Spectacle of the Spade: Popular Cooperation in Peru
As an institution, Cooperación Popular (or COOPOP) was born on August 17, 1963; its stated goal was to harness local forms of collective labour in small-scale construction projects such as schools, community markets, comedores populares, and local branch roads. Though it took on many permutations during its bumpy lifetime (it was dissolved after the Oct. 1968 coup, only to come back again in 1980), according to the institutional design, projects were to be community initiatives, proposed and built by community members, to which COOPOP would respond with technical assistance, funding and equipment. However, COOPOP also served to normalize a modern development narrative in three specific ways. First, in line with the general rhetorical position of President Fernando Belaúnde Terry’s (1963-1968, 1980-1985) government, COOPOP coopted forms of Inca revivalism in the service of state-sponsored modernization schemes. This often meant leveraging Peru’s millennial past in order to motivate the populace and garner participation in megaprojects like the Carretera Marginal de la Selva. Second, COOPOP initiatives were made the basis of a spectacle that shaped development discourse and presented it for national consumption. Lastly, as part of that spectacle, COOPOP provided images of progress that intimately tied the socio-economic transformation of a community to the physical transformation of the landscape in which it was situated.
When it came to soliciting COOPOP assistance, eligible parties included municipal councils, indigenous communities and other community organizations such as neighborhood associations constituted by the National Housing Council, and agricultural and farming associations. When one of these entities initiated a project, a chain of decisions would be triggered going up the institutional framework and—provided all was in order—resources were filtered down through a series of national, regional and local centers. This decision-making cycle comprised provincial, departmental and national bodies.
On the one hand, a community hoping to build a central market, for example, would present a project plan to their Provincial Programming Council, which, after assessing the project’s feasibility would pass it up to the departmental level. There the project would be approved or rejected and bundled into the Departmental Council’s report to the nation-wide Executive Council, which, in turn, secured support from international lenders such as USAID. The Inter-Ministerial Executive Council of Popular Cooperation, composed of representatives from the ministries of foment, public health, education, and labour and indigenous issues, as well as from the National Fund for Economic Development and the National Office of Agrarian Reform, then dictated how that support would reach a community by way of departmental and provincial distribution centers, or the centrales mayores and centrales básicas. These centers, in turn, made available the use of heavy machinery and tools, as well providing technical assistance to community members.
In 1965 this changed slightly when the Executive Council was brought wholly under the umbrella of the Ministry of Foment and Public Works, and the centrales mayores and centrales básicas took over the advising and assessment tasks of the departmental and provincial councils, respectively, but the control held by the Executive Council over the lower levels of the COOPOP bureaucracy—extending as far as determining the number of chairs and typewriters in a given central básica—continued to reflect a high degree of centralization.
Thus, if everything functioned as planned, communities, as the designers and initiators of projects, were supposed to be the central actors in their own development, but the various levels of the COOPOP bureaucracy, with the ultimate say of the Executive Council, served to connect those communities with the material, financial and technical support of international aid agencies. This meeting of community labour and international aid characterized what Belaúnde called the “miscegenation of the economy”, for it was supposed to represent the fusion of age-old Andean traditions such as the minga (collective work project) and the practice of reciprocity, ayni, with the financial support of institutions that promoted a modern development ideal. On a practical level, the mestizaje model served to overcome a significant obstacle by drastically decreasing the costs of the kind of construction that the Belaúnde government had in mind. To live up to the motto El Perú construye (Peru builds), which was plastered on everything from the Tinajones dam to highways and municipality buildings, there had to be a way of securing unpaid labour. So in order to inculcate a pro-building ethic, boosters drew from a discourse of national integration that reproduced the myth of the “two Perus”. Invoking Jorge Basadre’s famous phrase, Cooperación Popular was meant to achieve the reconciliation of the creole Peru of the coast and the “deep Peru” of the sierra through the “modernization of the old traditional methods [from Peru’s] Incan legacy”.
