historical background to the protests against the Conga mine

Even before Europeans first arrived in the sixteenth century, gold played an important part in Peruvian life. At that time most of Peru was under the control of the Incas. There was an abundant supply of gold in their territory, and they had sophisticated methods for mining and smelting the ore. Gold jewelry, ornaments and ceremonial objects were much prized by the rulers and the priests. Ordinary people were not allowed to own anything made of gold.

Francisco Pizarro, a Spanish soldier, invaded Peru in 1532. He was accompanied by only 168 men, 27 horses, and one cannon and there were approximately fifteen million Incas. Nevertheless, Pizarro was quickly victorious and the largest empire that ever existed in the western hemisphere became a Spanish colony. For the next one hundred and fifty years the flow of gold and silver from Peru to Spain greatly increased Spanish wealth and power.

Incan rulers had built their empire on a complicated system of forced labor. Ordinary Incans were allowed a certain amount of time each year to work on their own farms but most of their time was spent on public projects: road building, textile manufacturing, working on the farms of the rulers and the priests, soldiering in time of war — and mining. The Spaniards quickly adapted this system for their own purposes, but they made it much crueler than it already was. Every family was expected to send one person to work in the mines. These people were paid but not enough to live on, so they were forced into debt and as long as they were in debt they were not allowed to return home. When they died, their families had to send another worker to replace them.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the mines — and especially the silver mines were less and less productive. In order to combat this situation the Spanish government increased taxes on ordinary people, and the situation of the mine workers became even worse. This led to a long series of rebellions. One of these, led by Tupác Amaru II, was initially successful, but in the end all the revolts were brutally crushed by the Spaniards.

Peru finally became an independent country in 1824. During the next 150 years, Peru was ruled by a small élite of pure European descent. At times the country was under military rule. At times it was a “parliamentary democracy” and at times it fell under the control of a civilian dictator. The Peruvian economy did not move as quickly toward industrialization and modernization as did the economies of some other South American countries. The great majority of the population, made up of natives and “mestizos” — people of mixed European and native descent — remained poor.

Despite poverty and a lack of political power, among ordinary Peruvians, there remained a tradition of resistance to the State. One indication of this tradition is the fact that the the oldest political party in the country, the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA), founded in 1924, has been a powerful factor in Peruvian politics for nearly ninety years. It has strong socialist roots and has consistently opposed the ruling élite.

In 1963 Fernando Belaúnde was elected president of Peru. Belaúnde was a liberal who did much during his five years in power to alleviate poverty, by building public housing in large cities, by building highways to connect remote areas of the country to the center, and by trying to regain Peruvian control of natural resources that were being exploited by foreign mining companies. In 1968 Belaúnde was forced from power by a military coup. The coup was led by left-wing officers who felt that Belaúnde had not been strong enough in his efforts to drive foreign companies out of Peru. They put General Juan Velasco in power in his place. According to the Wikipedia article on Juan Velasco, he “was driven by a desire to give justice to the poor” He expropriated companies many companies and nationalized whole industries. The nationalized industries were set up as monopolies and no private companies were allowed to compete against them. He attempted to reform the education system in a way that would encourage students to think and feel differently about their country. He passed a law which made Quechua, the most important language of native Peruvians, an official language on the same level as Spanish. He also initiated a program of agricultural reform under which very large farms were expropriated and the land distributed to the poor natives who had formerly been forced to work on them for low wages.The land reform program seems to have failed in the end, at least according to the Wikipedia article which says: “The badly mismanaged agrarian reform resulted in the creation of thousands of capital-poor and mostly uneducated small farmers whose production and distribution capacity fell substantially short of the prepare-reform production. This coupled with trade restrictions, led to periodic shortages, rationing, and increased social unrest.”

