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At Least There's Not a Civil War Anymore

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Despite the challenges of poverty, environmental exploitation and corruption, a commodities boom and relative peace give Peruvians reason for optimism

September 2018

After our 40 kilometer hike and a night of sleep, my wife and I decide to hike to another lake. While only 7.5 kilometers roundtrip, it turns out to be brutally difficult. From the main road where we descend the bus, it is a straight shot up. We consume copious amounts of coca candy and water, and finally arrive at a beautiful lake and lookout.

The relatively short length and proximity to Huaraz mean there are many tourists at the lake. The difference is also notable on the road coming to the lake. Garbage is everywhere on the trail. A terrible shame, we lament.

Litter is common in many beautiful places in Peru. In Paracas, a beautiful town in the desert we will visit further south, we see litter blown across the sand. In northern Peru, as mentioned before, the sight of garbage is an eyesore.

The issue with public morality extends to blatant violations of public rules. In Ica, a desert town near Paracas, we go to an oasis surrounded by sand dunes. Signs prominently say “no sledding or camping” but people are sledding and camping at will. Take down the signs or enforce the rules. Otherwise, the message is rules are meant to be broken.

The blatant disregard for public spaces and rules, combined with the perception of corrupt governance, can deal a fatal blow to public trust. If you litter, why shouldn’t I? If you break the rules, why shouldn’t I? If you don’t care about society, why should I? A society really might be as strong as its weakest link. (As noted previously, many foreign companies do not care about Peru either; I also imagine more than one foreign tourist has also littered in Peru.)

A polluted Peruvian desert

The lack of public morality might be a function of lack of pride in being Peruvian. In Lima, we watch the changing of the guard at the presidential palace. The palace, the music, and the uniforms of the guards are all very European in style. My wife comments on how sad it is that Peruvians have a distinct and rich indigenous culture but are trying to imitate Europe.

Indigenous culture, however, is dying out in parts. Our Peruvian friend Richard tells me that many indigenous children receive scholarships to attend university in the cities and are much less likely to return home to continue traditional indigenous farming. The good news is Peru provides for its historically disadvantaged groups. The bad news is that traditional Peruvians may lose pride in their culture while chasing a European or North American ideal that will cause cultural dislocation and a confused identity.

The fact that indigenous people can physically exit their villages is also a double-edged sword. Many indigenous villages did not have roads of any kind until the last decade. Now, many have roads and the government is rapidly paving them. It is far easier to leave the village to sell produce at market or study in the city. (As a counterpoint to Peruvian friends who complain about the corruption and ineptness of the government, this road construction also shows the government can do good.)

Moreover, Richard and I see that even in areas with tiny populations, the indigenous homes have electricity. Access to electricity means access to TV and internet and a look at the outside world and culture. “Progress” and a functioning government can lead to a slow cultural death.

In Lima, we stay in a very wealthy neighborhood named Mira Flores. There are no Peruvian restaurants to be found, only foreign chains like Chiles and TGI Fridays and overpriced sushi. White Peruvians (a rarity anywhere else in the country) play tennis, jog, and walk their dogs in designer clothing next to beautiful sea views. Our time in Lima will coincide with the campaign for city mayor. One candidate’s pitch is “Lima Flores.” Mira Flores, the least Peruvian part of Lima, is what Lima should aspire to, and this candidate will take you there.

Political advertisements pollute the Peruvian landscape in every corner of the nation in the same way they pollute the North American landscape. Different from the United States, however, houses will rent their walls to candidates and allow them to paint political advertisements. After campaigns are long over, however, most remain until the next campaign cycle. As such, it looks like a campaign is always occuring in Peru. Even in the remote indigenous village Richard and I visit near Huaraz, political ads are ubiquitous.

Politics in Peru is a spectacle that brings little hope for real change. I am taken back to Richard’s discussion about Sendero Luminoso (SL, or Shining Path in English). SL started as a movement amongst intellectuals to bring a communist style redistribution of land and power to Peru. “Most of the people in Sendero Luminoso had at least a high school education. They were believers and followers, not creators of the ideology,” the owner of our hostel in Huarez says. “Sendero Luminoso was a product of the Cold War, in the hope to create a new society based off communist ideas.”

According to the owner, when the conflict ended in 2000, many of SL’s leaders ended up with land they took from former landowners. “There was an agreement or implicit understanding that they could keep the land, and now they are the new landowners,” he says with an ironic smile.

Like all Latin American societies, Peru is highly unequal and has a terrible history of exploiting its indigenous population. While officially seeking to rectify these historical injustices, SL ended up becoming the exploiter and terrorizer.

