While Peru’s government lauds advances in negotiations with Amazon jungle leaders, the rest of the country swells under a wave of protests, strikes and violence. Yesterday, Prime Minister Yehude Simon emerged from the talks all huggy and smiley with the ‘Apus’ - the spiritual and religious leaders of Peru’s Amazonian peoples. Basking in an uncharacteristically warm and fuzzy mood, Simon proclaimed that ‘peace’ has returned to Peru’s northern Amazon.
Unfortunately, it would be premature to uncork the champagne and begin celebrations. While Peru’s government focuses on progress in the Amazon, the country’s Andean mountain and coastal regions are plagued with levels of civil unrest not seen since the 1980s (when current President Alan Garcia last held the reigns of power. History does have a nasty tendency of repeating.)
On July 1st, a bus carrying passengers to the tourist mecca of Cuzco tried to cross a road block mounted by farmers in a rural community along the route. Police intervened and attempted to force protesters off the highway to let the bus pass. The farmers resisted and the police fired bullets into the crowd. Several protesters were wounded, and one of the farmers, a local leader, was shot dead. Angered by the death of their leader, by the police aggression and a long history of government abuse, the crowd fought back with sticks and stones. The police captain was gravely wounded and had to be evacuated to the state capital of Cuzco for emergency surgery.
The incident occurred in the southern province of Chumbivilcas, which has been in a state of ‘indefinite strike’ for the past two weeks, to protest against mining explorations by foreign companies. Over 70 per cent of the province is under mining concession, including a considerable portion of communal land.
Last year President Garcia passed a series of special decrees making it easier for foreign companies to purchase communal land owned by indigenous or farming communities. Peru is the world’s top silver miner and a major producer of gold, copper, zinc and other metals. But leaders from Peru’s mining communities say the promised benefits from mining have not ‘trickled down’ to local people, and mining zones remain among the country’s poorest regions. Nearly 40 per cent of Peru’s population lives in poverty, on less than $2 a day, despite exporting billions annually in precious metals.
The Chumbivilcas violence echoes the recent June 5th Bagua massacre, when police commandos tried to break up a peaceful roadblock in Peru’s northern Amazon. The official government count maintains that 24 police officers and 10 civilians were killed, but indigenous leaders and human rights groups say that up to 100 civilians are missing. Rumours abound of a government cover-up of the massacre, and local journalists reported bodies being dumped in rivers and mass graves. (See ‘Brutality in Bagua‘ and ‘Calling for heads to roll’).
The Amazon protests were sparked by Garcia’s special decrees - the same laws that led to the strike in Chumbivilcas. In response to the international outcry after the massacre, Peru’s government revoked two of the most controversial laws, but dozens of other new laws favouring foreign oil, mining and gas companies remain.
The protest in Peru’s Amazon has opened a gusher of civil unrest, with protests springing up across the country on a variety of issues. On 30 June the capital city of Lima ground to a halt as transport operators held a one day strike. Buses were non-existent and the few private taxis in circulation were charging passengers exorbitant fares, leaving the majority of the city’s nearly 8 million inhabitants stranded.
To the east, in the mountain province of Sicuani, the regional government continues its indefinite general strike against a vast array of ills. The strike began over two weeks ago, and it seems nearly everyone in Sicuani is ticked off at the government. The list of demands has grown from the original protest against privatizing a hydro-electric project to include treatment of public school teachers, privatization of water resources, mining concessions and the President’s general ineptitude. (Leaders in Sicuani have called for Garcia’s resignation).
Road and highway blockades in Sicuani have cut off the state capital of Cuzco from its most important ground transportation route. Gas is now scarce in Cuzco (where I live), giving rise to a lucrative black market in the fuel.
Other central and southern Andean provinces maintain protests and blockades, and the government has called for a series of regional negotiations.
Meanwhile, communities throughout Peru are preparing for a nationwide strike planned for July 7 - 9. The strike is supported by many regional governments as well as Peru’s largest worker’s union and numerous civil society groups. The government, apparently unable to kick the habit of stepping in its own excrement, has declared the strike illegal and says workers that fail to report for duty will be sanctioned.
President Alan Garcia refuses to accept responsibility for the recent civil uprisings, and instead blames the violence on ‘an international conspiracy’ to destabilize his government. According to Garcia, everything and everyone from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to foreign charity organizations to Swine Flu has united against him.
Paranoia complexes aside, Garcia does well to worry. During his first government (1985-1990), Peru was plunged into massive hyper-inflation and suffered daily violence from a civil war between left-wing guerrillas and the government. Peru’s Truth Commission estimates that more than 69,000 Peruvians were killed or disappeared during the 20-year conflict, and the Garcia years were among the most bloody. Human rights organizations have accused Garcia of numerous violations during his first reign, including a prison massacre. The recent sentencing of ex-President Alberto Fujimori to 25 years in prison for human rights abuses sets a precedent that Garcia can not have failed to miss.
Not only is Garcia in danger of going down in history as one of Peru’s most reviled presidents (twice!), but he could also face trial for injustices committed during his first term, as well as the recent Bagua massacre. That’s enough to make any cowardly president search the skies for global conspiracies and other scapegoats.