Thursday, July 10, 2008

Power to the People

To protest the rising costs of petroleum and food, a nationwide transit strike was imposed this past Wednesday throughout Peru. Unlike in the United States (where the 2005 New York City transit strike was portrayed as a terrorist threat), strikes here--in Cuzco, at least--aren't viewed as an affront to civil order. Rather, there are marches in the town center, and a relaxed, almost holiday-like atmosphere in the outer neighborhoods. (There were arrests in Lima, where poverty is more widespread and workers are more militant; and in Puerto Maldonado, in the Amazon basin (were poverty can be extreme), governmental offices were lit on fire.)
Kids man the roadblock on Avenida de la Cultura, a main thoroughfare that stretches from the historic center of Cuzco to the suburbs to the east. Private cars were allowed through, albeit with plenty of whistling and yelling at the drivers.

The road was transformed into a large soccer field.

In Lima, Mario Huamán, the secretary general of the General Confederation of Peruvian Workers, which organized the work stoppage, called out to the increasingly unpopular president of Peru, "Listen, Alan García, the kitchen pot is empty. The pot is empty because of you!" García is accused of selling out his socialist roots in order to enrich the oligarchy of Peru. (Today, Bloomberg announced that Peru's central bank is raising the benchmark rate in an effort to control inflation, which was at 5.71% last month; the bank has already raised the rate four times previously this year.)

Although Peru has had a healthy economic growth rate in the past few years (9% in 2007), the gains have mostly been in the coastal areas and the south. The Andean highlands and the Amazon region still see a large amount of poverty, and prices for gas and food have seen a dramatic increase lately.

Taking over the public space for a bit of family fun--volleyball!

Cuzco is a prosperous city, though, with a huge tourist industry that pumps in much money. Avenida de la Cultura (along which these pictures were taken) traverses a fairly eclectic group of neighborhoods, from the wealthy central district, with its Incan and Spanish colonial architecture, and Wanchaq, where medical and dental students mill about in the afternoon sun; to San Sebastian, where paved streets turn to red dusty dirt, and Larapa (my neighborhood), which is an upper-middle-class enclave nestled against the surrounding mountains in between small farms.

All in all, the strike was a low-key affair. With the sun in the late afternoon providing warmth, most Cusqueños I ran into seemed to be enjoying a midweek day off with their friends and family. There was no violence that I witnessed, even when cars ran through the roadblocks. Kids would just gather up more rubble after the cars drove through, in an attempt to stop the next vehicle that might be tempted to drive through.

Postscript: Predictably, García cast partial blame for the strike on Venezuela's and Bolivia's respective presidents, Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales, alluding to them in his statement, "They say we should be an Andean, Aymaran, Bolivarian republic, and some want to do this by force."

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