Hugo Blanco’s Revolutionary Vision Lives On

Imprisoned, exiled, and threatened with death, Peruvian activist Hugo Blanco never once wavered in his commitment to peasant liberation. Latin America’s unbreakable revolutionary will be sorely missed.

The Peruvian revolutionary Hugo Blanco Galdós in 1979. (Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

On June 25, Hugo Blanco Galdós, one of the most revered figures of the Peruvian left, passed away at the age of eighty-eight. Blanco left a deep, lasting mark on Peruvian society, most notably for his role in a historic peasant uprising against the landowners of the Andean highlands, which led to the enactment of Peru’s 1969 Agrarian Reform Law.

An uncompromising radical, Blanco spent much of his life in exile, was repeatedly imprisoned, and narrowly escaped a death sentence. He dedicated his life to the cause of land rights and indigenous struggles, raising his voice in unwavering protest against dictatorships, imperialism, and the international mining companies that preyed on his homeland of Peru.

The Struggle for Land in Peru

Blanco emerged from a decidedly Peruvian background. In Peru, like other parts of Latin America, the expansion of capitalism in the nineteenth century often preserved and perpetuated precapitalist social formations like the latifundio.  By the new century, the colonial-era plantation system had been adapted to advance capitalist accumulation while deepening forms of exploitation denounced by socialist writer José Carlos Mariátegui: the violent separation of the indigenous from their means of material — and spiritual — reproduction allowed rent-seeking capitalists to expropriate their land and exploit their traditional forms of communal labor power.

Blanco was born in the wake of the so-called Aristocratic Republic (1895–1919), a postindependence period in which land privatization reached a historic peak and imperialist powers began to carve up Peru. Powerful local families also reorganized their holdings during the period, using their control of the republican state to accelerate large-scale land concentration. By the first decades of the twentieth century, in addition to the traditional coastal haciendas, the vast Peruvian highlands were covered with latifundia.

During that same period, traditional indigenous societies of the Andean region were shattered by a new form of political and economic domination known as gamonalismo. Named after a parasitic plant, gamonalismo saw upstart capitalists seizing communal land and erecting private fiefdoms in the highlands. However, new waves of oppression in the countryside were met with redoubled indigenous and peasant resistance.

This formed the background for a decades-long saga of land struggles, the central organizing principle for indigenous and peasant agitation for much of the twentieth century.  According to historian Wilfredo Kapsoli, by midcentury, the peasant struggle for land redistribution had reached such a fever pitch that many people — Hugo Blanco included — could reasonably question the entire foundation of the existing Peruvian social order.

From Peru to Argentina and Back

Hugo Blanco Galdós was born in November 1934 in the city of Cusco, the onetime capital of Tawantinsuyo, or the Incan Empire. His mother was a small landowner and his father a middle-class lawyer — by no stretch a peasant family. Still, as a child, Blanco was moved by his early encounters with the brutal treatment landowners meted out to the indigenous, later citing a particular episode as life-changing: a local latifundist, Bartolomé Paz, engraved his initials on the buttock of an indigenous man with a hot iron.

Spurred by those early experiences of injustice, Blanco’s young militancy was enriched by his reading of Mariátegui, Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre, Manuel González Prada, and other classic writers of the Peruvian left. In 1954, Blanco left Peru to study agronomy in Argentina, where his brother, already a student in the Argentine town of La Plata, held an important position within the powerful American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA).

Through his brother and new acquaintances, Blanco became familiar with the APRA’s brand of pan–Latin American, anti-imperialist politics, although he grew increasingly critical of its conciliatory, petit-bourgeois class politics and found himself gravitating towards Trotskyism. Still in Argentina, he associated with Trotskyist currents like the Palabra Obrera, led by Nahuel Moreno, and eventually abandoned his studies to begin doing labor organizing within a meat packing plant in Berisso, La Plata.

On his return to Peru, in 1956, Blanco joined the Partido Obrero Revolucionario (POR). A Trotskyist tendency, the POR had already suffered heavy political casualties in the 1950s under the dictatorship of Manuel Odría. Blanco joined the ranks of the embattled POR with the intention of doing union work in Lima and the Amazonian province of Chanchamayo. However, he was returned to his birthplace, Cusco, where he took up a position as a union representative of the canillitas (newspaper vendors) within the workers’ federation of the department of Cusco.

It was Blanco’s unexpected contact with the peasant movement in the provinces of La Convención and Lares that drew the socialist militant away from his chosen path of “proletarianization” and towards becoming a peasant himself. One day, while detained for his activity with the newspaper vendors, Blanco met several peasant unionists from the Chaupimayo area that were serving an extended prison sentence. They conversed at length about agrarian struggle, and, upon his release, Blanco organized a campaign for their freedom. He eventually found himself working and organizing alongside the peasant unionists in nearby coffee and coca plantations.

