring or not attending to the social problems, have failed and will continue to fail. Belaunde (1994), p. 261.

Belaunde remained an active observer of politics in Peru through the 1990s and was often quoted in print and on television. Though clearly digusted by the autocratic style of President Fujimori (who resigned in disgrace in 2000), he always maintained a dignified, tactful tone in his public criticisms. His nephew Raul Diez Canseco ran unsuccessfully for president under the Accion Popular banner in 1995 and was elected as First Vice President of Peru in 2001. Belaunde's wife Violeta Correa passed away in 2001. Though some Peruvians scorned him during the troubled years of the 1980s, nearly all respect and admire his sincere, deep devotion to his homeland. He was extremely gracious and helpful to me when I interviewed him. Statesmen such as Fernando Belaunde do not come around very often, and he will be greatly missed.