The year 1879 was a time of “nights that would never [be] erase[d] from Peruvian memory,” the epoch of “dismal nights of darkness and blood,” and the year when Chile declared the Pacific War on both Bolivia and Peru, starting an international conflict that would last until 1883.1 By then, Chile had become the champion of economic stability and the most powerful South American country along the Pacific Ocean, while Peru had been experiencing the struggles of disunity, “each day more pronounced […] within the country, weakening it progressively.”2 Indeed, caudillismo had taken over Peru, fracturing democratic institutions as military and oligarchic leaders initiated their political careers with greed and megalomaniac aspirations. In such a country, war only led to personal quarrels, amidst which several Ministers of the Treasury identified their bleak journeys toward avoiding the country’s fiscal collapse. José María Químper was the third of those ministers.
His two predecessors had witnessed the schemes of the Peruvian Congress, which pushed against several reforms and financial plans proposed by the ministry. Rafael Izcúe resigned for several reasons, and Emilio Solar locked himself in his office for eight days, where he studied every relevant document, analyzed the situation, and resigned without hesitation.3 When the government asked Quimper for a third time to accept the position, he was the only one who could step into the role of Minister of Treasury. It was a “moment of true anguish for the country: the fiscal entries of the State were empty, the Southern Army lacked even the most basic things for their sustenance, the Northern one was close to dissolution because of a lack in daily aid and the Navy suffered all sorts of deprivation.”4 For more than two days, the other candidates had dismissed the treasury’s position, and Químper finally understood the fears they had regarding the ministry. The fiscal income, originally 58,000 sterling pounds per month, had decreased to 33,000; the Salitre Company was unwilling to follow the guidelines of a contract it had signed three weeks prior; guano-trade consignees from Mauricio, Cuba, and the U.S. had already lent enough; and all the money derived from the national loan had already been invested.5 Despite his awareness of the opposition he would face from Congress—which, “due to political and party reasons, should be hostile to [him]”—Químper accepted the charge.
Quimper’s mission was to prevent the urgent crisis. He did so within a week, gathering 1.731 million soles from various sources and through once-in-a-lifetime schemes. In his own words, “After several years, every militia had been paid for the first time,” a significant feat considering the miserable state of Lima’s army.6 However, the Legislature desired confrontation, so it summoned Químper four days after his appointment for an inquiry of forty questions regarding his financial plan. This inquiry was the confirmation of a political and internal war.
In four days, Químper wrote a project contradicting all Peruvian elites: his memoir of August 1, 1879. Whether or not he was inspired by Condorcet’s famous proposals in the First French Republic, the fact is that Químper proposed taxing personal capital at a proportional 2-percent rate. As he explained, hopeful, “the arbitrary contribution on capital will not find any obstacle before patriotism and before the proverbial generosity of our countrymen; for I have information, and lots of, for believing that they will gladly contribute, with a small portion of their fortune, to the maintenance of honor, integrity, and the highest interests of Peru.”7 It was an unprecedented measure, “painfully necessary in the present state of War.” According to his memoir, this tax was the most likely solution for Peru’s financial crisis:
“The product of the tax on capital, joined to that of the contributions created by the preceding Ministry, and to the ordinary income of the Nation, could be enough… to satisfy the indispensable expenses of the War.”8
Nonetheless, he had fears. In the same project, indeed, Químper had attached other proposals, in case the taxing strategy did not end well. First, he asked for a loan (either exterior or interior) of 500,000 pounds, and then he proposed reorganizing the fiscal spending of the income derived from the guano and salitre trade.9 After making his proposal, however, an evaluation commission went to Químper’s office and told him that they preferred an income tax as opposed to a tax on capital, at a similar 2-percent rate. Químper, in his memoirs, recalls agreeing to the idea, as long as the real value derived from the income tax equaled the 2-percent rate on personal capital.10 His submission, however, masked his momentary forgetfulness, for when he said ‘yes’ to the commission, he said ‘yes’ to accepting the unfeasibility of his first project. After all, an income tax already existed in Peru, and Químper had considered such a contribution when building his fiscal project. Additionally, his prudence and insecurities may have stemmed from the fact that provincial boards—in charge of collecting the taxes—were comprised of property owners and the best educated people of each province, which constituted a conflict of interests when it came to collecting taxes from their peers and paying taxes themselves.11 Moreover, the cadastre (a governmental register of the quantity, monetary value, and ownership information of real estate used in apportioning taxes) and the census lacked sufficient and regular updating.
