Peruvian President Toledo faces wave of protests, slumping popularity

Associated Press -- 14 May 2002

by Craig Mauro

LIMA, Peru -- Pelted with water bottles and bags of trash, President Alejandro Toledo had to duck under plastic police shields as he left a garment market in a working-class Lima neighborhood where he was jeered and heckled by the crowd.

Meant as the stage for a proud announcement of a newly signed law to promote workers' rights and small businesses, the recent market visit ended as a graphic display of the predicament facing Toledo, whose popularity is collapsing after just nine months in office.

Widely criticized for lacking leadership qualities and making too many broken promises, Toledo has watched his approval ratings plunge below 25 percent.

A wave of regional protests and near-daily marches in the capital, Lima, have weakened his grip on government, and unions and regional groups planned a national protest Tuesday -- the first since he took office.

A 56-year-old former business school professor and Stanford-trained economist who grew up in poverty, Toledo himself helped lead fiery street protests two years ago against President Alberto Fujimori's authoritarian government.

Fujimori resigned months later amid a massive corruption scandal, and a flood of optimism washed over Peru as a transitional government took over, heralding Peru's return to a full democracy. Last July, Toledo was inaugurated with approval ratings of nearly 60 percent.

As protests spread, those days are now a distant memory.

Civic groups in the southern cities of Arequipa and Tacna called a regional strike Tuesday to protest the privatization of two electric companies. National unions and groups in other regions have scheduled their own protests to coincide.

Their complaints and demands vary, but many Peruvians have expressed frustration with a stalled economy and lack of jobs in a country where half the population lives in poverty. Toledo's main campaign promise was a pledge to create millions of jobs over five years.

"I'm disappointed with all the deception," said Gladys Matumae, 45, an unemployed mother of five who was waiting at a bus stop in Lima. "A president has to be firm, strong, and not lie. He promised so much without even giving it a thought."

Giovanna Penaflor, director of the Imasen polling firm, said Toledo's efforts to spark the economy back to life after four years of stagnation have been viewed as wavering and indecisive.

"There is a growing sense of remoteness on the part of the people with respect to the authorities," she said. "There is also a sensation of a lack of leadership, a lack of a defined direction in the management of the government."

In a televised address Sunday night, Toledo called for patience.

"I am convinced that the majority of Peruvians don't want strikes or blocked roads. They want peace and jobs. Let me get to work, for God's sake," he pleaded. "Our commitment was to work to resolve the country's problems in five years and not nine months."

He promised that the government would not suppress peaceful protests Tuesday, but said violence or unlawfulness would be punished.

His top law enforcement official, Interior Minister Fernando Rospigliosi, asserted that extremist groups are trying to take advantage of the growing discontent to destabilize the government.

"What some organizations are planning for the 14th (of May) is not a strike. It is a day of violence," Rospigliosi said. "These organizers are trying to destabilize democracy. I ask the population to reflect on where these extreme groups want to take us."

Former president Alan Garcia -- who lost to Toledo in the presidential run-off last June and leads the populist Aprista party, Peru's main opposition force -- criticized that interpretation of the protests.

"That is blaming others for one's failures," said Garcia, whose 1985-1990 government ended in hyperinflation, economic chaos and a surging guerrilla war. "It's ostrich politics. Everyone is to blame except the government."