Sunday, November 14, 2004

Trouble on the Streets...

Last week Arequipa experienced what I believe is normally called "unrest". There were 48 hours of strikes, headed by the transport workers union and principally intended as a protest against rises in petrol tax. But diverse groups also wedded themselves to the strike, and it became a general outpouring of frustration at unemployment, the cost of living and the perceived incompetence/corruption of the government.

The first 24 hours were notable in the centre of the city mainly for the eerie peacefulness of the streets, empty of the normal bustling traffic. Roads in and out of Arequipa were blocked by pickets and stones strewn along the roads (in Peru they're not as full on as in Bolivia, where they like to block roads with wrecked vehicles). People arriving from other towns had to walk several kilometres to get into the centre. La Republica reported that there was trouble around the "pueblos jovenes" (shantytowns) of the Cono Norte area and incidents as some vehicles tried to cross the pickets.

On day two the protests spread to the centre of town as strikers marched, making laps of the central eight blocks. All the businesses along Sta Catalina had their doors pulled a little way down, and as the marchers appeared at the top of the street everyone hastily started dragging things inside and closing doors. Wan't that a little excessive, I asked the others inside our building. Aren't there protest marches all the time, without problems?

Turned out they were wise, though. On the first lap round the march was peaceful - a group with a manner proclaiming themselves as the Young Socialists handed out anti-government pamphlets with a silhouette of Che Guevara and the chants were "down with (Peruvian president) Toledo and his government" as well as "down with Cerro Verde" (the large copper mine 34 km from Arequipa; it's owned by an American company, but I don't know what exactly the principal complaint against it is)

On the second march past we were closing everything again; Lizbeth was dragging in our sandwich board where the tours are advertised, and I was sitting at the computer. I heard a couple of loud crashes and turned round in time to see the second of two sizeable stones strike the sign. I was angry - why the hell were they throwing stones at us, I wanted to know. "They say we're amarillos (yellow); we're not supporting their strike" said Tessy. "Bloody ignorant..." I spluttered, suddenly feeling less sympathy for the whole strike.

By evening the marches had mostly dissipated, but what remained was decidedly uglier. A rag-tag group of protesters made their way down Santa Catalina; one was dressed in military fatigues, giving a somewhat chilling suggestion of the Sendero Luminoso. They stopped outside Lan Peru (Lan Chile's Peruvian arm, it has been involved in various legal battles over its status as a domestic carrier) and tried to get some of the people in our shop to help them down the Lan star, which they said was "Chilean". They chanted "Death to Chileans", "Death to Lan", "Chilean Interests Out", "Viva Aero Continente" (the Peruvian national carrier) and "Death to Cerro Verde", while between times a soemwhat wild-eyed woman led chants of "El pueblo/unido/jamas serĂ¡ vencido" ("The people/united/will never be defeated")

Eventually they contented themselves with painting a slogan on the closed door of Lan, and moved on. The police were conspicuously absent during all this, but then that's hardly unusual.

Meanwhile, the first of several civil trials of Abimael Guzman, the imprisioned leader of the Sendero Luminoso, began in Lima. There were particular efforts to ensure that he couldn't make any televised discourse, which might be transmitted to his potential followers.

The next day everything was back to normal; the streets were choked with extra traffic, as everyone tried to get things done they hadn't been able to in the previous 48 hours. For now at least, it's business as usual.

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