The state of war presented a clear problem. The nation needed the rich, and it had almost no experience enforcing the law on the rich. This problem was ingrained in the second proposal of Quimper, that of a national loan, which would be approved—with some changes—by the legislature and put into action with Químper out of the ministry:
“It was negotiated with the Guarantee Bank, [following] the decree of September 2 of 1879, the loan of a million soles for the necessities of the war; but as the bank’s reserves did not hold such an amount, we invoked the rich men of Lima, sending them missives, asking for their subscription. The answers of these gentlemen were as usual: some alleged the bad rentier state that was overwhelming them; others referred to their properties as generating no profit; others mentioned that the Treasury was too rich to invoke individuals; others offered government bonds; others said they were waiting for some liabilities; and, overall, they denied the alms that motherland pried for.”12
Hence, Químper’s plan was doomed from its conception, and little is known about whether he had foreseen its failure when writing it down. The truth is, in the presence of the Senate, Químper was verbally attacked by numerous orators, and they waited for him to leave the room before supposedly beginning the debate on the treasury’s project; some of them expressly complained about having allowed Químper in while they were about to debate the project.13 In such a manner, “Days passed and one month passed without them paying attention to [the proposals].” The Senate kept requiring him for more sessions in which he was expected to answer some inquiries, but Químper refused to attend the meetings due to Article 103 of the Constitution, which states that the ministry’s absence from a meeting about the treasury’s future is justified if there is no written conclusion or decision published by the legislature in regards to the ministry’s proposal.14 He only attended one meeting held on August 11, in which he was said to have declared that the army was in perfect condition, that the treasury shone in fullness, and that the country was in a good position.15 To this day, such an expression of dishonesty is hard to explain for many. Had it been due to an offended pride or to mere fear, time will tell.
By the end of August, the Board of Directors and Monitoring of the Fiscal Issuance reported to the executive body, having discovered 1.360 million clandestinely issued soles in the books of the National Bank. Químper acted rapidly and demanded an immediate repayment in the hopes of gaining extra monetary aid for the war, with which the National Bank executives seemed to agree.16 In doing so, he opted for prioritizing the reimbursement of the money for the country over the judicial procedures the responsible party was expected to go through. Químper did not want the issue to come out to the public media or leaked to Congress because of the great disturbance it could cause. The Senate gathered in a secret meeting on August 22, hours after Químper had arranged the reimbursement, and it ordered his presence in the Chamber. The bank creditors, aware of Químper’s plans, pushed against the repayment, which led to a public declaration of the bank addressing the impossibility of issuing a reimbursement. Químper went to the Senate in the midst of the crisis and waited for over an hour in an empty atrium. The first arrangements for an impeachment were taking place.
