20,000 March to Challenge Peru's Toledo

Reuters -- 3 June 2003

by Missy Ryan

LIMA, Peru - At least 20,000 Peruvian workers streamed through the old Colonial area of Lima on Tuesday, shouting slogans against President Alejandro Toledo in the biggest act of defiance yet against a week-old state of emergency.

"We put you (in office) with marches! We will remove you with marches!" protesters shouted, referring to Toledo, a one-time shoeshine boy who won fame in 2000 leading marches against the hard-line regime of ex- President Alberto Fujimori.

Police in riot gear stood guard as teachers, farmers and construction workers demanding better pay and work conditions rallied against the president, who sent out troops last week to curb strikes threatening the economy.

Police fired tear gas at protesters in several towns, including in the second biggest city of Arequipa, where a regional strike froze nearly all public transport and shut schools and universities. All told, protesters took to streets in at least 20 towns and cities, the state ombudsman said.

Many Peruvians complain that Toledo, whose approval ratings hover around 15 percent, has failed to fulfill campaign promises of jobs and prosperity and say he turns a deaf ear to the poor, who make up the majority of this Andean nation of 27 million.

Most analysts expect Toledo, whose term lasts until 2006, to muddle through this crisis. But the cash- strapped government says it cannot satisfy all the needs of Peruvians.

While officials market Peru as the fastest growing country in Latin America with 5.2 percent growth in 2002 and warn that the disruption will scare off new investors, ordinary Peruvians say they are not benefiting from the growth.


"Marching is the only way people can express themselves ... We won't remain silent," said Eduardo Montenegro, president of a leftist youth group that wants to government to end the market-friendly economic policies it says have brought nothing but "hunger, misery and low salaries" to Peru.

Teachers took to the streets in their 23rd day of a strike, seeking a salary increase and other benefits, despite a meeting on Monday with a newly designated government mediator, Roman Catholic Bishop Luis Bambaren.

The government says it will lift the emergency, which has been slammed as sparking rather than quelling violent protests since it took effect last Wednesday, as soon as teachers halt their strike and order is restored.

"Toledo needs to act fast. He could end this week well if he deals with the teacher strike and lifts the state of emergency," said Santiago Pedraglio, a political analyst who provides commentary for several news media. He said the president should make swift Cabinet changes to better deal with pressing social demands.

Last week, troops killed one person and wounded more than a dozen when they fired on rock-throwing students in the southern city of Puno. That was one of a score of violent confrontations across the country in which more than 300 were arrested.

The protests in Peru mirrors disenchantment in neighboring countries against a decade of free-market reforms that many feel have not helped the poor. In Bolivia, at least 27 people were killed in anti- government protests in February. (Additional reporting by Miguel Zegarra in Arequipa, Marco Aquino and Mary Powers in Lima, Susan Schneider in New York)