Peru president deflects criticism of earthquake relief effort ahead of one-year anniversary protest

President Alan García headed this week to Pisco and Chincha — two of the towns hardest hit by the magnitude-8 earthquake that ravaged Peru’s southern coast. He went to assess progress in the reconstruction effort, but also to deflect criticism that a year after the disaster his government has botched the job of rebuilding.

“Of course I am not satisfied, but the unfair statement that nothing has been done cannot be accepted,” García told Radio Programas radio in a live telephone interview. “What happened here is that Pisco was left virtually razed to the ground and to rebuild a city is difficult.”

Protests are planned for tomorrow in the earthquake zone to mark the one-year anniversary of the Aug. 15, 2007, temblor — the most destructive and deadly quake to hit the country since 1970.

Three hundred police reinforcements have been dispatched to Ica, Pisco and Chincha in preparation for Friday’s strike, daily El Comercio reported. 

A poll released Monday by Peru Market Research and Public Opinion Corporation, or CPI, showed that nationally 72 percent of Peruvians disapprove of García’s handling of Peru’s affairs, but that  his disapproval rate in the earthquake zone stands at nearly 84 percent.

García, in his own defense, said his government has already invested 1.1 billion soles, or about $400 million, to respond to the earthquake, both on emergency rescue efforts and to rebuild roads, power lines and sewer systems, and added that it took a “rich” country like Japan years to rebuild after the Kobe earthquake.

But that reasoning is lost on residents who complain the government has not done nearly enough to help them rebuild shattered homes, businesses and lives.

“How can we not complain if so many people are still living in tents and on the streets?” said Erasmo Huamán Sante, leader of the Defensive Front for Pisco’s Interest and Development, a grass roots organization.  “How do we keep our mouths shut if many others still live in shelters and there doesn’t seem to be the slightest intention to relocate them?

“We would like to know where the 1.1 billion soles the president claims to have invested after the earthquake are,” Sante said. “The president makes pronouncements that sound nice, but everyone can see that in Pisco his statistics and numbers don’t correspond to reality.”

Reconstruction in Pisco has barely reached 10 percent, and “this is why there is widespread malaise,” he added.

According to García, part of the problem stems from the inaction of the residents themselves, whom he said have not yet used government allotments to start rebuilding their homes.  Last November, García set up the “Bono 6000,” a bond program allocating approximately $2,000 per displaced family for the purchase of construction materiel.

“What’s most important is that people use their bonus immediately,” García was reported saying by state news agency Andina. “We can’t keep waiting; we have to get things started. All of Lima’s pueblos jóvenes (shantytowns) were built by the settlers, with their own hands and without bonuses or titles.”

“With the 180 million soles distributed as part of the bonuses we could have done many things, like build 60 schools in other parts of the country. People can’t ask us for more than what we have,” he added.

But, according to Huancavelica’s regional president, Federico Salas, and Chincha mayor José Navarro, money and bonuses have been promised, but have yet to be distributed. García’s administration has been dogged by constant delays in the reconstruction effort and widespread accusations of mismanagement, profiteering and corruption.

A group of Pisco residents on Tuesday burned donated clothing they say was in dreadful condition and to reaffirm their intention to strike on Friday.

“They have the right to protest, but without violence,” said García during a visit to inaugurate the opening of a reconstructed school in Chincha. “Yesterday the police received a donation and distributed it to the earthquake victims but as some of the clothes had holes in them, they burned them. They have no right to do such a thing, there are zones affected by the cold that would have liked to receive this help.”

When it hit, the magnitude-8 earthquake last more than two minutes, leaving Peru’s southern coast in ruins, cutting off electricity, water and communications. In Pisco, the quake destroyed three-quarters of the city center, killed approximately 500 people and left thousands more homeless. According to official figures, some 40,000 homes were destroyed.

The following day, García flew into the zone, setting up a command center in a nearby air force base, and pledging a quick and effective response.

Within weeks, he established the South Reconstruction Fund, or Forsur, with start-up funds that included $100 million from Lima as well as $38 million from international aid agencies and donors, such as Oxfam International.

But allegations of mismanagement and corruption were almost immediate.

On August 20, police discovered 76 bags stuffed with 330 pounds of donated food and clothing hoarded in the house of María Rosas García, a civil defense coordinator from La Victoria district in Lima. And, shortly after, Juan Enrique Mendoza, the regional governor of quake-devasted Pisco, complained that officials from the Comptroller General’s office were unnecessarily withholding food, clothing and medicine.

In September, Pisco mayor Juan Mendoza was accused of fraudulently handling the aid destined for earthquake victims.

“We found that the mayor himself was personally distributing the aid, and that he concentrated so much power that it was preventing the food and clothing from reaching the people who were most in need,” Peru’s Comptroller General Genaro Matute told La Republica’s senior investigative reporter Ángel Páez.

“City councillors in the governments of Pisco and Cañete have taken donated food home, or given it to people close to them, to the detriment of those who were hardest hit by the earthquake,” he added.

Residents of Grocio Prado, an overpopulated district of Chincha which suffered 80 percent destruction in the earthquake, also complained that their mayor, Carlos Torres, was helping himself to the aid donations. Same story in the El Porvenir shantytown.

Later, in March 2008, authorities from the hard-hit Ica Department confiscated food, clothes, blankets, shoes, cots, tents, and tools in the home of Percy Cabrera, the mayor of San Francisco de Sangayaico, a town in the neighboring department of Huancavelica.

Last November, angry Ica residents organized a 24-hour strike, blocking kilometers 292 and 293 of the Pan-American highway, to demand faster access to aid and a stepup in the reconstruction of city infrastructure. They also demanded greater autonomy in rebuilding efforts and the immediate resignations of Forusur President Julio Favre.

“Much of the help destined for Ica has still not arrived,” said the Coordinator for the Defenseof Victims and the Reconstruction of Ica’s Luis Enrique Gil in comments to Radio Uno radio. “An example is the 200,000 bags of cement donated by Lima Cements for the reconstruction of educational institutes. Of those, only 12,000 are in Ica and they have still not been handed over.”

García had appointed Favre, formerly the head of Peru’s largest business association, without consulting any of the authorities in the zones affected by the quake, the protesters complained.

Today, despite millions of dollars in emergency aid and the help of hundreds of local and international volunteers, construction of permanent housing has yet to begin.

In Pisco, some 50 families still live in tents and hundreds more in one-room shacks pieced together with particle board, sticks and plastic sheets. Crime is rampant as the police station has yet to be rebuilt.

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