The owner detailed how SL forced women to have children to increase the birth rate, raped women, and forcibly cut their hair. Men, like the owner’s father, were forced into SL against their will. Caught by the government, his father was imprisoned for a year and a half. “Everyone was caught in the crossfire. Sendero Luminoso or the army would come into a village and all young men, even teenagers, were forced to join whichever side came to their village first.”

In addition to the crimes committed by SL, the government terrorized the indigenous population. While in Peru, I listen to a podcast detailing how Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of ex-president Alberto Fujimori and a current politician, led a program to forcibly sterilize indigenous women without their knowledge.

A third layer to the civil war were the paramilitaries, or rondas. The rondas were civilian patrols which organized to fight back against SL. Richard’s grandfather participated in these rondas. The rondas, however, committed their share of atrocities as well. This is no different from what has occurred in Colombia and Mexico when independent groups have formed to fight deficiency and violence where the state is weak. The groups themselves often turn into perpetrators and criminals.

Peru experienced an insurgency that promised to create a more equitable society but ended up terrorizing the very people it was supposed to help. The government, moreover, lost the trust of much of the population. As noted in previous articles, Peru’s current corruption levels have further undermined public trust. Promises from politicians are understandably met with doubt. “They always say the same things, but nothing ever changes,” our Peruvian friend Katrina says.

On a macro level, however, Peru is doing alright. Mariana, another Peruvian friend, has an academic background in economics and politics and previously worked for the Peruvian government. She says that Peru was relatively unscathed by the 2008-09 financial crisis (true in much of the region, commodities continued to flow to China). She remembers the 2000s when Peru’s economy benefited greatly from the commodities boom (like all Latin American economies). In her home city of Trujillo, the city’s first mall was built in a field near her house. “Everyone had more money. All of a sudden you could feel the strength of the economy,” she says.

While commodity prices are not what they were 10 to 15 years ago, Mariana says that the greatest job growth in Peru is in the mining sector and infrastructure construction. Civil engineers are in especially high demand, she says.

A tour guide in Paracas, a coastal desert town in the south, says that there is great growth in desalination in the area. Moreover, there is tremendous recent growth in gas exploitation near Cuzco. All natural resource extraction.

Desert meets sea near Paracas, Peru. Peru's natural beauty makes it a tourism hotspot.

Tourism is also a major driver of Peru’s economy. The Huaraz hostel owner has a university degree in administration but gave up trying to find a job in his field. “Without connections, you get nowhere. Your education does not actually matter,” he laments. Katrina, although herself employed as a doctor, echoes this sentiment and says there are not enough jobs for university graduates. The owner and his wife started the hostel over a year ago and it has been a great success. The vast majority of their clients are foreigners, mainly North American and European.

The hostel owner’s comment reveals a truth about Peru’s economy. While the macro level looks acceptable, the micro level tells a different story. Absent are high value manufacturing or tech companies. Foreign consumption of commodities and tourism power the economy. If there is a global downturn, it is unlikely that Peru will escape unscathed.

A reliance on tourism in a poor nation can also lead to a reliance on largess. As we descend from the lake, two Peruvian children come up to us and ask for money. I tell them that they should not just assume white and Asian people always have money. Combined with a lack of opportunities even for those who are educated, begging from foreigners is a reasonable business proposition.

In addition to the above issues, wages are still low for those with jobs. This is due in part to their reliance on commodity extraction as opposed to value-added products. For a time Richard worked construction for 1.50 USD an hour in Lima. The minimum wage is under 400 USD. Mariana estimates that to live comfortably in Lima you need 1,200 to 1,500 USD monthly. Low wages and poor employment prospects also contribute to delinquency, as many Peruvians point out to me.

Despite the generally pessimistic view amongst the Peruvians I meet, the current situation beats the civil war. An older cabbie in Trujillo tells me of the insecurity, assassinations, and food shortages common during the civil war. He says that without a doubt the current quality of life is better in Peru.

Moreover, while we are in Peru, the president attempts to pass significant anti-corruption legislation as a response to the judge scandal mentioned above. The congress, fearful because of their exposure charges of corruption, blocks the president. Ultimately, anti-corruption reforms will pass in a direct vote in late 2018. A serious attempt is underway to change society and Peruvians.

If someone fell asleep in Peru in 1990 at the height of the civil war and awoke today, they would find the current country stable, well-off and reasonably safe in comparison. But in a world where mass communication facilitates comparison across societies and increasing numbers live in megacities where social classes live side by side, wanting what others have is a quick way to undervalue what you do have. This is not to say that most Peruvians have an easy life. Rather, there is still a lot for which to be thankful and hopeful.


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