Thursday, July 09, 2009

Peru: Three days of protests

By Ángel Páez - IPS
Republished permission Inter Press Service (IPS )copyright Inter Press Service (IPS) and

LIMA, Jul 8 (IPS) - Wednesday was the second day of a three-day strike declared by trade unions and social movements in Peru to protest the economic policies of President Alan García.

According to the government, the strike has been a complete failure. Labour Minister Jorge Villasante said "work has continued as normal in Peru. The protest has not caught on among the workers as the organisers had hoped."

But Carmen Sifuentes, the president of the CGTP - Peru's largest trade union federation – commented to IPS: "If it's such a flop, if the unions do not represent anyone, why are they offering 20 soles to people who went to work? The government is lying to the people."

The government offered workers who stayed on the job an incentive of 20 soles (6.6 dollars).

Thousands of members of the security forces were deployed Wednesday in Lima to keep order, and police chief General José Sánchez reported that over 156 demonstrators were arrested, mainly in Lima. He also said the strike had 100 percent adherence in the southern provinces of Huancavelica, Puno and Cuzco.

The main protests took place in Puno, Ayacucho, Apurímac, Cuzco and Huancavelica – southern Andean highlands regions where García made a poor showing in the 2006 presidential elections.

Activities around the country in support of the strike included roadblocks and street marches and protests.

The strike is taking place in the midst of a serious government crisis that forced the president to move forward a planned cabinet shuffle, initially announced for Jul. 28.

The authorities have carried out an intense media campaign to convince the public that foreign "terrorist" organisations are behind the strike which is aimed, they say, at fomenting "hatred and violence among Peruvians."

A survey published Monday by the Public Opinion Institute of Peru's Catholic University, indicates that the president's popularity ratings plunged 11 percentage points - from 36 to 25 percent - since the bloody Jun. 5 clash between police and indigenous protesters in which at least 34 police and demonstrators were killed near the town of Bagua in the northern province of Amazonas.

The police brutally cracked down that day on a two-month roadblock that was part of native protests against government decrees that opened up indigenous territories in the Amazon jungle to foreign mining, oil and timber companies.

This week's strike and protests were called by the National Front for Life and Sovereignty, an umbrella group that has brought together the main trade union federations, small farmers' associations, the teachers union, the national association of local communities affected by the mining industry, the largest coalitions of indigenous organisations, regional leaders and left-wing political parties.

Miguel Palacín, the leader in Peru of the Andean Coordinator of Indigenous Organisations (CAOI), said the actions are against the decrees passed by the government in mid-2008 to facilitate implementation of the free trade agreement signed with the United States.

Two of the most controversial decrees were overturned last month by Congress in the wake of the tragic events at Bagua, and two more had been repealed last year.

"We are also demanding changes to the economic model that foments the granting of concessions for the exploitation of natural resources in territories that belong to native communities," Palacín told IPS.

More than 70 percent of Peru’s Amazon rainforest was divided into concessions for oil and natural gas investment between 2003 and 2008, according to a March report by the local non-governmental organisation Law, Environment and Natural Resources (DAR), which was based on official data.

"Another important point is the protest against the policy of criminalising social protest," Palacín added. "The government has unleashed persecution against anyone who rejects its economic policies."

Alberto Pizango, the president of the Peruvian Rainforest Inter-Ethnic Development Association (AIDESEP) – which groups 28 Amazon jungle indigenous federations and forms part of the National Front for Life and Sovereignty – fled into exile in Nicaragua when the García administration accused him of inciting violence in Bagua and a warrant was issued for his arrest.

And on Tuesday, two other native leaders, brothers Servando and Saúl Puerta, members of the Awajún indigenous community, sought asylum in the Nicaraguan embassy after charges were brought against them in connection with the violence in Bagua.

A 2008 report by the National Human Rights Coordinator (CNDH), which groups 67 local NGOs, said the government’s response to growing popular discontent over its economic policies had been to clamp down on protests and refuse to engage in dialogue, a strategy that had merely generated greater social conflict.

Interior Minister Mercedes Cabanillas has stated that sectors with links to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez have infiltrated the protests.

"There is no Chavista (pro-Chávez) or any other kind of infiltration," the CGTP's Sifuentes told IPS.

"They claim there is terrorist infiltration, which is also false. The government, desperate over the growth of the social protests, is trying to discredit the organisations…The government, though, IS infiltrated – by the interests of transnational corporations that rake in the profits from our natural resources," she added.

The state’s tax revenues shrank by nearly 2.7 billion dollars in 2006 and 2007 because of the government's decision not to charge royalties or a promised windfall tax, according to a report by the Grupo Propuesta Ciudadana, a coalition of local NGOs, which was based on official figures.

Twenty-five large mining companies operating in this country pay no royalties.

Propuesta Ciudadana estimated that large mining companies in Peru took in windfall earnings of nearly 3.45 billion dollars in 2006 and close to 4.14 billion dollars in 2007.

Strikes and protest activities

In Puno protesters blocked highways leading to neighbouring Bolivia, demanding the repeal of the law on water resources, which they say paves the way for privatisation of water. And in Ica, on the Pacific coast, cotton farmers set up roadblocks to protest the law.

Coca producers blocked traffic and held marches in the central province of Huánuco. In Arequipa in the south, public transport was restricted, making it hard for people to get to work.

In Huamanga in the southern province of Ayacucho – one of the poorest parts of Peru, which is demanding heavier government social spending - demonstrators from a number of trade unions and civil society organisations cut off traffic along the main highway. And the train running from Cuzco to Machu Picchu was not running Wednesday.
Published by Mike Hitchen, Mike Hitchen Consulting
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