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A general strike engulfs Peru
The removal and arrest of the president has resulted in a massive political crisis in that Andean country. Will the "pink tide" finally reach its Pacific shores?
Many years ago, in 2002 to be exact, I was traveling in Peru, and at one point took an overnight bus from the coastal capital of Lima to Arequipa, some 1000 km to the south, halfway up the Pacific side of the Andes. As was often the case, the bus station was on the outskirts of this very attractive provincial city, and I took a cab into the center of town, with its many fine old buildings, where I planned to stay a few days. As we passed a rotunda, I saw a lot of broken glass in the roadway, and commented on it to the driver. He murmured there had been protest actions the day before. Shortly after settling in my room, a few hours later, the town erupted. A general strike was underway.
This all came vividly to mind yesterday evening as I was listening to a report on Sputnik News during which the hosts discussed the current situation in Peru, where what is being described as a legislative coup took place earlier this month against Pedro Castillo, the now deposed and imprisoned president. One of the Sputnik hosts mentioned in passing that protesters in the city of Arequipa had taken control of the airport, exactly as I recalled they did during the general strike in 2002, summarily disabling the airport's runway lights so no aircraft could land or take off.
A general strike is a thing to behold. The protesters in Arequipa immediately erected barricades, for which stones that lined the cobbled streets of the colonial-era city center proved most useful. The riot police arrived; skirmishes erupted periodically, and by evening the air was redolent with tear gas. The barricades remained in place however; the entire city, indeed the province as a whole, had been closed down. Riot police can contain and breakup protests and demonstrations, even large ones. But a general strike is an entirely different matter, as I was to learn firsthand.
The proximate cause that year was the announcement by the then president of Peru, Alejandro Toledo, that a regional power utility, then still in local municipal hands, was to be privatized. The entity had by some miracle escaped the privatization program undertaken by the previous president, Alberto Fujimori, during his tenure in office. The latter had come to office in 1990 as something of a dark-horse candidate; little about him was known. His major opponent was the celebrity author Mario Vargas Llosa, a cosmopolitan figure who promised a gentle flavor of high-minded conservatism in response to the deep economic crisis Peru had landed in the during the previous presidency of Alan Garcia, during which hyperinflation had run rampant. Peruvians rejected the patrician Vargas Llosa, going instead with the unfamiliar figure of Fujimori. They may have thought they were rejecting the “compassionate conservatism” of the worldly Vargas Llosa, what they got instead was neoliberalism on steroids, austerity with a vengeance.
Fujimori inherited a ugly predicament in the form of Senderoso Luminoso (Shining Path), the self-professed “Maoist” guerrilla movement active in the Peru during those years. At this juncture, it’s difficult for me to know how authentic Shining Path was, but one thing was abundantly clear: its particular flavor of military adventurism, if one may call it that, was exceptionally successful in discrediting left-wing ideas across the ideological spectrum. In any case, the arrest of the movement’s leader, Abimael Guzmán, in 1992 and its suppression by Peruvian armed forces buttressed Fujimori’s law-and-order bona fides, and he expended the political capital thus acquired on a truly draconian privatization binge mired in corruption. During the time I was there, people were trying to come to terms with the Fujimori era, calculating the economic impact; according to one estimate some nine billion dollars in state wealth had “gone missing”, a staggering sum in the context of the Peruvian economy. Sadly all par for the course in the roaring 90s, the go-go decade of unleashed neoliberalism, ushered in by the Reagan/Thatcher counter-revolution; during that time Russia was being sacked and bled try by Ivy League charlatans and corporate gangsters preaching and practicing “shock therapy”, an enormously destructive economic doctrine. Fujimori undertook the same in Peru, in form if not in name.
That lost nine billion dollars, however the figure was arrived at, was only part of the picture. Not only were valuable state-owned properties sold off at firesale prices, privatization thenceforth deprived municipalities with much-needed income, thereby imposing permanent austerity, crushing, soul-deadening economic stagnation, readily on display in virtually every part of that vast and wondrous country that I visited. We had privatizations in the Netherlands during that time, and even under the auspices of our well-ordered liberal democracy, it was an undertaking fraught with peril. In a relatively poor, unevenly-governed country like Peru, it was an epic disaster.
When Alejandro Toledo was elected president in 2001, the first president in Peruvian history with a indigenous background, he portended a breath of fresh air; but his indigenous complexion obscured his true character, that of a World Bank functionary. Once in office, he proceeded to finish the job Fujimori had embarked upon, the neoliberal gutting of the economy. The privatization of the Arequipa utility company has been left undone and Toledo announced its sale. Whatever his appearance may have suggested, Toledo's true allegiance was to his comprador class.
In the ensuing days of the general strike, I wandered though the streets of Arequipa, skirting the barricades, chatting with the protesters, having lunch in the open-air market. At 6pm every evening, the residents collectively brought forth a rousing cacerolazo. I followed the national news from Lima; the official line was that a small number of radical “troublemakers” were causing problems . However I had seen with my very own eyes ordinary housewives digging up the paving stones and “manning” the barricades. After a week, Toledo backed down; the privatization called off. As I left town, heading towards Puno on the shores of luminous Lake Titicaca, municipal workers were quickly restoring the cobbled streets, almost as though it was routine.
We in the West once knew something of the formidable impact of the general strike; the 1919 Seattle General Strike comes most saliently to mind. Had earlier this year for example the port of Rotterdam been closed down for a week by protesters, Mark Rutte and coalition government would had had no choice but to abandon their misbegotten crusade against Dutch farmers. But as I saw in Arequipa that would take militant organizers and trade unionists, with the active support of the public. Alas our labor aristocracy has been tamed and de-fanged; the public lulled into complacency and somnambulance. Perhaps one day we will rediscover this particular form of collective vigilance, though I suspect circumstances will have to be more dire than any of us can readily imagine.
Protesters in Peru announced an indefinite national strike on 13 December; among other demands are calling new elections and new constitution through a Constituent Assembly, radical, one might even say revolutionary demands. In response the government in Lima has announced a state of emergency and promised new elections in 2024, some 14 months off, which is unlikely to be received well.
In 2002, the stakes weren’t so high; the central government could back down and remain largely unscathed. The situation for the status quo is clearly an existential threat. You might even say: the stakes could not be higher.