216 arrested during Peruvian national strike; mostly business as usual in capital, Lima

Peru President Alan Garcia faced nationwide mass protests Wednesday against his political and economic policies as thousands of Peruvians, including construction workers, teachers, miners and merchants went on strike, organized marches and blocked highways under the watchful eye of police and military.

The mostly peaceful demonstrations failed, however, to halt business as usual in the capital city, Lima, where a third of Peru’s 28 million inhabitants live. The strike was stronger in provincial cities and towns, where isolated reports of violence were broadcast throughout the day by Peruvian news media.

“We have been able to see the population demonstrate that it neither had nor has the willingness to strike, to halt the nation, paralyzing productive activities,” Garcia told reporters at the Government Palace. “This is a positive point to emphasize because despite the dissatisfaction they may feel, the people know expressing their discontent through strikes is not the way.”

The strike was called by Peru’s largest labor union, the National Confederation of Workers, or CGTP, and comes on the heels of the third miner’s work stoppage in the last four months.

Mario Huamán, Secretary General of CGTP, declared the strike “a resounding success” in step with Peruvian democracy, with no link to radical leftist forces or Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, or ALBA, movement.

“The whole country has been paralyzed,” Huamán said, and the protest “was carried out normally and peacefully … we have demonstrated that this is not a terrorist strike, or destabilizing, and that it doesn’t have anything do to with Chavez.”

But according to Labor Minister Mario Pasco Cosmópolis, the strike mobilized a fraction of Peru’s workforce. He told Radio Programas radio that 93 percent of employed Peruvians showed up Wednesday to work.

State news agency Andina reported that indigenous Indian protesters armed with rocks, clubs and bows and arrows attacked the regional government building in Puerto Maldonado, setting office furniture, computers and a car on fire and clashing with police. Nine officers reportedly suffered serious injuries in the clash.

It was a similar scene at a government social program building in Huancavelica, where protesters allegedly took three people hostage, releasing them a short time later when a security guard fired warning shots into the air.

National Police Gen. Octavio Salazar said Wednesday afternoon that 216 protesters were arrested across the country during the protests.

The strike, which comes amid economic growth close to 10 percent, was called to protest last year’s free trade agreement with the United States, the rise in the cost of living spurred by subsidized U.S. agricultural products, the criminalization of social protest and to demand better working conditions.

Though the government has reported a 5 percent fall in Peru’s poverty rate last year, more than 39 percent of the total population and two-thirds of the rural indigenous population live below the poverty line. In Huancavelica, Peru’s poorest department, the poverty rate climbed from 84 percent to 85 percent.

Protesters are asking Garcia, whose approval rate hovers around 30 percent, to do more to spread the wealth generated by Peru’s economic boom.

During his 2006 election campaign, Garcia assured Peru’s business sector that he would not repeat the leftist populist policies of his first 1985-90 presidency, which left Peru in financial ruin, wracked by guerrilla violence and runaway four-digit inflation. True to his word, Garcia has been a free market maverick, following through with the free trade agreement negotiated by his predecessor with the U.S., signing other free tade pacts with Canada and Singapore, and seeking trade deals with China, the European Union and even Peru’s neighbor, and traditional rival, Chile.

But he has also faced a backlash for his 180-degree turnaround from his socialist roots, and his bare-fisted political style.

The “new” Garcia ferociously opposed the July 9 strike, arguing that the protests are likely to scare away foreign investors.

Earlier this week, to discredit the strike organizers, his ruling Aprista Party aired a controversial “say no to the strike” TV commercial featuring a snippet of court testimony from Vladimiro Montesinos, Peru’s despised former intelligence chief under jailed ex-President Alberto Fujimori.

The 17–second TV ad, which was aired on national and cable stations, opened with the phrase “In hiding during the dictatorship…” and was followed by a short clip of Montesinos — on the stand during Fujimori’s trial for crimes against humanity last week — saying, “from 1990 to 2000, the SUTEP (Peru’s Unified Union of Education Workers) never organized a single strike to protest against President Fujimori.”

A narrator then chimed in, saying the strike organizers are only “courageous” during times when democracy rules and called on Peruvians to “say no to the strike and violence.”

But the ad backfired when it was revealed Garcia’s Aprista party had not paid for the spot, as publicized, and that the bill was improperly footed by the United Nations Development Program, or UNDP.

In Ayacucho, residents protested against the presence of 77 U.S. soldiers on location to carry out a humanitarian mission, as part of the “New Horizons Peru 2008 Program.” The mission, scheduled to construct two schools, three clinics and two wells, raised suspicions in early July when many critics, such as Bolivian President Evo Morales and the leader of the opposition Peruvian Nationalist Party, Ollanta Humala, claimed that the U.S. military presence might be a precursor to a permanent U.S. military base in Peruvian territory.

In Cuzco, roads and the railway leading to Peru’s top tourist attraction, the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, were blocked off by farmers. Trips to and from the ruins have been temporarily put on hold by many tourist agencies. Approximately 1.500 people use the rail service every day.

In Ica, San Pedro, Apurímac, Pisco, Yurimaguas, Ayacucho, Arequipa and Puno, roads were blocked by protesters, sticks and stones, and in the latter, protesters stormed local radio stations to broadcast their demands.

Some 100,000 police and soldiers were deployed to protect airports, roads, seaports, and strategic enterprises such as water and electricity plants.

Radioprogramas reported that Arequipa’s airport was guarded by three tanks and 30 soldiers.

Several road blockades, staged ahead of the July 9 general strike, took place Tuesday in Cuzco, Puno and in the Amazon region where campesino and indigenous rights groups demanded that Garcia withdraw a presidential decree they say is designed to strip them of their full rights to their communal lands for outside development by simplifying the process for private investors to obtain permission from indigenous communities to set up business.

Last May, Garcia signed into law Legislative Decree Nº 1015, without congressional approval, and overturned an earlier communal land rights law approved by Congress in 1995 that required the “consent by a two-thirds majority vote by all members of the community” for communal lands in Peru’s highlands and jungle.

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