On August 27, he stated in a missive to the Senate, which then leaked to the public, that “since Friday 29 of the current [year] the Reserve Army will lack daily aid, and since that date I will not be able to send any help to the Southern militia.” The aforementioned day came and Químper faced the Senate. The tax on personal capital was finally debated and subsequently denied. While he argued in favor of the rest of his project, he realized how lonely he was, how those he used to deem friends turned their back on him, and how the speakers accused him of “placing the country at the edge of the abyss” and of “being part of a government that defended crime.” After leaving, Vice President Luis De La Puerta appeared in Químper’s office to ask him when he was going to resign. Químper answered by clarifying that he had already written the document, but he would try to send some help to the Southern soldiers first. An impeachment vote met the minimum quorum in the Senate, arguing that Químper committed treason because of his declarations of August 27. Químper resigned without hesitation. He remembers the people protesting against his impeachment as he left his office, “jaded by so much hostility and injustice,” and he could finally see the faces of those poverty-stricken people he had helped. Whether it came to his mind earlier or maybe later, Químper was close to convinced that Peru was “fatally and irreversibly doomed to its defeat.”17
In the upcoming months, two ministers of the treasury assumed the charge and then resigned. Juan Francisco Pazos, the replacement of Químper, showed the first signs of the government’s submission, accepting some measures proposed by the legislature on the emission of paper, which this body fully supported, while the government defended metallic. Pazos proposed ways of combining both postures, but indifference from the Chamber forced him to resign. Afterward, Viterbio Arias advocated for the derogated law that prohibited the exportation of silver, but his attempts as minister were a failure. Químper was then called for a second term, and he accepted with few hopes. During his second term, he dismissed his original proposals, embracing entirely the pro-emission position of the legislature, and adapted himself to the unfortunate reality. He raised the annual income tax, by then adjusted to an annual 5-percent, to 10-percent. He also managed to gather 12 million soles bills for the treasury, which converted to 750 thousand sterling; accumulated 1.5 million pounds of credit in Europe; refrained agiotage by regulating the industry of promissory notes on foreign countries, impeding the speculators from selling or negotiating a note written by a third party; and paid 1.7 million to the army.
Catastrophe occurred, and a revolution took over the government. The leader was Nicolás de Piérola, and the revolt could be described “in two words: there was in Lima an army of 20 thousand soldiers; out of them, 19900 were betrayers.” Peru needed three more months to accumulate 2 million sterling in Europe as exterior credit, which amounted to four armored ships, six gunboats, one squad of torpedo boats, and armament and munition for around 100,000 soldiers, three more months to gather 49 million soles bills to be used in an army of 50,000 men during sixteen months.18 According to Peruvian historian Paz Soldán, “on the fateful day of December 21, Peru had enough elements to repel the Chilean invasion, with many great chances of victory…”19
Químper accepted destiny, and witnessed the catastrophes of the Chilean invasion. On a Tuesday night, during the nineteenth hour of the day, two police officers took him to jail. All the contributions and taxes were banned by the new dictatorship. In a matter of four months, 40,000 men had become 29,000; the 49 million soles bills destined for the army turned into 20 million with the depreciation of the soles bill; and Lima fell under the rule of Chile.
“Sinister nights were those of the 15th and the 16th [of January]: the city without light increased the sorrow of its inhabitants, houses were closed for homeland duel, every spirit united in a great sense of consternation, women crying at the feet of sanctified images… men, impotent, rebelling against the adverse fate, as in the great calamities, recognizing that the last battle had occurred and that everything was lost…”20
Químper had the same fears as every Peruvian, and he succumbed to the gloom of the nation. However, it was also he who had the hope and the bravery of any fractious character when he proposed a tax that could save the country, which was at its core a measure that could help construct a more equal society. It was he who suffered the opposition of all the elites, he who would live with resignation the life of a political ideologist, and he who would then die alone in silence, forgotten. But in 1879, José María Químper dared to be one of the first voices of a Peruvian generation that would surge from beneath the harshness of poverty and inequality by demanding justice, a generation that until this day longs for a different country.
Endnote: This article does not aim to build an idyllic character of Químper. Químper would later be involved in a corruption case that occurred in the late 1860s, when Mariano Ignacio Prado ruled over Peru as the head of a military dictatorship. Químper’s posture on taxation was relatively conservative as well, if we were to compare it to those in countries such as France or Sweden. Indeed, Químper would advocate for the progression of taxes only in his ideological opus magnum Derecho Político General, and the tax on personal capital would be completely forgotten. In 1886, when he wrote the text, he was in the process of leaving the political arena. He also succumbed to the trite position of sanctifying the ownership of private property by employing arguments that could be found in the Bible, the Rig Veda, and the Quran. He declared himself a fervent opponent of communism.