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Behind Peru's explosion of violence

Native people hold spears during a protest in Bagua province, a remote Amazon region of northern Peru, June 4, 2009.
REUTERS/Felix Paricahua
Native people hold spears during a protest in Bagua province, a remote Amazon region of northern Peru, June 4, 2009.

Violence has erupted in Peru after the government sent police to clear Indians blocking a highway in the Amazon. Indigenous groups have been protesting since early April, demanding the government repeal laws that open the region to oil and natural gas extraction.

Twenty-three police officers have been killed in the worst violence in the country since the Maoist Shining Path insurgency was put down in the early 1990s.

GlobalPost asked Maxwell A. Cameron, a professor in Latin American comparative politics at the University of British Columbia, why the violence matters and how it fits into the history of indigenous movements and foreign development in the Andean nation.

GP: What's behind the recent violence in Peru?

MC: These protests are part of the conflict over efforts to develop oil and gas in an area where the native tribes feel they have a right to ancestral lands. We've seen a really dramatic increase in these kinds of conflicts in Peru, happening in areas like this, in the Amazon, in rural areas. You have the effects of these developments — pollution, loss of control of land — coupled with the perception that others are getting rich off the resources. There were a series of laws passed, including the free trade agreement between the U.S. and Peru, that really restrict the ability of indigenous people to make claims on territory or resources and they're fighting back.

GP: Bolivia and Ecuador have traditionally had stronger indigenous movements than Peru. What's different now?

MC: Part of the reason is the legacy of the internal conflict, the fear of violence [from the Shining Path insurgency in Peru]. What we're seeing in the past few years, as that conflict fades into the past, are these sorts of conflicts replacing it. There are several cases in Latin America where social movements preceded significant political changes. These resulted in some cases in the rise of politicians, like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia, who have taken power and are carrying out the political agenda set by these movements. Peru is a bit of an anomaly in the region because it has not shifted left like these other countries. President Alan Garcia is continuing the conservative policies of his predecessor. People are pushing back, saying hang on a moment, you can't run roughshod over our rights and just let multinational corporations do what they please. In the past, these conflicts haven't really resulted in any kind of national mobilization — what is significant here is the potential for this conflict to transcend this particular piece of real estate.

GP: How is foreign investment playing into this?

MC: With the horrendous crisis in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Peru became one of the most dangerous places in the world to do business. And yet it's a country with enormous resources. So when former President Alberto Fujimori was able to open the country to investment and gave generous contracts, there was a high incentive. And then of course by the time that he left office, or shortly after, Latin America began experiencing a commodities boom and Peru was looking like an investor paradise. There's a real problem with the local governments not knowing how to spend the royalty money or not getting access to the money, so the whole business of what you do with all of the wealth that these investors have paid into the country is one of the most important political issues in Peru today.

GP: Peru has been blaming Bolivia and Venezuela for the violence. What's behind that?

MC: That's a compete distraction and another way of suggesting that the government itself is not responsible and of shifting the blame and also of trying to characterize the leader and the movement as being unpatriotic. All of which is a distraction from the fact that what you have here is a mobilization of people who are frustrated with government policies. This is a country that is scarcely governable, with incredible inequality, deep resentment and without a functioning public sector; a country that has always governed in a very autocratic way.

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Comments (1)

The U.S. "free" trade agreement is one that was devised by the Bush administration. It should NEVER have been voted upon by our Congress because, like other agreements before it, it gives transnational corporations rights over Peru's natural resources--without protections for the environment or workers. These companies could very well destroy the Amazon forest, which is not only the home of the indigenous protestors but also provides the northern hemisphere with oxygen during our winter months.

While indigenous peoples of Bolivia and Venezuela have been blessed with presidents who stand up for their rights as workers and who insist that natural resources belong to their countries, not to corporations who will bleed them dry and then leave. In Peru, on the other hand, while the indigenous peoples have plans for the peaceful and environmentally friendly development of the area, their president would rather have big bucks for a short time than long-term sustainable development.

I notice that the writer of this article does not mention how many protesters have been killed by the police officers (and, I believe, the army) sicked on them by their president (who made sure the new laws were passed). And how these forces attacked protesters at two in the morning while they slept, first filling the air with tear gas and then shooting protesters -- most unarmed, some with spears -- as they tried to get away.

Our trade policy in South America is bad bad bad. We are no longer the Good Neighbor envisioned by Franklin Roosevelt, but the Big Bully from the North.

(I believe Amy Goodman has more information at the web site.)