State of emergency inflames Peruvian workers

Late Tuesday Alejandro Toledo, president of Peru, declared a 30-day state of emergency. This was the Peruvian government's response to growing social tension in the country. A wave of strikes has been sweeping the country over the past two weeks with more and more workers coming out. Late Tuesday Alejandro Toledo, president of Peru declared a 30-day state of emergency in which internal security will be in the hands of the military in twelve of the country's provinces. This is the second time he has called a state of emergency in less than a year. This was the Peruvian government's response to growing social tension in the country. A wave of strikes has been sweeping the country over the past two weeks with more and more workers coming out. During his election campaign in 2001 Toledo had demagogically promised to double workers' salaries if he came to power. Toledo had also promised never to sell off state-owned utility companies. He promised jobs, prosperity and a return to "true democracy".

On the basis of this populist demagoguery he was able to sweep to power, after the mass movement had overthrown the anti-working class bonapartist government of Fujimori. The workers of Peru two years ago rejected Fujimori's heritage and voted in favour of what they saw as a force that opposed privatisation and defended workers' living standards. Instead they got exactly the opposite of what they had voted for. That cannot really be a surprise to anyone who knows something about Toledo's background. He is a US-trained former adviser to the World Bank! So it was a case of the wolf being put in charge of looking after the sheep.

Already by July of last year violent street protests had broken out in Arequipa in the south. The protests were against the proposed plans to privatise two state-run power companies in the area. Toledo responded by imposing a local 30-day state of emergency. That was a case of a localised struggle. Since then things have moved on and now all the workers of Peru are presenting their bill. Teachers in particular have been staging daily protests all over the country in support of their demands. Their protest became contagious and began to involve other sectors.

Teachers' strike

Teachers, organised in the SUTEP union, had been out for two weeks prior to the declaration of the state of emergency, demanding an increase of $60 to an average monthly wage of $200, and on Monday of this week farmers in different parts of the country had joined the strike. As part of the protests 35 roadblocks had been set up along the Pan-American Highway by striking agricultural workers. On Tuesday the strike spread to eight hospitals and thousands of health centres involving 35,000 doctors and nurses who came out demanding wages rises. The court workers have also been on strike for ten days. The aim of the state of Emergency is to remove the roadblocks, stop the strikes in the agricultural sector and reopen the schools. Education Secretary, Gerardo Ayzanoa immediately declared the teachers' strike illegal.

Interestingly, among the priorities in Toledo's first statement was the protection of "public and private investment in the country". He said that people's rights had to be protected - including among these the "right to go to work" - ignoring of course that by implementing the emergency measures he has taken away one of the most fundamental democratic rights which is the right to strike! The state of emergency means the president has powers to suspend or limit individual freedom. The military will have power to enter anyone's home, and also the right of assembly can be either limited or completely abolished. These amount to de facto dictatorial powers. Interestingly the president called businessmen and owners of the mass media (newspapers and TV channels) to a meeting to discuss what is to be done.

The bosses are fully backing the measures. Of course. It is in their interests that they have been taken. And according to the Chancellor, Allan Wagner Tizon, "investors and the international community" (a euphemism for the IMF, the World Bank, and the major imperialist powers, first and foremost the United States) value countries where the government has authority and is capable of maintaining order.

The exporters' association, ADEX, has tried to distinguish between the rank and file workers who are protesting and the "real leaders". They have appealed to the latter to "come to their senses" and to enter a dialogue with the government. They are obviously trying to cripple the movement by putting pressure on these leaders and hoping they will call off the strike action. But the situation has a logic of its own.

Once such a movement develops it cannot be stopped by such measures. That is why the state is now baring its teeth. Workers learn very quickly in these conditions. The illusions the media, the school system, the church had meticulously cultivated are suddenly removed. As one teacher in Lima commented, "This isn't democracy. They send out soldiers as soon as they are unable to manage."

