Adopting a centre-left reforming image, Peruvian President Ollanta Humala was narrowly elected last year on the back of widespread discontent with destructive neoliberal development policies and a widening wealth gap.
His supporters were filled with the hope that real and substantive change was imminent. Other progressives welcomed the Humala victory more cautiously, arguing that it was at least the lesser of two evils. The alternative was ultra right-winger Keiko Fujimori.
Huge international pressure was immediately applied on the president-elect with a “radical” past. Humala was reminded in hectoring terms by Washington and the business press that Peru’s export economy was dependent on the mining sector. These forces insisted the pace of extractive operations should be hugely expanded.
Having already made a deal with these profit-hungry forces to become a more “respectable” and corporate media-friendly candidate, Humala obliged them further by appointing a cabinet whose economic posts were filled with veteran neoliberal ideologues and agents of corporate power.
At the same time, Humala continued to promise his electoral base that future development projects would be “sustainable” and only carried out with the consent of affected communities after an extensive process of negotiation and consultation.
The question that remained unresolved was whether communities would be able to simply say “no” to environmentally destructive mega-projects. In recent months, it has become dramatically apparent that “locking the gate” is not an option in Humala’s Peru, even when an overwhelming majority of residents are fundamentally opposed.
It is estimated by the Peruvian ombudsman that at least 195 citizens lost their lives at the hands of Peruvian security forces between 2006 and 2011.
The number is rising under Humala, who, while yet to reach the extremes of his predecessor Alan Garcia, has taken his first presidential steps into the river of blood which waters the Peruvian political cycle.
Late last year, US-based mining company Newmont suspended plans for its proposed copper and gold Conga mine in the northern Peruvian department of Cajamarca.
For a few months, it seemed there was a slim chance that sanity might prevail, but Newmont announced in late June it would press ahead with the controversial development.
As a consequence of its operation, Conga will convert precious sources of agricultural water into dumps for toxic mining by-products.
Having already established itself as one of the most destructive companies operating in Peru, Newmont’s new project will drive thousands more farmers off their land.
Responding to mass protests that have mobilised almost the entire population in some areas, the regional government of Cajamarca has unequivocally opposed the project from the start.
In response, the Humala administration has made a great show of extracting some environmental concessions from Newmont. Yet the Lima-based government remains committed to the US$4.8 billion project, which it claims will generate employment opportunities and increase tax revenue.
After a year in office, Humala has now lost patience with “intransigent” anti-mining protesters in Cajamarca. A tipping point has been reached and the historic tendency of the Peruvian state to resolve disputes with lethal force is now reasserting itself.
Humala’s hardline Prime Minister, Oscar Valdes, has ordered Peruvian security forces to employ more aggressive tactics when dealing with protesters. This led to an upsurge of violence in June and July.
In a series of events reminiscent of the Garcia years, five Cajamarceno protesters were killed. Dozens more were injured. One of the victims, 29-year-old Jose Antonia Sanchez Huaman, was shot in the mouth on July 3 in the courageously defiant Cajamarca pueblo of Celendin.
In Espinar, near Cusco, where another long-standing dispute between local residents and a global mining giant (Xstrata) has been running, two protesters were killed in clashes with police in late May. Rodicendo Manuelo Puma, from the agricultural community of Totora Alta, took a police bullet in the chest and died instantly.
Since Humala’s assumption of power, at least 12 protesters have been killed by security forces. The attitude of the Peruvian state towards indigenous anti-mining protesters has always been that their provincial “cholo” lives are worthless and expendable.
They can be arrested arbitrarily, savagely beaten in custody, even shot and killed on behalf of multinational corporations with almost total impunity.
It was only a matter of time before Humala declared a semi-permanent “state of emergency” and pulled the trigger on behalf of the market.
Humala, whose standing in the polls has been dipping, replaced Valdes with a new, more conciliatory cabinet boss Juan Jimenez on July 24. However, the fundamental problem remains unresolved. It will remain so for as long as the Peruvian political establishment remains beholden to neoliberal forces.
As regional president of Cajamarca Gregorio Santos has said: “Newmont and the World Bank are devoid of human feeling, these deaths do not matter at all to them.”
Humala’s latest cabinet shuffle is merely “putting patches on the problem”, Santos said.