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Resistance in Peru
As Peru lurches out of a decade of state repression and crushing neoliberal reforms, most international attention celebrates the country's “transition to democracy” and upcoming elections. From Peru, the view is different: the elections offer only slightly more choices than our own presidential elections, and the fight for democracy is far from over. But there is a lot more happening in Peru than elections. There is constant invisible struggle, creative resistance against home-grown dictators, and against globalized capitalism.
One night in early February I was driving through Cusco, in southern Peru, at midnight when I saw about 80 riot police near several earth-mover machines. On the opposite side of the street, scattered fires lit a large crowd made up of vendors from the Contra- bando, Cusco's massive street market. The vendors, who are mostly indigenous and about two-thirds women, were gathered to prevent the city's sneak-attack effort to dig huge holes at each end of the market. The vendors believed the pits were the first step toward their displacement from the downtown tourist center. Later that night, the vendors were on the losing end of a fairly serious rock and tear gas confrontation. The hole was dug and no cars entered the Contra the next day. But when the sun came up the following morning, the hole had somehow been filled and traffic continued as normal.
A few days later, 3-4,000 Contrabando vendors were hanging out, drinking tea, and snacking on ice cream cones on Cusco's major downtown road. Traffic was completely blocked. When the news rushed through the crowd that their representatives had been unsuccessful at the Public Works office, the vendors rose up and continued to the mayor's office, confusing and alarming dozens of tourists as they flooded across the central plaza.
At City Hall, a representative of the mayor came out to scold the crowd. Apparently his message wasn't exactly what the vendors were looking for, because he had to retreat into the building under a light rain of pebbles, fruit, and empty water bottles. He made several more attempts at “dialogue” over the next hour, but the vendors stayed firm in their demand to talk to the mayor. In a message that seemed to be directed at the line of riot police guarding the mayor's office, the vendors chanted, “Here. There. The fear has ended.” When the well-dressed vendors association leaders came out to urge their compañeros to go home and wait for the mayor to issue a preliminary report, they were rejected with the same fury that had met the mayor's spokesperson. The vendors finally headed home, but their mobilizations continued until the city finally offered them a new home near the city center.
Peruvian politics is in a funny place right now. Alberto Fujimori, the country's U.S.-backed dictator for ten years, has fled to Japan. Fujimori is happily enjoying the wealth he plundered from a decade of shady arms deals and IMF-mandated privatizations in a $10,000 a month apartment in downtown Tokyo. His security chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, the real power for at least the last three years and a friend of the CIA, was last spotted having plastic surgery to change his face in Venezuela. All of the country's elites except a small band of insanely loyal congresspeople, who insist the transitional president is in league with the terrorists (obliterated after a decade of anything-goes counterinsurgency), are scurrying to distance themselves from the criminal “Chino.”
But there's one inconvenient detail—Montesinos recorded over 2,000 tapes of his let's-make- a-deal sessions with the country's elites. Millions of Peruvians have seen grainy footage revealing the owner of one of the leading newspapers personally accepting $3 million in U.S. cash and the country's most powerful businessperson, Dionisio Romero, urging Vladimiro to scrap the second round of elections to let Fujimori win in 2000. The Peruvian Rasputin talks about his great relationship with U.S. Ambassador Hamilton, buys judges to rule in favor of a U.S. mining company, and plots his media campaign to destroy opposition politicians.
Montesinos's spying mania has opened a window onto the most intimate and ugly machinations of state power. The TV reveals one corrupt politician after another pleasantly inquiring about Monte- sinos's family and his health for several minutes before finally cutting to the chase: “Vladimiro, I'm having financial problems.…” Jose Crousillat, the owner of a major TV channel, tells Montesinos, “I await your orders,” then turns to count the towering stacks of Peruvian soles in front of him.
The problem, of course, is that the so-called “Mafia” that supported Fujimori for ten years is doing everything they can to stay in power. The “vladivideos” trickle out, slowly, ensuring that only a fraction will be seen before the election. Some of the implicated politicians and military officials, whose crimes weren't erased by the 1985 amnesty law, are placed under house arrest. Others, including Dionisio Romero, are pardoned without explanation by the vast network that Vladimiro created in the judicial system. Protesters against mafia politicians are regularly taunted or attacked by small, well-organized gangs of “counter-protesters.”
Peru is in limbo. There is ongoing grassroots struggle against the Mafia across the country, a lot will be decided by the presidential elections, unfortunately. The choices are:
Carlos Boloña. The naked face of fujimontesinismo, Carlos is a familiar figure in the vladivideos. With almost no support, it looks like Bolona is the mafia's sacrificial lamb, a useful decoy to draw fire away from...
