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PERU: Escalating Conflicts Put Pres. Garcia on the Spot

Milagros Salazar

LIMA, Jul 12 2007 (IPS) - Three people dead, several injured, and fire at an airport: the results of a wave of protests in Peru, regarded as the worst social crisis since Alan García became president nearly one year ago. Thousands of teachers, workers and peasant farmers continued the mobilisation Thursday.

“The people who are protesting are desperate because the economy is growing but nothing in their lives has improved. Their demands will continue until wealth is better distributed,” Víctor Gorriti Candela, deputy chief of the General Confederation of Peruvian Workers (CGTP), told IPS.

The workers are demanding that the government enforce labour laws, eliminate outsourcing of services, tax high mining profits, revise the free trade agreement with the United States, and give workers the freedom to opt out of the private pensions system, among other actions promised by García during his electoral campaign.

With the first anniversary of his term of office only 16 days away, thousands of Peruvians are calling García to account. Workers and social organisations crowded the streets and plazas of Lima on Wednesday, while strong protests also took place in the southern regions of Cusco, Arequipa, Puno, Tacna and Moquegua.

In an attempt to restore order, the government has deployed more than 15,000 police throughout the country, and has authorised the armed forces to intervene to prevent protesters from taking control of public buildings.

The first victim of the escalating protests was a 13-year-old girl who was killed during clashes between police and teachers in the southern Andean region of Apurímac.

In a jungle area in the central Andean region of Junín, farmer Alcides Huamaní Rivero was shot to death by the owner of a store where weapons were sold. The owner was trying to prevent a group of protesters from entering his shop. The government Ombudsman’s Office reported that eight other people were wounded in the incident.

A teacher died Wednesday night in the Lima hospital that admitted her last Friday. She had been beaten by police, according to spokespersons for the striking teachers.

Teachers have been on strike for better pay and in opposition to reforms affecting their education and careers.

In the context of the social uprising, about 5,000 strikers occupied the international Manco Cápac airport in Juliaca on Wednesday. They set fire to furniture, office equipment and local workers’ houses, in spite of the presence of nearly 300 police who attempted to contain the protesters.

In the central Andean region of Ayacucho, the governor of Huanta province, Erick Montero, was held hostage for five hours by members of the Regional Defence Front (FDR).

The strikers demanded an apology from Montero for President García’s remarks, two days earlier, in which he had said that the striking teachers were “resentful, fault-finding parasites” who didn’t want to go and teach their classes.

Teachers belonging to the Unified Trade Union of Education Workers of Peru (SUTEP) went on strike in public schools to protest the approval of a law on teachers’ education, which the government argues will improve education, but teachers see as “privatising” it.

The law lays down new standards which will affect the professional lives of teachers and professors.

In a surprise move, Parliament passed the controversial law Wednesday without the expected second round of voting, and was immediately enacted by the national government.

SUTEP leaders said this behaviour was “authoritarian and anti-democratic.”

“What we are seeing is a movement that is socially and regionally highly diverse, with the common factor that everyone wants to get back what was taken from them in the last 20 years, particularly under Alberto Fujimori’s government in the 1990s,” political analyst Carlos Reyna, a professor at the Pontificia Universidad Católica, told IPS.

In this expert’s view, during the Fujimori regime (1990-2000) Peruvian workers lost “much of their buying power” as well as labour rights, owing to the free-market economic model that was applied.

Peru’s regions also had certain development incentives cut back, said Reyna, because power was centralised in Lima.

“Now that there is more political openness and economic growth, and the ‘dirty war’ and terrorism have ended, people have decided that this is the right time and environment to claim what is theirs,” Reyna said. The Fujimori administration is alleged to have carried out systematic human rights violations in the fight against leftwing guerrillas, who have now all but disappeared.

However, President García has chosen to minimise the protests by denying the social upheaval facing the country and blaming the strikes on “a tiny group.”

The same attitude was expressed by Interior Minister Luis Alva Castro on Wednesday afternoon, when he said that the protests were being infiltrated by “ex-Senderistas (former members of the Maoist guerrilla organisation Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path) who create confusion.”

The fact remains that the strikes are continuing, and in the teachers’ case there is no end in sight. Construction workers, regarded as the most radical trade unionists in the country, are also continuing their protests, and so is a large proportion of the farming sector.

At least four million out of the country’s seven million campesinos (peasant farmers) stopped work Wednesday and Thursday and set up roadblocks on highways, mainly in the central and southern Andean regions, the president of the National Agrarian Confederation (CNA), Antolín Huáscar, told IPS.

Also adhering to the 48-hour farmers’ strike were producers of coca, a crop used for traditional cultural purposes, but also controversial because it is the raw material for cocaine.

“We oppose the government’s policy of continuing to shower privileges on private investors while turning its back on the claims of thousands of campesinos. We are still being ignored, despite countless meetings which have produced no results,” Huáscar said.

The farmers are focusing their demands on four points: rejection of the free trade agreement signed with the United States, and of mining concessions located at the headwaters of river basins, which endanger the water they use for irrigation; declaring a state of emergency in the agrarian sector, and demanding that a Constituent Assembly be convened so that Peruvians may “effectively recover their rights.”

The agrarian problem is linked with socio-environmental conflicts centred on the mining projects, since most of the mines are close to agricultural land and the campesinos fear the possible contamination of the rivers that provide water for irrigation.

Social conflicts in Peru have increased in number since the García administration has prioritised mining activity, on the premise that mining accounts for 60 percent of the country’s exports and contributes 26 percent of the state’s total tax revenue.

According to a report by the Ombudsman’s Office, there are currently 75 social conflicts in the country, 35 of which remain active. Four percent of them are due to socio-environmental causes.

“This neoliberal (free-market) economic regime is exhausted. As long as it remains in place, more conflicts will occur,” said Reyna, who pointed out that 48 percent of Peru’s 27 million people are still below the poverty line, although the gross domestic product grew by 7.5 percent between January and April this year.

“We are seeing a flood of demands that have been accumulating for a long time because the government has been incapable of providing an adequate and timely response, and because it has preferred to centralise power instead of giving the regions freedom to act,” said analyst Eduardo Ballón, of the non-governmental group Propuesta Ciudadana (Citizen’s Proposal).

Reyna and Ballón both agree that President García is handling the conflicts in an “arrogant manner,” and taking measures that border “on the authoritarian” and display “indifference to the real problems of the country.” Speaking on Wednesday, the president again said that the demonstrators were “radical, suicidal and crazy.”

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