Though the Inca Empire spanned today’s Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia and Chile, today’s Republic of Peru is, as it was in the Inca times, the “center of the universe” of Inca culture. For the Incas, highlands Cusco was the capital. Today, the sprawling city of Lima, home to 9 million people, is a modern, bustling metropolis, an ironic tribute to Francisco Pizarro, who founded the city 477 years ago.
Mention “Peru” in conversation and the first response will invariably be “Machu Picchu”. Next will be “civiche …delicious”. Sadly, the third response will often be, “Oh, the Aztecs! Cortes.” I grimace when a relatively minor sacred location in the Inca hierarchy is the first thing that Peru evokes, though that now iconic location undoubtedly generates the largest tourist revenues for this promising nation. The American public’s confusion between the Aztecs and the Incas is understandable. Unless one is reading Archeology Magazine or National Geographic, Inca history and culture has been a poor sister to the Aztecs in popular literature, which is one fact that attracted me to research the Incas.
With 30 million people and a landmass three times the size of California, Peru is, by no means, the largest nation in South America. After 191 years of independence from Spain, Peru is still a developing country with a turbulent, challenging political environment. But Peru has enormous potential due to its natural resources. They support a robust mining industry for copper, zinc, oil, silver and gold (yes, still, even from the prodigious Petoxi mine that Diego de Almalgro missed!). Due to the boom in commodity prices over the past decade, no Latin American or Caribbean economy grew more than Peru in the 10 years ending in 2011, in spite of its raucous political landscape during that time.
The country has made significant progress in reducing poverty since 2000, tripling per capita income to around $6,000 (US) per year, but income prosperity is mostly centered around Lima and the various pockets where the mining sector is booming. The CIA web site estimates that almost a third of Peruvians still lived in poverty at the end of 2010. It is this income disparity that has fueled recent protests in the interior, where the poor and indigenous people have protested against both the expansion of mining and the financial terms with mining companies.
The delicate task of balancing growth from commodities with income disparity and environmental issues falls on Peru’s 50 year old, charismatic President, Ollanta Moises Humala Tasso who assumed the Presidency last July after a bitter contest with Keiko Fujimori. That contest followed a pattern all too familiar in Peruvian modern history. Ms. Fujimori is the daughter of a previous president, Alberto Fujimori, who fled the country due to a corruption scandal but now sits in a Peruvian prison. Ironically, President Humala led an attempted, but failed, coup against Keiko’s father in late 2000.
President Humala must also deal with a recent resurgence of “The Shining Path” guerilla revolutionaries who, along with the similar Tupac Amaru Movement, nearly crippled the Peruvian economy in the late 20th Century. Such challenges are echoes from the mistakes made by the original Castilian conquistadors during the conquest of the Incas over 500 years ago! The President appears to have the savvy and talents to navigate these shoals so that the Peruvian people can enjoy the abundant possibilities that this beautiful Andean nation possesses.
I can unequivocally say that the Peruvians whom I met during my research travels are gracious, warm and completely approachable. Their pride in their Inca and Quechua ancestry was always evident. The rich archeological Inca sites are awe inspiring, though significant financial resources are needed to preserve and protect them for future generations, and to foster a robust tourist trade that can only help the Peruvian people’s prosperity.
Peru has the potential to be a force to reckon with in the fluid dynamics that is South America today.