Security was light, even casual, on the evening I visited Lima’s government palace. In his office with photographer Bill Allard and me, President Belaunde said:
“We have problems, yes, but we are hard at work on the solutions. We’ve already caught many of them. And economically we are entering a new era. Foreign investors are welcome again. We anticipate friendly relations with the U. S., but it must be a relationship of equals. And the press is free again. Some industries are being returned to private ownership. The rate of inflation has slowed.
“What’s more, we have 86 major projects planned or under way—a highway into the deep interior, irrigation systems, an oil pipeline, factories, steel mills, resettlement Quechua, Aymara. LITERACY: 73 percent. LIFE EXPECTANCY: 57 years, low for South America. GEOGRAPHY: Dominating the nation, the Andes rise with stupendous verticality to snowfields and glaciers at 6,768 meters (22,200 feet). They wall off the arid coast where little rain falls, Snowmelt from the Andes Feeds Rivers that cross the arid coastal plain and supply irrigation farmers. The moist eastern slopes of the Andes tumble to dank, humid, jungle lowlands whose rivers are the sole highways for transportation.
Peru lies atop an area where the Pacific Ocean crust slides beneath the continent, resulting in severe earthquakes and occasional volcanic eruptions.
HISTORY: For 20,000 years diverse Indian peoples have made their home in Peru; 7,700-year-old Palomar may be the oldest village in the Americas. The Incas were ruling from Cuzco when gold and silver lured the Spaniards, who considered the very word Peru synonymous with glittering riches; “Vale un Peer—worth a Peru—was long a phrase denoting anything of immense value. In 1824 Gen. Simon Bolivar’s forces ended Spanish rule on the continent.
GOVERNMENT: Peru has since been ruled largely by authoritarians. The election in 1980 of Fernando Belinda Terry gave democracy a chance. ECONOMY: Oil and minerals such as silver, zinc, gold, lead, iron, and copper from huge open-pit mines at Cajon and Toquepala dominate the export-oriented economy, with the United States the major customer. Recent drilling for oil in the jungle has upped proved reserves to 800 million barrels and led to the 800-million-dollar, 825-kilometer (513-mile) trans-Andean pipeline. Ongoing exploration has located phosphate deposits on the north coast and coal in the northern mountains. Manufacturing is the fastest growing sector of the economy, but agriculture remains the chief occupation, with sugar cane and cotton grown on the coast, coffee in the uplands, and gardening and ranching where possible.
He opened the office doors and led us into the cavernous hall outside. It was pitching dark. Presidential aides had stepped away momentarily, turning off the lights. We felt our way through the darkness, pushing into still another enormous room, equally black. It seemed passing strange to be there in the dark, groping for a light switch with the president of 17 million people.
At last two uniformed aides came running in, stammering apologies, and switched on the lights to reveal, in the center of the room, a model of a modern city.