Peru's President a Benevolent Dictator—Fearless, Far-Seeing
By A. Hyatt Verrill
Beautiful Modern Capital, Schools, Public Works and a Statesmanlike Foreign Policy All Due to This Romantic Mussolini of Latin America
Christian Science Monitor, Nov 11, 1929; Pg. 15. Researched by Alan Schenker; digitized by Doug Frizzle, October, 2011.
One of the biggest men in South America today, and the best friend the United States ever had in Latin America, is Señor Augusto Leguia, the President of Peru. President Leguia has been called a dictator and a tyrant. No one conversant with the facts and conditions doubts that he is a dictator, and he himself would probably not deny the fact. But this seems to be an era of dictators, and if the present occupant of the Palace of Pizarro in Lima set the fashion it is all the more to his credit. Certainly his country has prospered amazingly under his dictatorship. But no one who knows President Leguia can honestly accuse him of being a tyrant. It is true that at times he uses an iron hand and drastic measures, but such seem yet essential at times, for his own safety and the peace of his country.
Personally he is a gentle, lovable, kindly and most "simpatico" man; a man thoroughly human and broad-minded; a man ready to give his time and his ear to any and every complaint, and anxious to see justice done; a man whose proud boast is that the most humble of his people may have audience with him; a man of tremendous vitality, of inexhaustible energy, of marvelous mentality, a man absolutely lacking fear, possessing great personal charm, a keen sense of humor; a man fond of the pleasures and good things of life; a born ruler, a clever diplomat; a thoroughly good business man, a brilliant financier and the beloved idol of 99 per cent of his countrymen.
With all these qualities—and more—Leguia is in many respects, perhaps in all respects, the most remarkable man that Latin America has ever produced. Like all Latin-American politicians, he has had his ups and downs, he has been both an "in" and an "out." But unlike others, his years of exile were devoted, not to plotting and planning revolutions, but to studying other lands and people, learning the secrets of their success, familiarizing himself with their finances, methods, business, politics, customs and languages. Hence, when the time was ripe, he stepped into power fully equipped for one of his most difficult tasks that ever faced a president of a Spanish-American republic.
At the time he took charge, Peru was in a state of chaos. It was torn by political unrest, was industrially, financially and economically at the lowest ebb. Nothing was stable, nothing could be counted upon, there seemed to be no future. There were no roads worthy of the name. Communication and transportation were primitive, and each district was, to more or less extent, a sort of independent political state. The country was undeveloped, backward, in debt and primitive, while the capital, Lima, was at that time a dirty, unsanitary city with horrible streets, no decent hotel and separated from Callao, the seaport, by a tedious trip of more than an hour.
Today Peru is one of the most prosperous if not the most prosperous of Latin-American countries. Lima is one of the most charming and attractive cities in the New World. It is perhaps the cleanest city in Latin America, its streets are concrete or asphalt, it boasts one-way traffic, red and green traffic signals and the finest hotel in South American outside Buenos Aires, its million-dollar Country Club is famous; there are 10 and even 15-story office buildings; and two concrete motor highways bring Callao within 15 minutes of the city. Throughout the country there are good roads; motor busses run regularly to cities and towns 100 miles from the capital; a network of splendid concrete highways connects Lima with neighboring towns, and regular mail and passenger air lines make possible rapid communication with the most remote districts. Vast areas of sterile desert land have been brought under cultivation by immense irrigation systems, and the largest irrigation project in the world is now being carried out. The hapless condition of tens of thousands of Indians has been vastly improved. They have been allotted lands, have been provided with schools, and have been given the rights promised them by the constitution but which they have never before enjoyed.
The port of Callao is being provided with the finest docks in South America. Stupendous sums are being expended everywhere for education, sanitation, road building and public improvements, and all this and more has been accomplished solely through the efforts of President Leguia, while perhaps most laudable of all that he has accomplished was the settlement of the long-pending, apparently insoluble problem of Taena and Arica, a bone of contention that kept Chile and Peru at daggers' points for years—the spark that at any instant might kindle the flames of war throughout South America, and that kept the two neighboring republics from an interchange of commerce.
