Struggle in Peru intensifies

Following on from yesterday's article, Fred Weston, updates the situation as it is unfolding in Peru. At least one student has already been killed in clashes with the security forces, and the movement does not look at all as if it is prepared to back off.

As we pointed out in yesterday's article, the State of Emergency declared by the President of Peru, Toledo, rather than bring the situation "under control" has led to growing class tensions in Peruvian society. Clashes between workers and students and the army and police have continued.

This weekend the SUTEP (teachers' union) is calling a special national conference to decide whether to continue or to call off its strike. The leader of the union, Nilver López, declared on a local Peruvian radio that if the government comes up with a serious proposal then the teachers will decide on it "objectively". He also added that talks with the government are about to resume, but added that the proposed increase in wages of 100 new ‘soles' would not be acceptable as it excluded those about to retire and retired teachers. He said that a solution to the conflict could be found if the government came up with a plan to double wages over a period.

Responsibility of SUTEP (teachers' union)

This is an attempt to reach a compromise between the union and the government. No doubt serious strategists within the Peruvian ruling class are studying how to reach a compromise that could defuse the whole situation. The teachers have played a key role in leading the struggle. Their struggle spilled over into other sectors (peasants, doctors, nurses, court workers, etc.). The perspective of a general strike is there. What is the point in the SUTEP reaching some kind of rotten compromise, when everyone knows that Toledo cannot be trusted? He has reneged on all his promises. Twice he has declared a State of Emergency. He is the representative of capital, both Peruvian and international. He will never govern in the interests of the Peruvian workers. Even if he is forced to some form of compromise today, this will only serve to buy time and prepare for a bigger attack later.

Therefore this weekend's conference of the SUTEP should be used as a springboard from which to launch an appeal to all the workers of Peru. The first task is to bring together rank and file union representatives of the teachers together with the doctors, nurses, court workers and farmers. Their action should be co-ordinated and appeal for a general strike should go out to all the other unions as well. Even from a purely trade union logic negotiations can only be successful if they start with the workers in a position of strength. If the workers go back to work why should the government make any concessions? It would send out the wrong signal, i.e. that the unions are weak; when in reality they are a very powerful force. The point is to use this immense power. Thus the leaders of the SUTEP have a very big responsibility on their shoulders. They must not call on their forces to retreat now that the battle lines have clearly been marked. The ranks of the SUTEP must organise to put pressure on the leadership to make sure that it does not waver.

Student killed

In the meantime the clashes on the streets are intensifying. There has been a major confrontation between the students of the Universidad Nacional del Altiplano and the army and police. One student was killed by gunshots when the security forces opened fire on the protesting students. A further 36 were wounded, one of them seriously. Sources from the Puno hospital said that those killed might actually be two. Most of the injuries were caused by the police and army charging on the students. Some of them showed clear symptoms of suffocation caused by the tear gas canisters fired by the security forces. Five army officers and eight policemen were also wounded.

All this happened when a group of students decided to occupy the Universidad Nacional del Altiplano. The students, knowing very well the reputation of the security forces, had come prepared, and had at least some rudimentary forms of defence. They had wooden poles, stones and possibly knives. This is the least that can be expected when the full force of the armed forces are thrown at the labour and student movements. The students held their ground and stopped the armed forces from entering the building.

Threat of "insubordination" among ranks of police

All this is even having an effect, as we had mentioned could happen, inside the ranks of the police force. The chiefs of police have come out publicly to deny that there is any kind of protest developing within the ranks of the police. According to some reports that had appeared in the Peruvian press, there were plans for some of the ranks of the police to organise a protest about their low wages. The chiefs of police have tried to play this down by saying that it was all organised by elements outside the police force. This is clearly an attempt to cover up what is really going on. The daily "Correo" assures us that the Ministry of the Interior has set up its own plan, called "Argos 2003" whose aim it is to weed out members of the police force who are preparing to carry out acts of "insubordination".

Yesterday we reported that there were plans in the government's budget to increase the wages of the police. We explained that a mass movement of the kind taking place in Peru today can be very contagious and can even have an effect on the ranks of the police force. That is why they were hurriedly trying to up their wages. It has come a little too late. The rumblings are already there. What we can say is this: when the movement starts to affect even the ranks of the police this reveals the revolutionary potential within society. In these conditions, if the leaders of the trade unions made a clear appeal to the police to organise themselves into a union and to refuse to take actions against the protesting workers and students, this could at the very least split the police force down the middle along class lines. It all depends on the determination of the movement to go forward and, in the last analysis on the preparedness of the leaders of the movement, in particular the trade union leaders, to go all the way.

Majority oppose Toledo

If the leaders were up to the situation they could sweep away Toledo and the whole gang of corrupt capitalist politicians around him. The overwhelming majority of the population would support such a move. Even now in the early stages of the movement the majority of Peruvians are against the State of Emergency. An opinion poll carried out by the University of Lima has revealed that 74 per cent of the population of the capital of Peru, Lima, disapprove of how Toledo has run the country and more than half are opposed to the declaration of a State of Emergency.

This shows that the balance of forces in Peru is enormously weighted in favour of the labour movement. The situation is rotten ripe for a revolutionary leadership to take the reins. The country is in a mess. Poverty has increased. Even the middle classes have been affected. All layers of society are being affected by this movement. The workers would clearly respond to the call for solidarity action and for the widening of the strike movement. The peasants are on the move as are the students. Even the police ranks are wavering.

Peru is facing a key turning point in its history. The labour movement has a golden opportunity to radically change society, uniting behind it other layers of society. If the leadership does not stand up to the tasks of history posed before it, the initiative can slip from its hands. This coming weekend's conference of the teachers' union has a heavy responsibility on its shoulders.

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