Such inculcation also came from the universities where in August 1964 a program was initiated to send Lima’s educated youth, “like soldiers from a victorious army”, into Peru’s highland communities. Having spent two months in more than 150 communities of the sierra and the Amazon, 900 students represented the fruition of a pilot project that concluded in April 1965. They were also made one of the heroes of COOPOP’s development drama. Evoking the language of backwardness, these students were sent to the “forgotten towns” of Peru’s hinterland as missionaries, “soldiers” of a “modern crusade” to bring campesinos into national life and instill in them new habits. For instance, among the labours of COOPOP volunteers was instruction in health and hygiene, which was characterized as part of the effort to rid communities of shamanism, itself considered one of the obstacles posed by tradition. The efforts of the COOPOP university program are illuminating because they reveal COOPOP as much more than a construction program, they illustrate how closely interwoven indoctrination and construction were in the development drama.
The ways in which the eradication of so-called traditional practices fit into the 1960s development blueprint was most clearly demonstrated in a 1966 report on the activities of the third annual Cooperación Popular University Program. The report detailed the activities of 90 volunteers who worked in several communities in Puno during the early months of 1966. Yet apart from detailing the daily toil of these young volunteers, the report’s author took the liberty to pose a set of crucial questions that would shape the direction of the program: “To what point are a volunteer’s activities transcendental?” he asked, “In what way, by curing a wound, by restoring a school, by introducing an insecticide, or by teaching a grammar class, etc. is one orienting a community toward progress, toward the development that is, in the end, the core of this program’s action?” The author’s concern was that COOPOP’s activity, while effective in terms of practice, was failing to effect a change in the campesino’s mentality. Thus the report called for COOPOP volunteers to raise public awareness about what progress meant and how the campesino could involve him/herself in his or her own development. In this sense, the report and the Cooperación Popular University Program reflect a turning point in the COOPOP agenda, one in which development was not just something that could be built, but it was something that had to be taught.
Cooperación Popular projects were not just a way to join community labour with international aid in order to get things built. COOPOP initiatives were often seized upon and converted into a spectacle that put the Belaúnde brand of development on display. And if the didactic work of COOPOP volunteers was fed by the idea that they were introducing modernity into the countryside’s “forgotten towns”, the spectacle raised around community building projects was oriented toward inculcating that idea on a national scale.
To understand how spectacle was made of a municipal building or a branch road, one has to understand the campaign tactics of President Belaúnde, the politico errant who tried to build his legitimacy on the back of a mule and on the highways of the sierra. For based on his extensive travels and prolific writings, Belaúnde framed himself as the candidate who best understood how to effectively dismantle oligarchic rule and decentralize Peru’s state apparatus. Using a rhetoric of el pueblo, he gleaned support based on his demonstrated knowledge of “deep Peru”. The centrality of el pueblo fit into Belaúnde’s political discourse in two ways. First, the phrase pueblo por pueblo (town by town) became the mainstay of his campaign style. Rather than circumscribing his campaign efforts to the space of the Lima elite, he crisscrossed the countryside and, followed by cameras, used the “forgotten towns” to stage his political discourse. Second, a phrase that would come to embody the COOPOP ethic—el pueblo lo hizo (it was done by the people)—was made the trademark of his government’s efforts to decentralize and—along with the motto El Perú construye—was stamped on community projects across the country.
What is made evident by viewing images of the COOPOP spectacle, however, is the degree to which the narrative of popular cooperation was dependent on public rituals that accompanied Belaúnde’s visits from town to town. The image of Cooperación Popular was composed of subjects and objects that reflected the political platform of his Popular Action party and the epistemological position that informed his brand of development. As such, the COOPOP spectacle packaged images of construction and the transformation of landscapes together with images of campesinos working and coming together, all to produce a coherent picture that normalized notions of development and progress in which the reshaping of the earth’s surface was bound to the campesino’s advancement.