By Jack Englehardt
Picture: Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre announces his candidacy for the 1931 Peruvian Presidential Election in Lima (photographer: unknown)
The geist of early nineteenth century Latin America was one of a world in motion, marked by mounting political unrest and profound social dislocation. This was a time of ideological innovation, when radical solutions rose to meet age-old anxieties over poverty, inequity, and oppression. No better case exists to illustrate this transnational junction in history than the Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (APRA) – the first truly continent-wide movement to cast off the shackles of Latin America’s colonial past. The apristas, guided for nearly sixty years by the messianic personality of Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre, were visionary not just in their radical politics, but in their cultivation of a distinctly American identity through broad networks of exile and agitation. In recounting the personal exodus of Haya de la Torre, this essay will situate APRA within the Pan-American heritage of Simón Bolívar and José Marti, and draw long-denied attention to its role in forming a truly popular ‘continental consciousness’.
From a young age, Haya de la Torre was sharply aware of the shortcomings of capitalism in his native Peru. Raised in the coastal town of Trujillo, he had witnessed the dramatic expansion of foreign-owned sugarcane enterprises in the early years of the twentieth century, and the ensuing displacement of local farmers and businessmen. In his college years, Haya de la Torre encountered the philosophy of José Carlos Mariátegui, whose indigenismo became one of APRA’s ideological trademarks. In his 7 Ensayos, Mariátegui had written that the Andean society of the Inca, with its communal ayllu system of agriculture, was inherently socialist, and thus a viable historical model to the Eurocentric models promoted by Marxist orthodoxy. It was, therefore, with a clear ideological precedent that Haya de la Torre organized the Peru’s first ‘popular universities’ as a student leader in 1921, bringing together workers and students through extension courses on union organization and Inca civilization. Haya de la Torre understood that none of the grand western ideologies then in vogue – Italian fascism, Russian communism, American liberal capitalism – were an adequate political formula for Latin America. Steeped in the indigenismo of Mariátegui, he viewed contemporary problems as rooted in a legacy of foreign-imposed models of society, economy, and governance. If native problems necessarily demanded native solutions, only committed hemispheric unity could build a policlasista coalition of peasants, intellectuals, and the middle classes behind the banner of Latin American salvation. From this point forward, opposition to ‘Yankee imperialism’ would be the raison d’être for APRA’s popular revolution.
Haya de la Torre, whose activism had landed him in prison, eventually worn out his welcome with the government of dictator Augusto Leguía, and was exiled from Peru in 1923. Frail from a hunger strike and virtually unknown outside of his home country, he boarded the German freighter Negada and made his way to Mexico. There, he would find refuge in the reformist administration of Álvaro Obregón, whose education ministry hired Haya de la Torre as an editor and liaison for the Mexican Federation of University Students. At a 1924 meeting of the Federation, Haya de la Torre unveiled a red and gold banner depicting a ‘United States of Indo-America’ from the Rio Grande to its Patagonian fringe. APRA had effectively been born, though its official ‘five-point’ platform of Indo-American political unity, action against imperialism, nationalization of land and industry, internationalization of the Panama Canal, and solidarity with the oppressed would come some time later. In Mexico – site of the first great social revolution of the twentieth century – Haya de la Torre would mingle with the likes of Diego Rivera and Gabriela Mistral, ingratiating himself with Latin America’s tastemakers and building a powerful audience for his lifelong project of hemispheric unity.
From Mexico, the exiled aprista traveled to Russia, where he studied the recent revolution and sharpened his resolve that scientific Marxism would be an inadequate tonic for a region whose proletariat had no class consciousness and remained in a state of pre-colonial feudalism. In Germany, he met with Albert Einstein, whose theory of relativity was used to argue that Latin America inhabited a unique space (environment) and time (stage of development) not captured in conventional theories. The philosophies of Marx, Hegel, and Kant belonged to the antiquated realm of Newtonian physics; APRA spoke for a future grounded in Einsteinian relativity. In England, Haya de la Torre took courses at Oxford and mingled with a constellation of European émigrés. In France, he presided over the first purely aprista meeting, where he denounced the ongoing United States intervention in Nicaragua. In Brussels, he served as a Latin American delegate to the International Congress against Colonial Oppression and Imperialism, before a rising international profile called him back to service in his native hemisphere.