Here we have the unmasking of the state in a classical manner. In normal times the legal system, the military, the police, the mass media, all pretend to be impartial and above class conflict. In reality of course they constantly work at maintaining the rule of the rich. Now faced with a rising mass movement that mask is thrown to one side. This is serious business. The movement is becoming so powerful that the whole set up of the Peruvian ruling class and their imperialist backers can be torn down by the masses. Now everything is stood on its head. The police and military have been ordered to defend the rights of the "majority". What a strange concept they have of the meaning of the word "majority"! The real majority of Peruvians - the workers, the peasants, the poor, the students – are totally opposed to the policies of the government.

Collapse in Toledo's popularity

The masses are learning important lessons in the hard school of experience. First there was the disaster of Fujimori. This has now been followed by the disaster of Toledo. Paradoxically Peru's economy actually grew by 5.2 percent last year, the fastest in Latin America. But the growth did not "trickle down" (as the saying goes) to the ordinary working people of Peru. The poor have continued to get poorer. Even Toledo himself, while shedding crocodile tears, admitted that his government had not been capable of reducing poverty and that in fact the number of poor people had gone up "in spite" of his economic policies!

Now, after only 22 months in power Toledo has lost a lot of support. A recent opinion poll showed that only 14 percent of the population still support him, yet he has the barefaced audacity to claim to stand for the "majority". The real majority is either on strike, blocking roads or at least in support of these protests. At the same time that striking workers are ordered to go back to work, suddenly the government has decided to increase the wages of the police and has added this to its budget proposals that it is planning to put before the Peruvian parliament. That shows how worried they are. They need to have the solid backing of the police at every level. A movement like the one that is unfolding in Peru can be contagious and can have an impact on the ranks of the police. After all, most ordinary members of the police force belong to the same class that is now protesting about low wages.

Toledo thought that by simply declaring this state of emergency he could get everything "back to normal". He even added that if these measures achieved the desired result of "convincing" people to stop the protest then he might even magnanimously apply the emergency measures only for 15 or 20 days. That means that if the workers voluntarily accept to live in dire poverty without protesting then there will be no need for emergency powers. It is like saying "if you commit suicide I won't have to kill you".

Reaction of the workers

Strangely enough, the workers of Peru have no intention of committing suicide. Instead of achieving the desired "stability" and "order" the State of Emergency has led to further unrest. The leader of SUTEP, Nilver Lopez, has announced that the nationwide teachers' strike will continue and he accused the government of declaring "war" on the 280,000 teachers involved in the strike. This is true in more ways than one. A military detachment was stationed right outside the headquarters of the CGT (General Confederation of Workers of Peru), the main union federation.

But all over Peru the striking workers have refused to bow down. They are standing up and challenging the government. Clashes with the police and army have broken out all over Peru. In Pativlica striking agricultural workers and small farmers have come into conflict with the military and there are reports of people being wounded. In Huanuco teachers marched against the police who responded with tear gas. Some of the teachers were arrested. The army has taken over all the bridges that lead into Lima and Tingo Maria. In the town of Trujillo, again, thousands of teachers clashed with the police.

In Chiclayo 8,000 teachers, members of SUTEP, clashed with the police and again the police fired tear gas canisters to disperse the demonstration. But instead of fleeing, the teachers turned on the police throwing stones at them and the centre of the town took on the appearance of a battlefield. Five teachers and trade union leaders were arrested. More thousands of teachers clashed with the police in Huaraz, Chimbote, Pucallpa and Cajamarca. There were at least eight wounded and thirteen arrests.

In Pucallpa seven thousand demonstrators marched in support of the strike organised by the "Frente de Lucha de los Intereses de Ucayali. The demonstrators were demanding a reduction in the price of petrol and gas and a change in the Forestry Law. More than 40 people were arrested. The agricultural workers have also refused to respect the State of Emergency and there is talk that they are planning to organise a convoy of tractors to occupy the main town centres. The workers in the Courts have reacted in a similar manner. Hundreds of court workers picketed the justice palace. The police ordered them to disperse but they responded by barricading themselves inside the building until the police accepted to withdraw their forces.

