Resistance in Peru

Eric Schwartz

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.

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

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

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:

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…

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…

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

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

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

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,