The Peruvian army officer, dictator-president, and politician Manuel Apolinario Odría Amoretti (1897-1974) was a war hero who seized the presidency. After eight years of authoritarian rule he surrendered his office, but he continued to influence the affairs of Peru through his personal political party.
Odría was born at Tarma, in the Central Andes, on November 26, 1897, to a middle-class family of Spanish, Italian, and Peruvian Indian ancestry. After graduation from a nearby public high school in 1915 he entered the Chorillos military academy in suburban Lima. Odría graduated four years later at the head of his infantry officers' class. A model, "scientific" soldier in an army striving for increased professionalism, he earned rapid promotion as a military educator and administrator. Odría taught at the military academy, attended the superior war colleges of both the army and the navy, and served as a staff officer with various army commands. During a month-long border war with Ecuador in 1941 Odría's brilliant direction of the army at the decisive Battle of Zarumilla on July 24 won him the laurels of a hero, a promotion to colonel, and a study tour of the United States. He returned to Peru as director of the army war college. Elevated to brigadier general in 1946, Odría was appointed army chief of staff.
At a time of great political unrest in 1947 civilian President José Luis Bustamante y Rivero appointed Odría minister of government and police. But the president and the general quarreled over measures to restrain the disruptive activities of Peru's largest political party, the labor-left American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA) of Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre, and Odría resigned from the cabinet early the following year. After the failure of a rebellion by a renegade faction of APRA on October 3, 1948, Odría denounced Bustamante for not dealing more firmly with the party and called for his ouster. The general soon gained support from other officers, who installed him as dictator on October 27, 1948.
Odría dismissed the congress and ruled by decree until 1950, when he staged an election. Although he violated the laws pertaining to presidential candidates and permitted only his name to appear on the ballot, Odría "won" a six-year term as "constitutional president." The subservient congress elected with him quickly promoted Odría to division general, the army's highest regular rank. A self-pro-claimed "socialist of the right," the general was a short, portly man with bulging eyes who disliked making speeches. "Deeds, Not Words" was his motto.
Odría's eight-year dictatorship, called the "Ochenio," was most notable for political repression and corruption. Employing a vague, sweeping internal security law which circumvented constitutional liberties, Odría harshly suppressed APRA, which he labelled a "Communist front," and stifled all meaningful opposition by his other critics. Official dishonesty pervaded the regime. Odría himself acquired a sumptuous mansion, a fleet of expensive automobiles, and a luxurious wardrobe. The dictator's extravagant lifestyle was scandalously inconsistent with his modest salary. Nevertheless, Odría posted some modest achievements. He purchased modern equipment for the armed forces, improved the social security system, and undertook an ambitious program of public works. Most laudable among the latter projects was the construction of 1,500 schools, many with large, modern auditoriums and playgrounds which doubled as community centers and parks.
Odría ended government economic controls instituted during World War II in favor of orthodox free-market policies. New laws favorable to foreign capital attracted large investments in the oil and copper-mining industries. These measures and, more important, a strong market for Peru's exports during the Korean War (1950-1954) brought a measure of prosperity to the nation's wealthy elite, the small middle class, and some urban workers. But Odría rejected calls for fundamental reforms to improve the condition of poor Peruvians, the vast majority of the population.
When the end to the Korean War brought economic recession, Odría's authoritarian excesses became less tolerable to the nation. Confronted by growing popular discontent and a series of military revolts, he permitted the election of a new president, conservative Manuel Prado y Ugarteche, in 1956. The former dictator now grouped his friends into the National Odriist Union (UNO), a party which appealed to Peru's more traditional conservatives and some urban workers who remembered the general's job-creating public works program. In the presidential election of 1963 Odría polled a poor third behind APRA's Haya de la Torre and Fernando Belaúnde Terry, the victor. Later that year Odría's wife, María Delgado de Odría, unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Lima.
During the Belaúnde administration (1963-1968) Odría's UNO formed a coalition with his former enemy APRA to thwart the president's reforms in congress. In 1968 a clique of radical army officers led by Gen. Juan Velasco Alvarado ousted Belaúnde and instituted a regime of sweeping reform. The military men who dominated the new government viewed Odría and his dictatorship as an embarrassment to the armed forces. Denied influence in the administration, the UNO disintegrated. General Odría died, largely forgotten, on February 18, 1974.
David P. Werlich's Peru (1978) traces Odría's career. A chapter on Odría in Tad Szulc, Twilight of the Tyrants (1959) is overly generous. David H. Zook's Zarumilla-Maranon (1964) treats Odría's service in the war with Ecuador.