Unfortunately, the leader of the Lima branch of the Sindicato de Trabajadores del Poder Judicial (Union of the Court Workers) declared that they would continue their indefinite strike without organising protest marches around the country. This is an attempt to appease the authorities by appearing to be "moderate", but that is not going to stop the police and the army. What is need is militant action and to widen the movement to include all sectors and transform it into a general strike.

Splits at the top

In the face of such a massive reaction by the striking workers, the leader of the opposition APRA party, and ex-president, Alan Garcia, has tried to distance himself from the measures of the government. He has called on the government to enter into a "dialogue" with the leaders of the teachers' union, the agricultural workers and other striking workers. The generals secretary of the APRA, Jorge del Castillo, said that these measures would only achieve the opposite of what was intended, an even more militant response on the part of the workers. The APRA is trying to play the role of appeaser. Its leaders have declared that it wrong to block roads and take over public and private buildings. Thus they do not support the movement of the workers, they are merely worried that the strong-arm methods of the government will actually lead to an even more dangerous position for the Peruvian ruling class.

This reveals that there are splits opening up at the top. The ruling class is divided as to how to proceed. Toledo has opted for the heavy hand. He had hoped these measures would cow the workers, but as has often happened in history, and attempt to clamp down on a growing movement can have the opposite effect to that which is desired. It can galvanise the movement and propel it forward. Marx pointed out that the revolution needs the whip of the counterrevolution. That is what is happening now in Peru.

The situation that is unfolding in Peru is further confirmation of the revolutionary potential that exists throughout the whole of the Latin American subcontinent. We have had the movement in Argentina. Before that we had the situation in Ecuador in 2000 when the workers and peasants could have easily taken power. Then we had the developments in Venezuela, where incredibly the mass movement defeated a coup which had actually seized power and was backed by the US administration. Reaction has been consistently defeated over a whole period in Venezuela. We have had the movements in Bolivia. There is the ongoing guerrilla struggle in Colombia, accompanied by important strike movements.

All-Latin American Revolution

When we are told that international revolution is not possible all we have to do is point to Latin America. Revolutionary developments are on the agenda in every country of Latin America. Peru is further confirmation of this. The revolutionary mole is popping up in one Latin American country after another.

What is missing is not the revolutionary fervour of the masses. It is abundantly clear that the masses are seeking a revolutionary way out of the terrible crisis that is afflicting them. What is needed is a genuine revolutionary leadership. In Peru we have some trade union leaders saying that the intention of the present wave of struggle is not to overthrow the government. The Peruvian SUTEP teachers' union is leading a very militant struggle, but its leadership is incapable of understanding the tasks at hand. Nilver Lopez, its leader, has declared that it was and never has been the intention of the teachers to destabilise the government. He believes that the struggle can be kept within the traditional confines of a mere "trade union" struggle. The problem is the capitalists don't see it that way. They are prepared to use the military and police to force the workers back to work. This is no ordinary trade union struggle. The question of power is being posed in Peru.

What is needed is to generalise the movement into a general strike and from there to move on to the task of struggling for a genuine government of the workers. Action committees should be set up in every factory, office, school, and neighbourhood. Workers' assemblies should be organised to discuss a plan of action. The farmers should link up directly with the workers in the cities. If the workers and agricultural workers and farmers were to link up, this would represent the overwhelming majority of the country. It would be an invincible force if only it were allowed to express its force. The only thing that is lacking is the leadership.

All thinking workers and youth will be asking themselves the question ‘where do we go from here?' What is to be done? The answer is unite the most advanced layers among the trade union activists and youth activists into a party of the working class based on the revolutionary programme of Marxism.

The problems of the Peruvian workers cannot be solved by trying to compromise with Toledo or anyone who may replace him. The answer lies in expropriating the capitalists. Nationalise their companies. Place them under workers' control and management and plan production according to the needs of the workers. That is the only way. Of course this has to be done in co-ordination with the workers of Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Argentina and so on. In all these countries the conditions for revolution have either matured or are maturing. A successful revolution in one country, such as Peru, would set the continent ablaze and no force on earth could stop it.