Peru: Conflict grows, government slumps

August 16, 2008

Political and social conflict continues to grow in Peru in the wake of a general strike against the neoliberal policies of President Alan Garcia's government, which saw much of the country paralysed on July 9.

Declaring themselves to be in a state of "permanent mobilisation", indigenous communities from more than sixty ethnic groups in the Amazon region shut down an oil pipeline operated by state-owned Petroperu in Loveta province, occupied the El Muyo hydroelectric power plant in Bagua province and blocked major highways and wharves affecting major mining companies on August 9.

The indigenous groups are demanding the annulment of 38 decrees issued by Garcia that threaten their ancestral territorial rights and facilitate the privatisation of communal lands.

The decrees are a requirement for the implementation of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States, approved on December 4. The FTA will allow for the penetration of mining companies into land previously run by indigenous communities.

Protests continue

A third day of protest on August 11 resulted in communities from Bajo Urubamba in southern Peru taking over drilling platforms, a helicopter port and buildings as part of a land dispute with transnational mining company Petroplus.

According to an August 11 Reuters report, Petroplus claimed that armed protesters entered the Pageroni A and B zones in lot 56 in the Camisea gasfields in Cuzco province and ordered the suspension of operations.

However, Walter Categari, an indigenous leader from Bajo Urubamba told El Comercio on August 12 that the action was peaceful and demanded that the government revoke the decrees, which he said put the very existence of the indigenous communities in danger.

On August 15 a regional strike also broke out in protest at government inaction in the department of Ica where, a year earlier, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake destroyed more than 37,000 homes in the coastal cities of Chincha and Pisco. Despite Garcia's promise of speedy reconstruction, the region remains devastated.

In response, interior minister Luis Alva Castro sent 100 extra police to the region and called on strikers to "respect order and private property". The government also issued an arrest warrant for General Confederation of Peruvian Workers (CGTP) Chincha leader, Guillermo Balbuena.

CGTP general secretary Mario Huaman said that the government was trying to intimidate the local population in order to impede the strike and was carrying out a "dirty war ... with the aim of crushing any political opposition or protest".

On a different tack, the president also declared August 15 to be a "national day of mourning", and promised to tour the devastated region.

However, protesters responded, "if the president ... comes here we are going to throw eggs, tomatoes, everything. His government has done nothing. We have been abandoned", reported on August 14.

In contrast, Reuters reported on August 12 that "the only president who has won hearts and minds here is Venezuela's socialist leader, Hugo Chavez", whose government responded to the earthquake with humanitarian aid and also donated 100 new three-bedroom houses in Chincha.

Support collapses

Garcia's popularity is in free fall, with the results of a survey by private polling company CPI released on August 11 showing only 20.3% of Peruvians approve of his record, down almost 12 percentage points from a CPI poll in May, which showed 32.2% support for the president.

The poll showed that a national average of 71.8% of Peruvians disapprove of the president, but in southern Peru, where 70% of the population lives in poverty, Garcia's disapproval rating has surged to 83.6%.

Steve Crabtree, writing for on August 6, pointed to a contradiction that illuminates the growing political tensions in Peru — a2007 Gallup Poll shows that almost half of Peruvians (49%) view themselves as more socialist than capitalist in their attitudes; with only 16% say they are more capitalist than socialist.

In southern Peru, a majority of residents (57%) say they personally are more socialist than capitalist. On the other hand, 45% of Peruvians view their country as more capitalist than socialist and only 24% say it is more socialist than capitalist.

Clearly Garcia's pro-US free market economic model is irreconcilable with the needs and interests of the majority of Peruvians — the workers, campesinos, indigenous communities and the poor — resulting in increasing unrest.

This political radicalisation occurs in the context of a continent-wide rebellion against neoliberalism, spearheaded by Venezuela's revolutionary process of progressive social change.

In particular, many Peruvians, 45% of whom are indigenous, look to neighbouring Bolivia for inspiration, where President Evo Morales, the country's first indigenous president, is leading a "democratic and cultural revolution" that is promoting the social inclusion of the poor indigenous majority.

Peru's indigenous organisations are aiming to create their own political project similar to Morales' Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party.

"We want a political instrument that is different from conventional parties. We are seeking a plurinational state that will include us", indigenous leader Miguel Palacin told IPS on May 29.

Mario Palacios, head of the National Confederation of Peruvian Communities Affected by the Mining Industry (CONACAMI), said the goal is to "elect a Peruvian Evo Morales", the IPS report continued.

The CGPT has also convoked a national "peoples assembly" on November 4 in order to unify the opposition forces.

The presidential elections are scheduled for 2011, however left-nationalist Ollanta Humala has called for a recall referendum to revoke Garcia's mandate.

The CPI poll showed that the centre-right mayor of Lima, Luis Casteneda, is the preferred presidential candidate with 18.8% support, closely followed by Humala, who was narrowly defeated by Garcia in the 2006 presidential elections, with 16.9%. Keiko Fujimori, daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori, is on 15.8%.

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