If such deeds are those of a dictator, then, say I, may more Latin-American republics acquire dictators to shape their destinies—provided they are of Leguia's type, if another such may be found!
Leguia is well past 60, and the hardest-working man in Peru. He receives, entertains, attends public and private functions until two or three in the morning, and he is back on his job by six. How he does it is one of the greatest mysteries in Peru. Like so many great men, he is small physically, yet he does not give that impression, for one completely forgets his proportions in his overwhelming personality and his remarkable charm. Yet there is no hint of formality, egotism nor aloofness about him. His manner is always that of an intimate friend. He detests formality, and his harty handclasp instantly puts one at ease and inspires confidence. Neither are his features nor his expression what one might expect in a man of his power and attainments. His mouth is mobile and smiling under a close-clipped white moustache; his voice is soft and well modulated; his brown eyes twinkle with vitality and humor. But in the depths of those eyes there is an intangible something that seems to see into one's very purposes and to read one's innermost thoughts. I cannot imagine anyone looking into President Leguia's eyes and having either the desire or the temerity to at tempt to deceive him.
But perhaps his most outstanding characteristic is his courage I do not believe he knows the meaning of the word fear. Time and time again, when he has been warned of some plot to assassinate him, he has openly defied his enemies and has dared them to carry out their nefarious designs. On one occasion he was advised not to appear in public during the annual carnival, owing to danger that threatened him. As a result, he drove everywhere, unattended, unguarded, in an open car, bowing and smiling, showered with confetti and serpentine—in which a dozen bombs might have been concealed—and was everywhere greeted with cheers and thunderous applause.
Another time he was warned an attempt upon his life would be made when he crossed the Plaza de Armas on his return to the palace. His friends begged him to take another route, to go secretly and heavily guarded. Instead, he dismissed his guard, and sauntered openly across the plaza. And the Peruvians never tire of telling how, when Leguia was at one time temporarily an "out" and had been made a prisoner by the "ins." he was driven—exhibited like a captive beast—through the streets to the Plaza Colon where, surrounded by soldiers, he was halted while his captors harangued the vindictive mob which clamored for a chance to do away with him. Suddenly in the midst of the oratory, the prisoner snapped out an order. Instantly at his words, the soldiers—long accustomed to obey him—threw carbines to shoulders, and aiming at the revolutionary leaders, they awaited Leguia's orders to fire. But the order never came. The revolution was over. The amazed, terrified leaders who, a moment before, had been boasting of their triumph, surrendered and begged for mercy, while the temperamental mob cheered as lustily for Leguia as they had previously shouted against him.
Very largely it is his fearlessness that so endears him to his people. Thousands do not appreciate his ability, do not care for progress, or are disgruntled politicians who decry his regime. But there are none who do not understand and appreciate bravery.
Best Friend of United States
President Leguia has proved himself the best friend or the United States in Latin America. Wherever possible, all public works and contracts have been placed with United States firm. Every inducement has been made to attract United States investments and enterprises to Peru. There are American officers in his navy, naval vessels are built in the United States, and many government positions of great responsibility are filled by United Slates citizens.
President Leguia never misses an opportunity to denounce the anti-American propaganda being constantly spread in Latin America, and he openly and publicly expresses the admiration and friendship for our country and people. While I was chatting with him one afternoon, the conversation turned to the difficulties between our Government and Panama in regard to the pending treaty.
"All I can say," observed Leguia, "Is that I only wish Peru were 2000 miles nearer the United States."
On another occasion, at the formal opening of the Country Club, he stated publicly that those who spread anti-American propaganda were charlatans, and were greater enemies of their own countries than of the United States.
Even in its present state, Peru still needs Leguia to such an extent that loss of him would be in the nature of a national calamity, a far reaching calamity, that might affect every Latin-American Republic, the United States and possibly Europe.
In many ways President Leguia stands unique. One American, after meeting him, declared he was the Mussolini of South America. But cannot agree with him. Rather, should say, Mussolini is the Leguia of Italy.