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A brief history of Peru

Peru is a country of extremes of climate: the arid Pacific coast on the west, the Amazon rain forest in the east, and the rugged, snow-capped Andes running down the middle. The Peruvian Andes have been home to humans for some 20,000 years. At the time of the Spanish conquest (1532), the Inca empire (centered in Peru but including what is now Ecuador, Bolivia and half of Chile) had a population of about 12 million people. In the first century of Spanish domination the population declined by 80 percent due to forced labor, malnutrition, and the introduction of diseases such as smallpox and measles. Until well into the 18th century the area the Spanish administered from Peru included all of South America except Brazil and Venezuela. Due to the vast territory and the gold and silver production, Peru was by far the most important colony of the Spanish empire. Peru declared its independence in 1821 and, with the help of General San Martín of Argentina and Simón Bolívar of Venezuela, the Spanish were defeated in 1824.

In the postwar era Peru has struggled from crisis to crisis. Two-thirds of the population now live in cities, and a third of the population live in greater Lima, which is 10 times larger than the second-largest city. Economically Peru relies on exporting raw materials, such as precious metals, minerals and timber.

A coup in 1968 brought a junta of progressive military officers to power that instituted agrarian reform, nationalized whole industries, extended education to the countryside, and allowed Quechua and Aymara to be used in indigenous schools. In 1985 the young and charismatic Alan García was elected president. He shocked the world by refusing to send more than 10 percent of export earnings as repayment for the country’s $14 billion foreign debt. The IMF retaliated by making Peru ineligible for further loans, and the Peruvian economy slid deeper into the abyss.

During the 1980s the Shining Path, MRTA, and other revolutionary groups fought a civil war with the Peruvian government in which extreme violence and horrific abuses of human rights became commonplace. Under President Fujimori the government controlled the terrorism, but in the process Peru became one of the hemisphere's worst offenders of human rights.

Recently Peru has seen growth in its economy as mineral prices and non-traditional agricultural exports have soared. High unemployment continues causing a growing feeling of discontent by many sectors of the population, particularly young people. The question remains as to how much, and in what ways, the prosperity will be shared with the two-thirds of Peruvians who remain poor.

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