Despite Juan Velasco’s devotion to poor Peruvians and his efforts to improve their lives, he ruled in an authoritarian way and as time passed his rule became more and more repressive. According to the Wikipedia, his government “grew steadily away from tolerating any level of dissent, deporting and harassing suspected political opponents repeatedly censoring and closing broadcasting and print news media, finally expropriating all of the newspapers in 1974 and sending the publishers into exile.” During the last period of Velasco’s reign, the Peruvian economy suffered from from high unemployment, inflation, and food shortages. In August 1975, General Velasco was overthrown by another military coup. Soon after, General Francisco Bermúdez, who had led the coup, was appointed president. Bermúdez’ government remained in power until 1980. There were then elections and a return to parliamentary democracy. The elections were won by former president Fernando Belaúnde. He was in power until 1985. During his second presidency, Belaúnde returned to their original owners the newspapers that had been seized by Velasco; he completed the construction of an important highway connecting formerly isolated parts of northern Peru to the rest of the country; he undid some of the land reforms that Velasco had brought in. Despite all this, Belaúnde’s government failed to bring economic or social stability to Peru. According to the Wikipedia article on Belaúnde, the Peruvian economy suffered from inflation and a rapidly increasing foreign debt. And, in addition, the day after Belaúnde took office a revolutionary group, The Shining Path, began a violent campaign that continued throughout his time in power. In the elections of 1985, Belaúnde’s party was defeated by APRA whose leader, Alan García, became president of Peru.

At the time of García’s election APRA had existed for more than sixty years, but he was the first representative of the party to become president. According to the Wikipedia, the party’s founder, Vítor Raúl Haya de la Torre, had believed, originally at least, in “universal democracy, equal rights and respect for indigenous populations, and social economic policies such as agrarian reform, based on the concept of communal land ownership, and state control of industry.” However, by the time the party finally came to power under Alan García, its original socialist ideals seem to have been seriously eroded by opportunism. During the early years of his time in power, however, some of García’s policies did indicate that he was a socialist — or at least an economic nationalist. His most controversial program was the nationalization of Peru’s banks. He justified this by arguing that the bankers were using depositor’s money to speculate in foreign currency rather than investing in real economic activity in Peru. There was a great deal of opposition to the program however. In the end, only one bank was nationalized and it was quickly returned to its owners by a court order. Another aspect of García’s plan to stabilize the Peruvian economy was the policy of refusing to pay off the national debt at a rate of more than 10% of the Gross Naional Product; but this plan too, proved impossible to put into effect because of international opposition. During the last years of Alan García’s term of office, the Peruvian economy also suffered from high inflation; in 1990 the annual rate was close to 10,000%. All these economic failures led to a sharp decline in García’s popularity with Peruvians and his public support was further weakened by the way he dealt with the Shining Path guerrillas. There were reports that a secret paramilitary arm of García’s party, APRA, was being used in attacks on the Sendero Luminoso. and also, perhaps, on bombing attacks in Lima that were blamed on the guerrillas. There were even accusations that García had ordered the murders — the “extra-judicial executions” — of 200 Sendero Luminosa prisoners after a riot in a Lima jail.

Alberto Fujimori

In 1990, Alberto Fujimori, an agricultural engineer and rector of an agricultural university, was elected president of Peru. During its first years in power, his government made many profound changes to the Peruvian economy. The purpose of the changes was to put into effect the “neo-liberal” ideology of Fujimori and his party. Neo-liberals advocate free trade, free markets, privatization of government-owned businesses — and, in general, the largest possible role in society for the private sector. During his first term in office, according to the Wikipedia, Fujimori “relaxed private sector price controls, drastically reduced government subsidies and government employment, eliminated all exchange controls, and also reduced restrictions on investment, imports and capital flow” He also simplified tariffs and raised the minimum wage by 400%. As a result of these changes, the price of electricity rose by 500%, the price of water by 800% and gasoline prices by 3000%. There was a far-reaching privatization campaign as well: hundreds of state-owned businesses were sold to private individuals. In the short run at least, all this seemed to have a good effect on the economy: in 1994, the Peruvian economy grew at a rate of 13%, the fastest in the world.

