New culture minister inherits poisoned chalice

14 July 2019

Yet another minister of culture was sworn in last week, Luis Jaime Castillo, an archaeologist. He replaces Ulla Homquist who had only lasted four months in post and left for health reasons. Castillo is the fourth minister in President Martín Vizcarra’s 16-month presidency.

In just ten years since it was first created, the Culture Ministry has been headed by no less than nine ministers, making it one of the most unstable institutions in the notoriously volatile Peruvian state. It was established by Alan García to bring together a series of cultural dependencies, museums, archaeological sites, dance and theatre troupes as well as the entity in charge of inter-cultural relations.

Chronically underfunded, it has had a wide variety of remits from heritage to cultural industries, while including the notoriously complex agency in charge of mediating between indigenous groups and major investors, specifically in mining.

Holmquist had in turn replaced former tourism specialist Roger Valencia, from Cuzco, after he was forced out after promoting a series of unpopular ideas which included that of moving the National Archive to the provincial city of Ayacucho. Before him, Patricia Balbuena, an anthropologist specialising in intercultural relations, had been forced to quit having been embroiled in a scandal involving the awarding of ministerial contracts to archaeologists.

During Holmquist’s tenure there emerged serious roof damage at the National Museum of Archaeology Anthropology and History, which is currently closed. Also, at the National Archive, there was also an ever-increasing risk of fire and leakage of sewage.

Castilla is an archaeologist by training who for many years directed the award-winning Larco museum in Lima. The new minister inherits two deeply problematic issues that divide the intellectual community in Peru: the new National Museum of Archaeology (MUNA) currently being built in the ruins of Pachacamac and the proposed international airport at Chinchero in Cuzco, built over archaeological remains in close proximity to the Sacred Valley of the Incas.

Castillo is tasked with defending these two deeply divisive projects. The museum is now close to completion and it is unlikely to be stopped, notwithstanding the lack of clarity as to what collections will be shown there and the damage being done to this supposedly protected site with its unique archaeological remains.

The issue of Chinchero is especially thorny as the petition to stop the airport has now reached 60,000 signatures and many experts believe that going ahead is not a viable option. There are fears that it will destroy the very place that many in Cuzco want to exploit for tourism. The division between those in Cuzco who think it will bring development to their region and outsiders who fear it will do untold harm is increasingly strident.

President Vizcarra has identified himself closely with the Chinchero proyect from the time when he was minister for transport during the Kuczynski administration. He seems to want to turn the airport into one emblematic of his term of office. A contract has been awarded to a South Korean firm and preliminary work is now under way.

Castillo would surely not have been appointed if he opposed Chinchero. The intellectual community has been trying to raise awareness on this and other issues related to culture, not least given the upcoming bicentennial celebrations in which it is involved. But this is a deeply troubled ministry which receives funding on condition it pursues such controversial and problematic projects.

And its role as protector of indigenous interests is coming under increasing attack from those who see mining and hydrocarbon expansion as keys to economic development.

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