Lourdes Flores. The real deal. Lourdes has the support of all the fujimorista businesses and media that jumped ship when Boloña started to sink. Lourdes' christian democrat National Unity party carries 30 politicians with close ties to the previous regime, many of whom appear in vladivideos. Lourdes enjoys high support from women and is the favorite among “pitucos”—the light-skinned middle class. She's 100 percent neoliberal and proud of it.
Alan Garcia. Silver-tongued center-left demagogue who already devastated the country once, from 1985 to 1990. He was responsible for a huge, calculated prison massacre of 300 Shining Path members. The death squads and “anti- terrorist” terror that left thousands dead and disappeared over the past decade first took off during Alan's rein. Garcia nationalized a lot of industries during his regime (which Fujimori then sold to his friends), but now he's born-again: Plan Columbia good, IMF maybe not so bad after all. “Information capitalism” will recreate Peru in the image of its big friendly neighbor to the north. But grassroots pressure from Garcia's leftist base forces him to at least pay lip service to anti- neo-liberalism, which distinguishes him from...
Alejandro Toledo. Fujimori stole the election from Alejandro last year and now he's trying again. El cholo, or “the Indian,” has a catchy story. As a young boy, rural poverty forced him to leave his family to make a living shining shoes and selling newspapers in Lima. Since then, he has studied economics abroad and worked for the World Bank and OECD. Toledo was a latecomer to the democratic struggle, but his loyal supporters see him as the embodiment of that struggle because of the massive and powerful national march to Lima he convened to challenge the elections.
Alejandro works with popular movements when he needs them, but now seems to have forgotten them entirely. His proposed minister of the economy, Pedro Kuczinsky, is a superstar of neoliberalism. Alejandro's “market economy with a human face” doesn't include any real changes from the painful globalization of the past decade: privatizations, free trade “reforms,” and prompt debt repayment.
Besides the racism he faces, Toledo terrifies the Fujimori- linked businesses and media because of his promises to throw the mafia where they belong—in jail. His opponents have slammed him with a series of lurid (and probably true) accusations of illegitimate children, cocaine snorting, group sex, and an attempt to bribe a journalist.
The election comes down to Lourdes or Toledo in a second round. The difference will be between neoliberalism with the same old Fujimorista faces under Lourdes (though probably with less repression) and a “clean” neoliberalism under Toledo. As much as Toledo scares local elites who cozied up to Fujimori, either choice is perfectly acceptable to the U.S. government and international corporations. “Even Toledo, who has shown himself to be a little populist at times, can play a good role if he wins,” says Oscar Gonzalez, of the Southern Peru Copper Corporation. Why waste energy propping up a mad-dog Pinochet if you can get the same deal with a smiling socialist or cuddly Christian Democrat?
But in spite of the same old grim scene in electoral politics, Peru offers a much more hopeful picture at the grassroots level. In Peru, anti-neoliberalism struggles of amazing creativity and militancy explode into view every week, in communities across the country. Grassroots struggles that would be considered incredible examples of coalition-building and tactical success in the U.S. are granted a paragraph in the national left-wing newspaper Liberacion or aren't mentioned at all. Coming from the belly of the beast, the sheer frequency with which these struggles erupt is astounding.
A lot of these struggles are focused on efforts to oust the corrupt fujimorista gang that brought neoliberal “reforms” to Peru. As the most visible symbol of the “Mafia,” Lourdes Flores has been chased out of town on several campaign stops. In March, protesters disrupted newly ordained Cardinal Cipriani's first mass. This is the man who has defended disappearances, attacked human rights groups as terrorists, and called human rights “bullshit” —and those are just his public statements. Also active in the anti-Mafia struggle, the Lima- based Civil Society Collective performs symbolic actions like burying Fujimorista “trash-politician's” houses in garbage and covering Fujimorista banks and TV stations with white- paint handprints. The group has a broad, diverse base of support and calls itself leaderless and nonviolent.
Much of the struggle is directed at mafia-dominated TV stations and media stars. When the arrogant pop star Raul Romero recently shrugged off the 1992 La Cantuta student massacre as an “acceptable social cost,” several hundred family members showed up the next day and forcefully turned back his car from a Fujimori-friendly TV station. For several days, Raul's fans had to settle for reruns. When he finally attempted to “clarify” his comment for the public, he had to do so over the phone.