Blanco’s transformation marked a point of no return: as a peasant, the rest of his life would be dedicated to the struggle for land.

Land or Death

The peasants of the province of La Convención had recently organized themselves into unions to defend themselves against the violent abuses and rent hikes of local landowners. Witnessing the persecution of the organized peasants, Blanco traveled to the town of Chaupimayo, in La Convención, where he was quickly elected leader of the union. In 1961, Blanco and others founded the Peasants’ Federation of Cusco, and the following year, he and other leftist leaders formed the Revolutionary Left Front (FIR), an organization that brought together members of the Revolutionary Agrarian Party, the POR, and the Leninist faction of the Peruvian Communist Party.

In 1962, the FIR announced a historic call for land seizures in Cusco under the slogan “Land or Death!” Putting itself at the head of a peasant strike that demanded an end to unpaid labor, abusive land rents, and violent state repression, the political agitation of the FIR incited the formation of countless peasant self-defense groups, including Blanco’s own guerrilla column, the Remigio Huamán Brigade.

The peasant guerrillas fought valiantly but were no match for the Peruvian armed forces, and the agrarian strikes were violently crushed. Nevertheless, the episode proved to be a turning point in the history of twentieth-century Andean peasant struggles, as the fight for land spread subsequently to other parts of the Cusco region. Later, historians would recall the uprising as a pivotal moment leading to the Agrarian Reform Law.

For his participation in the peasant uprisings, Blanco was captured in May 1963 and transferred to a prison in the southern province of Arequipa, where he was sentenced to death. However, Blanco’s death sentence was met with international outrage and was ultimately commuted. After a period in pretrial detention, Blanco was again tried in 1966 and sentenced to twenty-five years in the El Frontón prison in Lima.

Land Reform From Above

Peru’s Andean highlands were a cauldron of political agitation for much of the 1960s. In the early sixties, Manuel Scorza, Peru’s celebrated socialist novelist, traveled from Lima to meet with members of the peasant movement in the central highlands, where he was shocked to see levels of exploitation never imagined in the Creole-dominated capital. He joined the peasant struggle and paid witness to one of the decade’s great popular victories (and the subject of his first celebrated novel): the recovery of lands that US mining company Cerro de Pasco Copper Corporation had stolen from the Rancas community.

Scorza went on to become a member of the Communal Movement of Peru (Movimiento Communal del Perú), an organization that demanded land rights and political power for the country’s exploited indigenous workers. As an eyewitness to the early political fervor that had inspired Blanco and others, he wrote:

We are not against the hard-working farmers and ranchers of Peru, who fight daily against the credit monopolies and the indifference of the state while fertilizing the land. . . . But, we cannot allow for big foreign companies, not content with being the owners of the subsoil — of oil and all the minerals — to also take possession of the land where we were born.

As land struggles spread throughout the countryside and gathered anti-imperialist connotations, the demand also pushed its way to the top of the national agenda. Eventually, the fight for agrarian reform could no longer be silenced with military force. In 1964, taking stock of indigenous radicalism and the spread of leftwing guerrillas, the Peruvian oligarchy sought to diffuse tensions through the passage of an agrarian reform law under the government of Fernando Belaúnde (whose administration had already attempted, without much success, to violently put down peasant mobilization). With little to show for their efforts, it eventually fell to a new progressive military regime, under Juan Velasco Alvarado, to carry out the proposed agrarian reform that would change the property structure at the national level.

The resulting Agrarian Reform Law could be seen as a response by the bourgeoisie to the unfolding class struggle in Peru: pushed forward by an increasingly confident peasant movement, agrarian reform was held up by elite fractions as a necessary concession to head off any further escalation of tensions.

When Blanco regained his freedom in 1971, he was vocally critical of the left-wing reformism of the government of Velasco. He decried the government’s authoritarianism and denounced it for favoring certain sectors of the oligarchy. No sooner had Blanco been released from prison than he was extradited to Mexico.

The Peasant Struggle

Through their struggles for land, Andean peasants had forced the Peruvian state to alter the nation’s existing property regime. Led by the progressive general Juan Velasco Alvarado, the late sixties to early seventies saw an unprecedented drive to modernize Peru’s agrarian society by eliminating large and small land tenures (known as minifundios), creating hundreds of peasant cooperatives, and pursuing a policy of industrialization by import substitution.