Emboldened by the accolades of a captive European public, Haya de la Torre set off on a grand publicity tour through Central America in 1927, aiming to eventually link up with the revolutionary forces of Augusto César Sandino in Nicaragua. From Quetzaltenango in Guatemala to Santa Ana in El Salvador, Haya de la Torre was fêted by students and leftist groups, who formed new APRA national secretariats in his wake. The Peruvian’s oratorical skill and resonant message drew more than just adoring crowds, however, as anxious Central American governments began to take stock of the new insurgent ideology. In a dramatic standoff with the police in San Salvador, the timely intervention of Mexican diplomats was all that saved Haya de la Torre from court-martial and a likely sentence of death. The United States government, too, recognized the threat posed by APRA to its regional interests, and intervened directly to prevent Haya de la Torre from reaching a critical mass of public support. When the young agitator attempted to disembark from the ocean liner Phonecia in Panama, the US Canal Zone authorities refused him entry, quite literally shanghaiing him back into exile at the vessel’s next port of call in Bremen. Yet the damage had already been done – Haya de la Torre’s Middle American excursion received widespread coverage in the Latin American press, and inspired the passions of anti-imperialist colleagues who forcefully came to the Peruvian’s defense.
By the 1930s, APRA’s message of socialist revolution on American terms seemed more popular than ever. Haya de la Torre, described by a contemporary as “the most striking, picturesque, and exuberant personality in all Latin America,” had woven a scattered network of intellectuals into a pointed political movement with a strong grassroots support. APRA cells were established in cities as distant as Santiago (which boasted nearly a hundred émigrés) and Paris (whose modest aprista contingent was said to fit entirely on one sofa). Exponents of revolution like the poet Magda Portal – then the highest-ranked female political leader on the continent – captivated thousands in public addresses. Legendary journals, like Mariátegui’s Amauta (a Quechua term meaning ‘wise one’), disseminated APRA texts throughout the hemisphere. The transnational dimension of the aprismo ideology in this critical foundational periodcannot be emphasized enough – indeed, it was not until the fortuitous overthrow of Leguía’s regime in 1930 that APRA could legally return to its spiritual homeland.
Even though the movement had been outlawed for the better part of a decade, it proved to have a powerful hold on the disenfranchised Peruvian lower classes. The exiled Haya de la Torre was an instant contender for the presidency, and his celebrated repatriation became a generational spectacle. He was greeted by a mass-meeting at the Lima Hippodrome, attended by at least twenty thousand long-suffering countrymen. Though the Peruvian Aprista Party would narrowly lose the 1931 election to the conservative coalition of Luis Miguel Sánchez Cerro, it had already opened the floodgates for radical participation in the democratic process. Sánchez Cerro was so fearful of the common man’s allegiance to aprismo that he ordered the rifles of rank-and-file soldiers to be taken away at night, even at the frontline of the ongoing border war with Colombia. Locked in a bitter test of strength with the government, APRA was outlawed after a few short years, with its members persecuted and its leadership once again driven into exile. This period of intense suppression would force the movement underground until 1945, but it would fail to dilute the potency of aprismo’s distinctly Indo-American revolutionary doctrine. Just as it had under the Leguía regime, APRA flourished in exile, marketing itself as the philosophical vanguard of an increasingly agitated Latin American body politic.
For the remainder of the twentieth century, APRA would battle accusations from both political extremes that it was insufficiently radical – fascists viewed its anti-imperial streak with disdain, while communists criticized the movement’s toleration of capitalism and private property. The true innovation of aprimso ideology, then, lies not in its relation to Western doctrinaire philosophy, but the telling precedent that a positive Latin American identity could only rise from indigenous thought and popular action. With its Quechua songs and cheers, and cells named after Inca emperors, APRA vindicated a shunned pre-colonial past and became the first popular movement to call for the wholesale liberation of Indians, who for over four centuries had been political non-participants. APRA’s ambition to create a “maximum program” of sister cells spread throughout the Indo-American continent did not survive the ferment of the twentieth century, but it did lay the theoretical foundation for an impressive lineage of revolutionary discourse, affirming the diversity and power of the Latin American voice.
It was not until 1985 that the Peruvian Aprista Party – most durable of all APRA national secretariats – would finally come to power under the leadership of Alan García. The prophetic Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre did not live to see his project actualized – he died in 1979, still at the helm of the movement – but his stewardship of the Latin American left through a tumultuous century would reap dividends. Now forgotten to many outside of Peru, Haya de la Torre was, for sixty years, the emeritus philosopher of the whole Latin American revolution. His remarkable experiment in native radicalism matched and surpassed the political vision of the greatest émigré statesmen of his day, and deserves to be held to the same far-sighted standard as Lenin, Trotsky, and Marx.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of the St Andrews Economist.
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