Years of bitter struggle have taught millions of Peruvians from all backgrounds that it's necessary to disrupt business as usual to create social change, that dialogue alone just doesn't work. In recent months, squatters in Lima, flood victims in Puno, and countless other groups have forced the authorities to resolve their problems by blocking major roads. In several towns south of Lima, residents frustrated by empty campaign promises and angry at Peru's mandatory voting laws recently staged a 48-hour general strike and blocked highways to prevent the delivery of voting booths and ballot boxes.
In the agricultural community Tambo Grande in northern Peru, farmers recently broke through police lines to torch a Canadian mining facility that would have permanently poisoned agriculture in the area. Between the million dollars of damage caused by the fires, a two-day general strike, and several days of blocked highways, the Manhattan Sechura company is finally considering pulling out. Tambo Grande also chased out another foreign mining company in the early 1980s.
In March, hundreds of residents of the desperately poor “young towns” surrounding Arequipa in southern Peru peacefully invaded City Hall to demand more public services. Deep in the interior of the country, indigenous farmers fiercely resist the army's efforts to destroy their coca crops. The unprocessed coca leaf is central to traditional Andean culture and is used to treat everything from headaches to morning sickness. U.S.-imposed eradication efforts rely in part on a genetically engineered herbicide that leaves the soil barren and causes unknown ecological damage.
After ten years of outright repression and legal “reform,” Peru's labor movement yields a shadow of the power it held in past decades. Yet in spite of these setbacks, labor in Peru is far ahead of U.S. labor in its independence, its coalitions with other social movements, and its militancy. The majority of the county's unions and labor federations have refused to back any of the presidential candidates, attacking the bland similarity of their economic plans. Peruvian bus drivers routinely demand legal reforms by blocking vehicular access to municipal buildings with their buses. In Cusco, owner-operator drivers put 100 buses up on jacks so they couldn't be towed and stayed in them for several days.
In Lima, health workers have protested unjust firings by chaining themselves to the gate of the Health Ministry building. In cities across the country, teachers embarked on hunger strikes against the same “temp-worker-ization” that is devastating private sector unions and making a mockery of labor laws in the United States. If the FTAA and similar institutions bring Latin-American style “flexible” labor reforms and privatization home to the U.S., even more American workers may find themselves in a similar situation.
In Cusco alone, there have been three general strikes in the past year. The most recent one, on March 14, was a powerful display of how different social movements can fight together around shared —and bold—demands. Local media reported 20,000 people in the streets on the morning of the strike, protesting the ongoing privatization of the Inca ruins at Machupichu and the planned privatization of the electric company and airport. Union members were only a part of the strike: banner-carrying contingents of teachers, bus drivers, and sanitation workers marched with farmer's groups, mothers who run the low-income feeding centers, market vendors, and neighborhood associations.
There wasn't any main rally or preplanned march route, just an immense wave of people flooding the downtown, stopping traffic and shutting down non-cooperating businesses. Marches spontaneously split apart into different directions, only to meet up with other masses of people a block away. Kids played soccer and volleyball in the middle of car-free streets. The strikers transformed the streets into the kind of liberated community spaces that groups like Art and Revolution have tried to create during the mass anti-globalization actions. Near Machupichu, tourist porters who haul inhumanly heavy loads for hikers on the Inca Trail successfully blocked the railroad going to the trailhead.
Even after a decade of repression has reduced the organized left to a shell of its former strength, Peruvian popular movements remain astonishingly vibrant. Whichever candidate wins the upcoming elections, Peruvians will resist the neoliberal regime with creativity, militancy, and most of all, tenacity. The best way North Americans can support these struggles, besides challenging the FTAA negotiations and the IMF, is to bring the lessons learned from our Peruvian compañeros into our own organizing.
Of course, capitalism in North America, with a sizable middle class and a sophisticated propaganda system, is very different from the crude and brutal form capitalism takes in Peru. Peruvians turn to militant solutions because poverty and state oppression rule out any other path. Yet Peru's powerful militant spirit, built over decades of struggle, gives us a vision of the broad-based culture of resistance we need to create here at home—a culture where most working people understand that nothing changes without political struggle and are willing to take militant action to solve the problems they face; a culture where people don't fight for causes or issues, but for themselves and their communities; a culture that will sustain us through the same kinds of crushing defeats that have battered Peruvian social movements, with our hope and our will to take to the streets intact. If we can learn from the powerful example our Peruvian friends offer us, we can cause a fierce enough rumbling here in the belly of the beast to return the favor. Z
Eric Schwartz is a former member of the Amalgamated Transit Union in Portland, Oregon