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Peru’s Indigenous Sacrifice Livelihoods in a Quest to Oust the President

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 3/28/2023 Marcelo Rochabrun

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Alejandro Paricahua wants Peru’s president to resign. An apparel vendor and the head of the largest merchant group in Juliaca, Paricahua has been helping coordinate a monthslong economic boycott that regularly brings this city of almost 300,000 people in the Puno region to a near-total standstill. The goal: to pressure President Dina Boluarte to hold new elections.

“We knew this was going to be a sacrifice,” says Paricahua, standing in a market stall, where he’s surrounded by rainbow-hued piles of shirts, jackets and sweaters. “We didn’t know this was going to drag out. We didn’t know this woman would stubbornly cling to power.”

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Peru has been roiled by the longest and bloodiest protests in decades, ever since then-President Pedro Castillo attempted to dissolve Congress in December, leading to his arrest and impeachment. Puno, a region of 1.2 million people that borders Bolivia, has seen the worst of the violence, with more deaths than in any other part of Peru.

A Region in Ferment | © Bloomberg A Region in Ferment |

Castillo, a peasant farmer and former teacher who pledged to nationalize Peru’s natural gas reserves and rewrite the country’s market-friendly constitution, was elected president by a razor-thin margin in 2021. But he and Boluarte, who ran as vice president, captured 89% of the vote in Puno, whose population is overwhelmingly Indigenous and poor. In Peru’s latest census, just over 90% of Puneños 12 years or older identified themselves as Indigenous, more than three times the total for the country as a whole.

Peru’s presidency has been a revolving door since 2000; in that time, only 6 of 10 presidents have served out their terms. In a poll published on the eve of Castillo’s impeachment, 87% of respondents endorsed the idea of holding new elections for president and Congress. Boluarte, once in office, also pronounced herself in favor, but Peru’s legislature has failed to take action to bring the vote forward. A group of leftist lawmakers have introduced a motion to initiate impeachment proceedings against Boluarte on grounds of “permanent moral incapacity” to rule, but it’s not clear they can muster the necessary votes to get the process started.

Recent surveys show that 70% of Peruvians would still like to see Boluarte relinquish the presidency before 2026. Yet, after an initial wave of street demonstrations, life has returned to normal across much of the country. Puno is the exception. During a three-day visit in early March, this reporter saw that roadblocks, street protests and strikes were an almost constant affair.

In interviews, dozens of Puneños described a region gutted by violence and bleeding from a self-inflicted economic wound. According to Minsur, the company operating the world’s fourth-largest tin mine, losses caused by worker strikes and road closures are running above $100 million.

The revolt has also brought the tourism industry to a total halt, while its effect on agriculture is harder to quantify as the region has also been experiencing a punishing drought. Macroconsult, a consulting firm based in Lima, expects Puno’s economy to shrink 5% this year while that of the entire country grows 1.9%. The share of Puneños living below the poverty line—which in Peru is defined as 378 soles ($100) per month—has skyrocketed from 43% to as much as 80% since the protests started, according to Peru’s finance ministry.

The hit to the local economy has been so large that businesses in Juliaca elected this month to dial back boycotts from four days a week to just two—Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Adherence was already faltering at some establishments when this reporter visited the area. At one hotel in Juliaca, staff rushed to close the entrance doors when they saw protesters approaching, only to reopen them when the demonstrators moved on.

“We can’t keep going. This protest is already a failure,” says one vendor, who requested anonymity because he doesn’t want to be branded a dissident.

Protest fatigue is also setting in at Antauta, a 2½-hour drive north of Juliaca. The town sits at such a high elevation—its center stands 4,150 meters (13,600 feet) above sea level—that it cannot sustain many crops or even alpacas. Most of Antauta’s residents provide accommodations and meals to 4,500 employees of Minsur’s San Rafael tin mine. The mine also supplies almost 80% of the Puno region’s tax revenue.

When Minsur shut down operations on Jan. 12, the move was initially celebrated by protesters. The mood has since shifted. “The company has requested to restart its mining operations and so have some residents who understandably demand that they need to keep working,” says Roger Mamani, an Antauta native who in 2020 led negotiations with the mine’s owners that resulted in a $50 million pledge to fund infrastructure improvements and other activities in the area.

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But in early March, Jesús Pilco, an official at Minsur, delivered some unpleasant news at a public forum held in Antauta’s main square, which features a modernist city hall building sheathed in glass: The company’s board of directors had decided to pause the investments until the mine was fully up and running again. (It was operating at 10% to 15% capacity earlier this month, according to a company source who requested anonymity, citing the volatile situation in the area.)

Although Minsur’s management initially said the closure—only the third in the mine’s 46-year history—was a show of solidarity with

protesters, the source said that, in reality, the decision was motivated in large part by “threats” from members of nearby communities who “went up to the mine to demand that we stop operations.”

“The fear they have is that people are going to show up to burn down their mining unit,” says Edgar Puma, the mayor of Antauta, who’s held several meetings with the company.

“The grass is dry, and anything can set it ablaze,” says the Minsur employee.

The airport in Juliaca was the site of violent clashes between protesters and police on Jan. 9 that left 18 people dead and 204 injured. Elisban Blas Mamani says he didn’t see who fired the shot that’s left him bed-bound and unable to work, but he describes being roughed up by police officers. “The police come and grab me … they hit me, they kicked me, they mistreated me in every way. They even stepped on me,” he says, speaking from the home he shares with his pregnant wife and two children.

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Nationwide, nobody has been arrested or charged in any of the more than 60 deaths that have resulted from protests, save for one case in which a policeman perished. Boluarte has further stoked tensions in Puno by saying the unrest is the work of “radical” elements who are involved in criminal activity such as illegal mining and smuggling. “To those who are protesting daily, who is financing you?” she asked in a nationally televised address in January. “Because you guys are not working, so what money are you bringing back to your homes?”

Boluarte has also said publicly that an “unofficial” source informed her that demonstrators in the region are being supplied with bullet by leftist extremists in Bolivia. None of the autopsies performed appear to back up that claim, though.

The hostility against Boluarte has found expression in chants like this one: “Dina asesina, el pueblo te repudia” (“Dina the assassin, the people repudiate you”). Another asks, “How many deaths will it take for you to quit?”

Groups of protesters blocking roads sometimes require drivers to step out of their vehicles and join them in chanting for a few minutes as a condition for being waved through.

Paricahua, the clothing salesman in Juliaca, acknowledges that the economic boycott is “unsustainable,” then adds: “But we also can’t ignore what’s going on.”

Roberta Cecenardo, who lives next to the big tin mine, says that she, for one, isn’t done fighting: “While Dina and the lawmakers don’t quit, there will be no peace. There will be no peace, and Puno never gets tired.”

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