Peru: General strike is answered with military siege

President announces 60-day state of emergency

The province of Cajamarca has become a political epicentre where the masses have organised a general strike against the abuses of the mining industry. President Ollanta Humala has betrayed his election promises and besieged the town for two months, "for the sake of piece and quiet". This has meant democratic rights being denied to the population, and continued increased profits for the mining industry at the expense of the environment.

On the highlands of Cajamarca, the fate of the Inca empire was determined five hundred years ago. Fransisco Pizarro attacked the indigenous peoples and captured the Incas in a bloody ambush. From then on, the destruction of a civilisation eventually became a fact. It looks like Cajamarca has become the arena of another historic battle. The masses have gone on a general strike lasting seven days and the president on 4 December, declared a State of Emegency of 60 days.

The background to this drama is that big deposits of gold have been found in the area. These are the largest gold reserves in the country, estimated to be worth almost five billion US$. The planned gold and silver mine, Conga, would mean that at least four alpine lakes will be drained dry. Today they are used for drinking water. The highland is rich in minerals and there are many examples where the local population has been forced to face vicious harassment, in spite of nice promises from politicians and mining directors, while the natural greenery slowly withers and dies.

An example is the gold mine of Yanacocha which has caused massive environmental damage to the surrounding vegetation. The eco-system in the area is vulnerable and is threatened by environmental degradation. All Peruvian presidents have claimed that the mining industry will mean a future for the provinces in the form of work opportunities etc. But although Peru is incredibly rich in natural resources, the profits have never benefited the people.

The new mine is an extension of the Yanacocha mine and is owned by Newmonte Mining Corp. based in Denver, Colorado. Cajamarca is the Peruvian province with most mines and the contrast between the pros and cons of the mining industry is evident for the inhabitants. Yanacocha is the largest gold mine in Latin America and at the end of its productive life.

During the Presidential election campaign last spring, Ollanta Humala visited Cajamarca with the message: "You can´t drink gold". 80% of the voters in Calamarca voted for Humala. He went on to win the election and today resides in the Presidential palace. People are angry when the government dismisses them as "a loud mouthed minority of radicals" who "with mafia-like methods try to put pressure on the government" and says that they "lack common sense". The government is treating its former voters with open contempt.

Farmers, youths and transport workers have shown their anger, and the provincial government in Cajamarca, controlled by the communist Patria Roja, has sided with the population.

The seven-day general strike in Cajamarca, which affected the whole town, blocked the roads and cost the tourist trade more than €10 million in lost income for restaurants and hotels, was called off on 1 December. This was after the mining company, Newmont, and the President had agreed to cancel continued preparations in the area. The reason was declared to be to secure a ‘secure working environment’ for the staff who had found the political tension of the last month threatening.

The protesters are certain that the gold and silver mine at Conga will pollute water supplies in the area. The emptied lakes are going to be replaced by four reservoirs. The biggest of these will be used to wash the precious metals out of crushed boulders with the help of cyanide, a lethal chemical.

The media boasted that the people had won and that Ollanta had "been flushed away"; "been hurled away by the waves of struggle” and other witty phrases. The rightwing, has also in a populist way, tried to use the conflict as a way of hitting the government. Later they implied that he gave in too easily. In spite of the rumours and the headlines, the people have not yet secured a victory.

Instead of concessions, the President has now declared a state of emergency in the four provinces involved. He has done this in spite of the fact that the general strike was called off to allow further negotiations. The governor, Santos, has been accused by the Ministry of the Interior of committing crimes against national security. They have asked prosecutors to sentence him for obstruction of essential occupations. If found guilty he faces at least two years in jail. Whether he will be prosecuted remains to be seen.

The State of Emergency makes the government look ridiculous, said the governor. Everything is quite normal in Cajamarca. The protests go on but by other means. “We condemn the State of Emergency and distance ourselves from all types of violence”, he declared to the Peruvian press.

What is at stake is not a little pocket money. The mining industry and the Peruvian governments have always worked in close "cooperation". Newmont in Peru recently showed in its third quarterly report, profits of over 635 million US$, an increase from 533 million last year. For them, poisoned drinking water in a Peruvian mountain range means nothing compared to the price of shares on the stock exchange.

Big parts of the fragmented Peruvian left took part in Ollanta´s election campaign. The willingness to vote against the rightwing candidate grew in the second round. The two candidates who went through to the second round were the nationalist Ollanta Humala and the righwing extremist Keiko Fujimori. Keiko is the daughter of the sentenced and hated semi-dictator, Alberto Fujimori.

The CWI warned that the hopes in Ollanta´s leftwing rhetoric soon could turn to anger if the new government did not keep their promises.

The Peruvian left allied itself with Ollanta without warning the workers’ of the character his government would assume and that they would inevitably come into conflict with it. A revolutionary socialist left must show the need for independent struggles from below and the need to build a fighting workers´ party, rather than sowing illusions in one or other candidate in the elections. To one day give uncritical support to a candidate in the elections, who then attacks the workers and indigenous people with the help of army and police, discredits the role of socialists.

Socialists are not against participating in elections to capitalist parliaments. The working class can use positions they have won in local councils and parliaments to propagate their politics and programme and expose the capitalist representatives and prepare for struggle.

The combative workers, youth and rural population have challenged the rightwing politics of the government. Demonstrations of support have been held all over the country against the greed of the government. The movement needs to be spread to other provinces. The mining industry amounts to 61% of the economy of the country. If the Conga-project comes to a standstill, it puts a great deal of other investments in question.

The government claims that without the new mining income it will not be possible to carry out the promised social projects. The mining industries working in Peru, a majority of them owned by the western companies, have agreed to a “social tax” on mining. This amounts to an estimated few billion US$ per year. But in order to have the blessing of the mining industry, the government has to listen to their lobbyists.

The CWI believes that a system that both guarantees work, water, sustainable eco-systems and prosperity for the masses is not possible under capitalism. Apart from Conga, at the moment over 60 local protest movements are taking place against the building of mines where the environment and rights of the local people are being violated. The profits will furthermore not benefit the poor population of the country. The western owned companies are pumping all the profits out of the country and leave work-related injuries, chemicals and damaged or devastated forests. Infra-structure, work and extraction of raw materials must be controlled by the workers and local population.

This is the reason CWI demands the nationalisation of the mining industry in Peru, with compensation only paid to any small share holders on the basis of proven need, under the common and democratic control by the workers and local people.

The CWI calls on all active groups, unions, students, farmers, workers and poor people in Peru to unite in a struggle for real workers´ and farmers´ government, closely allied with the poor and oppressed people across the continent.

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December 2011