Justice Will Sellers: Peruvian Bicentennial Celebration


Few calendars in this part of the Western Hemisphere note it, but on July 28, Peru celebrates 200 years of independence. Two centuries of anything is a big deal; it demonstrates generational resilience and it’s something to celebrate.

But the opportunity also provides us with an opportunity to examine and understand the international liberating forces unleashed by the success of American independence, how these ideas spread across other nations to create a culture of freedom and liberty. , and the lessons we can learn from this experience.

Aside from Brazil, most of the countries in South America were Spanish colonies and reflected the influence of Spanish culture and traditions of Madrid. In the “conquest” of South America, Spain imposed its will on the indigenous peoples in the same way that the King of Spain ruled his subjects.

Democracy and the rule of law were non-existent. Initially, Spain ruled by a feudal system with authorities imposing their will by demanding taxes and forcing workers to extract minerals from the various mines that created the wealth of European rulers. Spain also adopted an exclusive trading system, and Peru was an important part of this system because it had natural ports which became the center of the Spanish trading system.

But restricting trade while making the Spanish authorities richer served to impoverish other classes not of aristocratic blood thus delaying the development of a middle class.

In the 18th century, Spain was a dominant power competing with France and England for world hegemony. But as Spain retreated as a world power, its authority in Peru and other colonies declined precipitously. Having no motherland to support it with military power and administrative power, Spanish authority was degraded and vulnerable to attacks from various liberators.

Authoritarian rulers with little support and few or no allies were left to their own efforts to maintain control. The battle was on to free the South American people from Spanish rule.

Many countries declared independence, but Peru was one of the last to do so as Lima was populated by many Spanish aristocrats commanding a substantial army to deter revolution. But Peru’s strategic location made it a pawn not only between the liberators and Spain, but also between competing revolutionaries.

Peru’s independence was not secured by Peruvian nationals, but by Argentine General José de San Martín, who sought to expand his sphere of influence and access to lucrative mines and their potential for wealth. Peru was liberated in a gradual effort with an amphibious landing, which sent the Spanish viceroy to flee Lima into the interior of the country.

Once Lima was secured, San Martín declared its independence to rally local support. It would take more than three years and the person of Simón Bolívar, to completely liberate Peru; Spain will not recognize its independence until after a fight in 1869.

Peru would find that declaring and maintaining independence are two different things – the latter being significantly more difficult than the former. And, even with a modern constitution, the country was plagued by competing factions that would be replaced by a cycle of military dictatorships frequently suspending the constitution and then rewriting it in an attempt to transition to civilian and democratic rule.

Peru has had a dozen constitutions or national charters, the most recent having been ratified in 1993. This unfortunate pattern is not unique to Peru and often occurs in nations formed from earlier Spanish colonies.

Building democracy and maintaining freedom is hard work, and allowing people to vote can be complicated. Creating a constitution is a lot like designing software, but it is only as efficient as the hardware that has to interpret codes. The traditions and experiences of the material of any country are often difficult to change.

Unfortunately, the Spanish government framework has not created fertile ground for freedom or the rule of law. A legal system based on the intelligence and whims of an autocrat cannot provide a permanent framework of stability, and those under the yoke of such a regime are blocked in any attempt at economic progress.

When power is concentrated in a central authority, be it the King of Spain, its governor or a colonial viceroy, the lack of consistency creates an atmosphere that breeds corruption. Dictatorship and autocracy have no room or patience for a middle class. There are only the rulers and the ruled; the haves and have-nots.

When there is no constitution enlivening the civil liberties of the people and no legal system to protect property rights, a cycle of uncertainty prevails as rulers use power to punish their rivals, promote their friends and s ‘enrich. Corruption creates instability, which leads to coups and subsequent dictators doing the same thing but with different beneficiaries.

While the legacy of Spanish rule remains, Peru continues to move towards greater freedom for its people. The system of government appears to have stabilized to provide civilian leadership and a recognition that the military is not a branch of government to intervene during a crisis to restore order by suspending the constitution.

Like other countries in South America, Peru entered the 21st century with the hope of a bright future. While it may be easy to compare Peru to our American experience, it is unfair to measure other nations by our yardstick and force them to fully embrace our system of government.

Each country comes to terms with its self-government differently, and it is important that Americans respect the form and organization chosen by each country. This helps to recognize that although our constitution provided a framework for civil government, freedom and the rule of law, democracy is fragile and its maintenance requires constant effort and full civic engagement.

As Peru celebrates its 200th anniversary, we can only hope that the next two centuries will bring its people an even greater measure of American-style freedom and prosperity.

Will Sellers is best contacted at jws@willsellers.com


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