Friday, May 16, 2008

Stone the Mayor's House, That'll Help

While I'm doing my development studies course, issues I've wondered about before seem to become clearer. Confused and contradictory situtations that baffled me when travelling in Latin America start to slot into narratives of economic structure and class struggle; social indicators and policy choices.

But every now and again I'm reminded that, beyond the classroom and books, the real world is as incoherent as ever.

When I lived in Peru, I became sceptical about the routine of marches, strikes and roadblocks that occurred on an almost weekly basis. These often seemed to be futile, as protesters demanded things which were beyond the government's control, or which wouldn't have made any difference to their problems (such as the resignation of president Alejandro Toledo). The sight of a street blocked by a heap of rocks drew an exasperated sigh, as all it seemed to achieve was to prevent ordinary people from making it to work or school.

At worst, such disturbances were childish and destructive, such as when supporters of Antauro Humala tore up the paving stones in Arequipa's beautiful plaza de armas during the 'Andahuaylazo' in January 2006 (a 'rebellion' in the Andean town of Andahuaylas that achieved only the death of three provincial policeman).

Back in New Zealand, immersed in written history and politics, I castigate myself for becoming so blinkered and bourgeois. Latin American history has seen such unrelenting domination of political and economic power by small elites, and such exclusion of indigenous people and the rural poor, that oppositional politics seems an obvious response, perhaps the only way that marginalised groups have made any gains.

Then I read this article from La Republica, and it takes me back . In the frigid and chaotic Andean city of Juliaca, a group of concerned citizens decided to protest against the price rise of basic goods. Hundreds of people blocked streets with stones, and impeded the transit of the the few bicycles and taxis. Later, a few of them went down to the residence of the regional president and threw stones through his window. Then they did the same at the house of Juliaca's mayor, whom they accused of 'being in league with [Peruvian president] Alan Garcia'

The unavoidable question for me is: why? In the abstract, we can talk about poverty, frustration and exclusion. But how throwing stones through someone's window is ever going to help anything, let alone make food prices go down, is unclear. Sure, the national government continues to appear distant and uncaring, but not even they can do much about the international price of foodstuffs. As for being in league with the president, there are indeed constitutional requirements that regional authorities do not act directly in contradiction of national policies. But these authorities were democratically elected by the people of the region. Privileged local elites, maybe, though the mayor of Juliaca, David MamanĂ­ Paricahua, is (I deduce from his name) of indigenous background

This routine is repeated so often, it's almost as if the blocking streets and throwing stones were themselves the real purpose, and the political cause just an excuse. Maybe it's reactionary, but sometimes you can't help thinking that development problems have their roots in some social and cultural malaise that renders debates about economic structure and social policy largely irrelevant. How to get beyond such a malaise, is something I confess to having little idea about.

No comments: