A two-day national agrarian strike against a pending Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States ended on Wednesday February 20th, leaving four farmers dead after President Alan Garcia declared a state of emergency and ordered a violent crackdown. Farmers are demanding financial support from the government in the face of a predicted increase in the importation of highly subsidized U.S. crops with the passage of the trade deal. 700 farmers were detained, a number of whom face terrorism charges.
The strike, called by the Peruvian Farmers Confederation (Confederación Campesina del Peru, CCP) and other organizations began on Monday February 18th and ended once the government agreed to talks. The strike was in protest of what the CCP called “government indifference that has descended into the total abandonment of our nation’s farms.”
Over the last week teachers, doctors, and residents also struck, angry at a series of neoliberal policies advanced by the Garcia administration.
The CCP also demanded an end to plans to privatize and exploit public lands in the Amazon, attacks on teachers’ job security, attempts to privatize water, and a proposed law that would allow the privatization of cultural patrimony, including a number of sites in historic Cusco. Tens of thousands of Cusco residents blocked access to the ancient Incan ceremonial complex of Machu Pichu and other popular tourist sites and partially shut down the city’s airport, leaving over two thousand tourists stranded.
The Garcia administration vacillated between declarations that the strike was a failure and angry denunciations of farmers as “extremists” and “enemies of national development.” According to José Coronado of the CCP, “On Monday the 18th, when men from the country began their protest, the Minister of the Interior, who in reality is a minister of nothing, came out and said that the country was in order, ‘that nothing happened,’ while the country’s highways were blocked by the agrarian strike. And the person pretending to be the Minister of Agriculture, who in reality is nothing more than a private banker, came out to say that ‘the agrarian strike is a failure,’ and then, as if nothing happened, went on to declare a State of Emergency in the provinces where the strike was strong.” While claiming that all was normal on television, police cracked down against protesters in an effort to stamp out the strike, which generated an estimated $8.6 million in economic losses.
The CCP and other groups condemned the Garcia administration’s violence and called for an end to the criminalization of protest. It was also noted that official racism played a large role in the violence, a variety of brutality uniquely acceptable against indigenous people. Coronado charged that “today Alan Garcia came out and congratulated the police that assassinated our brother farmers and producers, who are considered second class citizens and accused of being terrorists.” But the violence indicates a desperate Garcia administration, forced to simultaneously confront large-scale protests and blockades all over the country.
Activists are holding the Garcia responsible for the police violence. According to Coronado, when the government says “‘just repress them!,’ the police hear ‘just kill them!’.”
The state of emergency suspended a number of constitutional rights, including the right to public assembly and the right against arbitrary home searches. The declaration also gave the military control over domestic policing in the eight provinces.
The U.S. Congress voted to approve the Peru Free Trade Agreement in December. Democratic Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama, along with his chief competitor Hillary Clinton and other prominent Democrats, lined up to support the deal.
While claiming that the U.S. needs to stop passing more NAFTA-style trade deals, Obama also asserted that the Peru agreement marked progress for labor rights: “The Peruvian agreement contains the very labor agreements that labor and our allies have been asking for,” he said. Apparently, the demands of Peruvian farmers have not been noted.
Shamefully, the AFL-CIO declined to oppose the deal claiming that the deal contained encouraging labor and environmental protections, giving a number Democrats cover to vote “yes.” This despite the strong opposition of Peruvian unions and farmer organizations. A sad moment for international solidarity.
With four Peruvian farmers dead, it is remarkable that these protests received so little attention in the U.S. press. The Peruvian strike contradicts the argument that our free trade deals are pacts of charitable benevolence, an economic program guaranteed to lift the stubborn masses out of poverty. Moreover, millions of people in the United States have been demanding an end to free market fundamentalism, so there is a dangerous prospect that we might sympathize with the Peruvian strikers, in spite of anti-immigrant hysteria and nationalism-fueled wars of aggression. As people in the U.S. and Latin America increasingly oppose corporate-written trade deals, the ruling class media are terrified of our solidarity.
It is time for people to join together across borders. Despite the machinations of some Democrats and labor leaders, workers and farmers throughout the Americas are demanding a new model.
Daniel Denvir is an independent journalist from the United States and a collaborator at the Latin American Information Agency (www.alainet.org) in Quito, Ecuador.