Tuesday, February 25, 2014

General strike shuts down Cusco

CUSCO, Peru – This city of 400,000 was totally paralyzed today on the first day of a 48-hour general strike initiated by trade unions and other civic organizations. The strike action was supported by bus, taxi and truck drivers (“transportistas”), as well as peasant and indigenous organizations in provinces throughout the Cusco region. All vehicular traffic ceased in the downtown area and citizens walked freely through the streets – an unusual sight, to say the least, in a South American city.

The strike “for regional dignity” was to protest the failure of the national government headed by President Ollanta Humala to build promised megaprojects including a gas pipeline in southern Peru and an international airport in nearby Chinchero, and repeated national government cutbacks in regional funding that have paralyzed existing development projects throughout the region. According to official statistics, some 27% of Peru’s population have incomes below the poverty line, and in Cusco tourism is the major source of income for many, including the huge “informal” economy of poor and unorganized workers. (A major attraction, of course, is nearby Machu Picchu, the historic Inca city and one of the seven wonders of the world.)

This protest is particularly significant as Cusco voted 70% for Humala almost three years ago in a close election in which his main opponent was the daughter of former neoliberal President Alberto Fujimori, now jailed for his massive corruption.

Although the strike organizers had planned only to picket government buildings today, with a major mass mobilization planned for tomorrow, a street demonstration began in mid-morning along the Avenida del Sol, a major artery. Apparently initiated by a few unions, it was quickly joined by a broad range of organizations, swelling to tens of thousands as they filed through city streets and into the Plaza de Armas, the central square.

In addition to the colourful banners of the various participating organizations, the Peruvian flag was prominently displayed along with the rainbow-coloured wiphala, the flag of the Andean indigenous peoples. (Cusco, the historic center of the Inca empire, has a very large Quechua population.) There were also a few Che Guevara banners, and a group of indigenous women carried a large banner portraying the Peruvian Marxist leader of the 1920s, José Carlos Mariátegui, among others.

Most chants of the boisterous demonstrators were directed against Humala – for example, “Atrás, atrás, atrás, Humala incapaz” (Backwards, backwards, backwards, Humala is incompetent) and “Abajo el recorte presupuestario” (Down with the budget cuts), but a popular one repeated by many bystanders was “Un pueblo unido no sera jamás vencido” (A united people will never be defeated), made famous in Allende’s Chile.

Even now, as I write, I can hear the roar of demonstrators roaming spontaneously through the city streets outside my hotel.

I have posted here some photos I took of the demonstration; captions below some of them translate slogans and provide further information.

-- Richard