Editorial: García Invokes Optimism

Update 134. June / July 2009

The annual presidential speech to Congress on Independence Day (July 28th) is a set-piece event through which whoever holds office highlights his achievements, minimises his shortcomings, and seeks generally to boost his public profile. Alan García's third in his present term (2006-11) was no exception. He sought to invoke optimism, downplay the prevalent mood of gloom, and to lift his opinion poll ratings from the doldrums into which they have fallen.

This was not a speech with major announcements. Gone are the headline-grabbing moves that characterised his first term of office (1985- 1990), or at least the first half of it. Apart from extolling the need for better health and education provision, more decentralised government, less poverty and less corruption, the speech offered few clues as to major concrete measures. García trotted out a long list of his government's achievements - and promised more of the same. Poverty in Peru, he said, would be a thing of the past - if only people keep the faith.

The speech contained significant omissions. There was hardly a word about human rights, an issue which receives little official attention these days. The conflict at Bagua was mentioned, but only the policemen killed, not the indigenous people who had been protesting at his government's policies. The growing gap between those benefiting from recent growth and those left out received scant attention. Although the problem of corruption was mentioned, convincing measures to deal with it were not - apart, that is, from building a new penal colony in the jungle for corrupt administrators.

The cabinet reshuffle announced earlier in July - following the events in Bagua the previous month - was altogether more telling about the direction that the government is likely to take in what remains of its term. The resignation of Yehude Simón as prime minister brought to an end the attempt by García to reach out to people to the left of APRA and to engage with angry
social movements. Although Simón clearly failed to achieve these objectives, his replacement – Javier Velásquez Quesquén, a García loyalist - will probably not even try.

The most obvious sign of the hardening of positions was the appointment of Rafael Rey as defence minister. A member of Opus Dei, Rey was brought back from Rome (where he had been Peru's ambassador) to handle relations with the armed forces. Rey is close to Vice-president (and former admiral) Luis Giampietri whose views on human rights and human rights organisations have become depressingly familiar. The nexus between the government and the most conservative elements in the Catholic Church, armed forces and business elite now appears complete.

Apparently unconcerned by his unpopularity - his opinion poll rating took a dive after the Bagua incidents to around 20% - and the fact that Peru's impressive economic expansion of recent years will be significantly slower this year largely due to a reduction in commodity prices, García seems concerned to press ahead regardless with his crusade to castigate all those who stand in the way of his neoliberal investment policies.

Whether indigenous tribes from the Amazon jungle opposed to unregulated exploitation of hydrocarbons, peasant communities from the highlands angry about the use of their lands for mining projects, or workers in places in La Oroya infuriated by the pollution to which they are exposed, there is a growing list of those who resent the government's refusal to heed their demands. The number of social conflicts recorded by the Ombudsman's office (Defensoría del Pueblo) has hit new highs.

Official optimism notwithstanding, the prospects for the next two years are none too bright: a stagnating economy, increasing poverty and rising levels of social protest. Rather than seek a broad social consensus in such tricky times, García and his cabinet friends seem more concerned to resist the tide and to defy growing levels of opposition, by force of arms if need be.

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    The Peru Support Group exists to promote social inclusion, sustainable development and the observance of human rights in Peru. To that end the PSG highlights shortcomings in observance of established norms, whether international or local in nature, in its research, advocacy and publications. In so doing, it underscores the relationships that exist within the political system, how institutions work, and the effectiveness of policies that aim to reduce poverty and inequality within the context of sustainable development.

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