Blanco was unmoved by the new reform government. Velasco, in his view, sought to eliminate the latifundia system in order to proletarianize Peru’s peasantry. This was consistent, argued Blanco, with Velasco’s class project: to unleash the power of the country’s incipient industrial bourgeoisie. Worse still, Velasco’s agrarian reform was, wrote Blanco, bureaucratic to the point that it stripped peasants of any existing political agency they once had:

The peasant cooperatives did not choose their manager; he was appointed, turning them into bureaucratic entities directed by a small handful of functionaries who draw profit from what the peasants produced. But the peasant communities fought so that the land would be returned to them.

Blanco’s criticism of Velasco ultimately proved astute. In many parts of the country, peasants continued to push back against the regime’s bureaucratized reform by seizing the state-run cooperatives and agrarian holdings. By then in exile, Blanco looked on approvingly as peasants demanded that the reform allow for greater local autonomy and independence from bourgeois politics.

A Life in Exile

During his latest exile, Blanco spent several months in Argentina’s Villa Devoto prison. Imprisoned for overstaying a residence permit, Blanco saw firsthand the human rights abuses committed under the military junta of Alejandro Agustín Lanusse. Blanco’s next destination in exile was the Chile of Salvador Allende, although his time there would be cut short by Augusto Pinochet’s coup in 1973.

Like many leftists fleeing Chile, Blanco was granted asylum by famed Swedish ambassador Harald Edelstam. Blanco spent the next year touring Europe in an effort to denounce the crimes of the military regimes in Latin America and drum up support for exiles — becoming an important public face in the first campaigns to raise awareness of the US-backed Operation Condor. He returned to Peru in 1975 and the following year led a wave of protests against the conservative military government of Francisco Morales Bermudez. Naturally, he was sent into exile for his political activities. 

In 1978, Blanco again returned to Peru, this time to participate in elections for the recently convened Constitutional Assembly. He ran in constituent elections as part of the Frente Obrero Campesino Estudiantil y Popular (The Worker-Peasant-Student and Popular Front) founded by Peruvian left-wing politician Genaro Ledesma Izquieta. Elected as a member of the Assembly, Blanco also ran for municipal deputy of Lima on the Revolutionary Workers Party ticket.  By 1990, Blanco had won a seat as senator for the United Left party. Unfortunately, Blanco’s promising trajectory in institutional politics was brought to a halt when the newly elected dictator Alberto Fujimori dissolved the Peruvian Congress.

Unable to safely stay in Peru during the Fujimori dictatorship, Blanco relocated to Mexico in 1991, where he joined in the political enthusiasm inspired by the Zapatista guerrilla uprising in Chiapas. Blanco’s lifelong anti-capitalism also assumed an important ecological component around that same time, as the former peasant leader took a more pronounced stand against transnational extractive corporations in Latin America.

Like others in the 1990s, Blanco had moved away from party politics and grown closer to Latin America’s indigenous movements. With a more pronouncedly ecosocialist perspective, Blanco expanded his notion of land struggle to include the defense of the natural environment and the collective resources it contains. His 2017 book Nosotros los indios (We, the Indians) left no room for doubt about his evolving position:

These companies that preach the neoliberal religion don’t care about harming nature or the extinction of the human species; the only thing they care about is getting as much money in as little time as possible. They poison the rivers and tear down the trees for wood; they kill the Amazon forest, mother to the Amazonian natives, thus killing them as well.

The passage reflects a late shift in Blanco’s political emphasis, from rural workers and land struggles to indigenous movements and the defense of the natural world against the predation of extractive industries. Increasingly, for Blanco, global capitalism came to mean global warming, open-air mining, hydrocarbon extraction, deforestation, and other naked expressions of the destructive logic of capital. Global indigenous resistance had come to represent the anti-capitalist vanguard.

Hugo Blanco, Presente

Hugo Blanco was a man of unshakable convictions. As a committed militant, he came to understand the value of land as a means for the material and spiritual well-being of the impoverished and exploited peasants and indigenous of Latin America. Later in life, he pointed his criticism in a global direction, compelled by the ever-growing need to preserve and defend the natural means for all life on earth.

Some aspects of his Marxism drew criticism, and his uncompromising class politics often alienated him from the halls of institutional power. Still, an evenhanded assessment of his militant legacy will only increase our appreciation of one of Latin America’s larger-than-life revolutionaries.

Hugo Blanco passed away in Sweden on June 25, his old age a kind of victory over the Peruvian and Latin American bourgeoisie that would have preferred to see him dead long ago. Perhaps death never even really reaches those like Blanco who, amid the class struggle, can keep alive their anger at the world’s injustice. Whatever the case, Blanco’s noble figure will continue to cast a shadow over political debates in Latin America for years to come, as a revolutionary reminder that, for the landless, dispossessed, and powerless, the only thing left to lose is our chains.