By Jack Parker
Towards the end of July, Peru holds its annual Independence Day celebrations – huge flags adorn the streets, millions wear the national rosette, and parades take place up and down the country. This year’s festivities, however, have been marred by a series of questionable political decisions that have left a sour taste, so much so that many Peruvians have found themselves torn between celebrating their national identity, and decrying a government with which they are highly disillusioned.
Peru’s governments have routinely broken promises for generations, affecting nearly all walks of life in the process. Since coming to power in 2016, President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski’s administration has managed to alienate its people, specifically those within the education sector.
Teachers in and around the city of Cusco, a region home to some 1.2 million people, went on strike in early June after major pay disputes with the government. Little progress was made over the next six weeks, during which many other workers’ unions also decided to strike in support of the teachers.
Between June and August, marches took take place several times a week in the city’s main square, the Plaza de Armas, some of which involved thousands of people. Dozens of armed police, all carrying riot shields as a precaution, silently observed to one side; a symbol to show the protestors that the government was watching their every move. As the strikes grew in scope, Cusco’s economy was slowly being dragged to a halt, yet the government refused to change its stance.
Protests, albeit peaceful, were soon starting to spread across the country, namely to the southern city of Puno (by Peru’s border with Bolivia) and, to a lesser extent, the capital, Lima.
By mid-July, the situation was rapidly deteriorating. A large fire erupted just a few kilometres from Machu Picchu, Peru’s biggest tourist attraction. Kuczynski’s government, as well as British media, reported that this was a forest fire, but it was in fact deliberately started by protestors to prevent tourists from accessing the site. Not a single English or Spanish-language news outlet has thus far reported the fire for what it truly was.
Alongside lying to disguise the extent of the crisis, the government, clearly worried by the rapid escalation of events, imposed a state of emergency over Cusco Region and Puno – for the next month, all public gatherings of Peruvians would be banned, armed police would patrol the streets, and all citizens would be legally obliged to carry their passports with them, or risk immediate arrest. Kuczynski told the world the state of emergency was declared to ‘protect tourists visiting areas affected by strikes’, yet many inside Peru were quick to denounce this as a cover-up.
The government has so far clearly been preoccupied with keeping tourism going amidst the crisis. Tourism is the nation’s third largest industry, after fishing and mining, so by keeping the truth firmly in the shadows, and dressing up the state of emergency to make tourists seem a top priority, the government is doing its utmost to protect the tourism industry, largely in its own interests.
Up to this point, the protestors had refrained from targeting tourists themselves. A large roadblock, however, closing a major road between the hotspots of Puno and Cusco, marked a sudden change of direction. I was in Peru throughout the state of emergency, and experienced the roadblock first-hand.
The roadblock came into force at around midnight. By daybreak, a string of tourist night buses stretched back as far as the eye could see. Tourists of all nationalities, many of whom spoke limited Spanish, were filing out of their buses to see what was going on.
To quell the building anxiety, bus companies told their passengers that the police were at the scene trying to negotiate with the protestors and have the roadblock removed within the coming hours. News soon spread that the police were nowhere to be seen. They hadn’t even arrived in the first place. Rather than wait indefinitely in the stifling heat, hundreds of tourists gradually decided to make their own way to the other side of the roadblock in the hope that another bus would take them the rest of the way.
The roadblock itself was around 10km long, punctuated several times by large groups of angry locals placing rocks onto the road to prevent the buses from passing. At the start of the roadblock, some two to three hundred men, women and children congregated at the roadside; some were throwing stones and glass bottles onto the tarmac to create even more debris. As the glass smashed, it skimmed across the road surface, cutting the legs of some of the tourists walking through. There was a definite tension in the air.
Notably, this was the first time the crisis had directly affected tourists themselves.
As we continued through the roadblock, we came across several smaller groups marching with banners. In one town almost completely devoid of infrastructure and solid housing, a group of men were chanting: ‘The united working class will be defeated no more,’ and ‘Yes to water, no to mining.’ They were perfectly aware that there was no government presence to see their protest, and were instead appealing directly to tourists to get their message across.
These particular marches, and possibly the roadblock in general, were clearly no longer strictly related to the teachers’ strike – a wave of discontentment was sweeping the nation, and people were beginning to take advantage of it to expose social injustice on a local level.
What started as a pay dispute amongst teachers has, over the course of a few months, turned into a nationwide issue. Inspired by the determination of teachers in Cusco, Peruvians have started to turn their back on the status quo, and on decades of misgovernment at the hands of the elite.
Yet this is a story that has been almost entirely ignored by the British media, largely in favour of events in nearby Venezuela. Throughout history, we have seen cases of the disenfranchised masses rising up against the empowered few; many are cases upon which we now look in a positive light. These are interesting and crucial times for Peru, times which could very well be the spark of a social revolution.
Photograph: Jack Parker