1960s >> 1964 >> no-719-july-1964

Peruvian Tragedy

Football matches are not usually connected with carnage, but the massacre at Lima showed that human passion can cause untold misery and horror in almost any social activity or in any place, if the conditions happen to be there.

With a death roll at over three hundred, the newspapers brought us a wider picture of the tragedy, with stories of police firing on rioting fans, the exits covered with steel barriers to keep out gate crashers, and riots continuing outside the stadium while the dead were being identified or removed.

Many blame the police, who arrested a certain rabble-rouser nicknamed “Bomba.” Probably many Peruvians will not bother to ask why the police were necessary in force at a football match, why there were steel barriers, why the fans threw concrete lumps and fencing rubble to express their displeasure. One could be excused for dismissing the whole affair as just another example of human stupidity coupled with Latin temperament, but the temptation of such cursory examination must be resisted.

Peru seems a distant land that only figures infrequently in the news; a country that most know little—and care less— about. The economy and politics of the country are something of a closed book to the popular press. Recently a book by John Sykes called Family in Peru was published. By no means a profound work, it is an impression of the outlook and attitudes of some of the people the author met during his stay. He points out that 1.6 per cent. of the population own 76 per cent. of the land—an important enough factor in a country where agriculture is one of the principal occupations. The bulk of the population are Indians or “half breeds,” large numbers of them living on the great estates in feudal conditions, or working in the foreign owned mines. Their social environment is poverty, brutality and despair. Their escape is religion and the chewing of the coca leaf, the latter appearing to have an even more stupifying effect on their minds than the former.

Many of the Indians in some areas, Sykes tells us, were and are free peasants, but they have been tricked out of their land by the big ranchers. They have sold land after bad harvests, or to build churches. Some of them, in the last throes of poverty, have drifted into Lima, which is now surrounded by shanty towns full of unemployed and of employed slum proletariat.

In the towns the professional and student groups, along with the urban working class, have often given their support to a party called APRA whose policies (though Sykes does not say so) seem to be typical of the rising native capitalist class that is also known in many other countries. The main props of APRA’s aims are land reform, greater Peruvian industrial expansion, improved conditions for workers and peasants, more democracy, greater need and opportunities for technical skill. The Peruvian working class is still undeveloped by European and North American standards, weakened and weighed down by peons and peasants and a democracy that is strictly confined to paper. Because of this APRA which, like all political parties, can only rule on mass support, were in 1936 and 1945 turfed from power by the generals and the army in the interests of the large land owners.

Sykes felt the sense of frustration in a land suffering from industrial growing pains, a feeling of simmering violence about to erupt at any instigation. By understanding such conditions, one can get some small idea of the reasons for the pointless violence which spewed up in the football stadium. Sporting events to these people are an outlet for all their hates and fears, which they do not, or are unable to, express in a collective fashion. The blind fury of the depressed mob seeking revenge on any scapegoat was often a feature of 18th and 19th century Europe, and it has not by any means disappeared from the present social scene.

As industry and capitalism develops in Peru the workers will learn to canalise their protests into trade union and political action. Improved though many aspects of life will be for them, they will still be the class that produces wealth for a minority. Poverty, relative and real, will be their lot and frustrations in new ways as well as the old will always be there. They may renounce the escape routes of football violence and coca leaves for less spectacular narcotics, such as bingo and purple hearts, but while they and workers in other lands remain a subject class, that will be their lot in life.

Jack Law