Fujimori did not make all these changes by working within the established system of Peruvian parliamentary democracy, however. He apparently felt that the opposition parties were trying to prevent him from putting his economic reforms into effect; and so, on April 2, 1992, with the support of the Peruvian military, he suspended the Constitution, shut down Congress, and began ruling as a dictator. Fujimori’s coup was condemned by most other countries, but inside Peru, it seems that most people approved of what he had done. The Organization of American States (OAS) denounced Fujimori and demanded that Peru return to “representative democracy.” Fujimori defended himself against his critics by saying that what he had done was “not a negation of real democracy but on the contrary a search fo an authentic transformation to assure a legitimate and effective democracy.” He said he believed Peruvian democracy was only “a deceptive formalityy — a façade.”

Fujimori attempted to legitimize his coup. He created a “Democratic Constitutional Congress” which was to act as a legislature and also to write a new Constitution. Elections were held and Fujimor’s supporters won a majority in the new congress. A new constitution was written and approved in a referendum. When new presidential elections were held in 1995, Fujimori won easily. During his second term in office, Fujimori continued to continued to pursue his neo-liberal agenda. He also showed how willing he was to use repression to maintain and strengthen his old on power. For example, he deprived two universities of their autonomy in order to prevent dissension on the campuses and he granted amnesty to all the police officers and military personnel who had been charged with human rights abuses in the course of anti-guerrilla actions. Another incident, during the second year of Fujimori’s second term, the Japanaese embassy hostage crisis, gave Fujimori an opportunity to show how tough he could be. Seventy-one hostages who had been held for four months by members of the revolutionary MRTA were freed by military commandos. Only one of the hostages died and all fourteen of their captors were killed. Fujimori was present when the raid took place and was shown afterward walking among the bodies of the dead revolutionaries and surrounded by the freed diplomats. It was also during his second term that Furimori’s government began a birth control campaign among poor people living in the countryside. During the campaign more than 200,000 people, both men and women were pressured or forced into being sterilized. Despite the support they had given him in the election, during Fujimori’s second term, Peruvians became more and more worried about the effect his rule was having on the freedom of speech and other civil liberties — and also about his very tough methods of dealing with guerrilla fighters, methods which often led to the deaths of innocent people.

According to Peruvian law, a President is allowed to serve only two terms of office. However, during the early years of his second term, Fujimori managed to persuade the Peruvian congress to change the law so he would be able to serve a third term. By the time of the next election, in 2000, Fujimori’s popularity had sunk. The Peruvian public had also become increasingly suspicious of Vladimiro Montesinos, Fujimori’s closest advisor and head of the secret police. It was thought that he had directly supervised the death squads that were responsible for the killing of innocent people in the course of their campaign against Shining Path and Tupíc Amaru guerrillas and also for ordering the extra-judicial executions of nine students and a professor at La Cantuta University. Despite his diminished popularity, Fujimori got the most votes in the election of 2000 and then won a runoff vote against the second place finisher Alejandro Toledo. He won only by a very narrow margin however, and there were many allegations of election fraud. Criticism of Fujimori continued to mount both in Peru and internationally and the representatives of most foreign governments stayed away from his swearing in ceremony. For seven weeks, there were daily demonstrations in front of Fujimori’s officer residence. Then, in September, a video, made secretly by Vladimiro Montesinos himself, was shown on television. In the video, Montesinos was seen offering a bribe to an opposition congress man if he would leave the opposition and support Fujimori. After the video had been shown, Fujimori’s support collapsed. He announced that more elections would be held in 2001 and he would not participate. In November, he attended a conference in Brunei and when it was over, instead of returning to Peru, he went to Japan. Once there, he resigned as President of Peru.

Fujimori remained in Japan for the next five years. Then, on November 6, 2005 he arrived in Santiago, Chile. He came on a private plane, having flown from Tokyo via Mexico. On September 21, 2007, he was extradited from Peru to Chile. On April 7 2009, Fujimori was sentenced to 25 years in prison.