On The Road to Machu Picchu

Media Blackout as Peru's President Kills His Own People

Peru, a country with a population of 30 million, about the same as Venezuela, can be divided into three parts from west to east: the beclouded sliver of Pacific coast with the greatest share of the population; the high Andes with their fertile valleys and jagged peaks dotted with Incan ruins; and the sparsely populated tropics at the headwaters of the Amazon.  Landing on the coast in the capital Lima for a vacation trek to the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu, we were soon treated to an arresting factoid by our guide: Peru has 5% of the fresh water on the planet!  Peru also has vast mineral wealth, especially gold, which drew Pizarro’s cruel conquistadores to grab it from the Incas, slaughtering or enslaving them with armor and sword of Toledo steel, muskets and Crucifix.  The world was reminded of Peru’s mineral treasure in April 2011, with the rescue of nine Andean miners, which drew swarms of international media.  The possible loss of life in South America was apparently worthy of the press’s attention — in that case. But as we shall see not every loss of life in Peru merits the attention of the U.S. mass media.

Driving through the streets of Lima, a city of 9 million, clogged with autos in recent years, a mark of the sort of economic progress found in Peru, but still circled by the worst sort of slums even as it was decades ago, we passed the enormous residence of the US ambassador – which is dwarfed in turn by the even larger embassy itself.  Our guide, while generally pro-American, bristled at these citadels of U.S. Empire. We also passed a demonstration of some sort. When I inquired about it, our guide was vague, saying there was some trouble with the mines.  When I looked into it that evening, there is indeed trouble — in mining regions all over the country. This news, in contrast to the rescue of April 2011, has received virtually no coverage in the U.S. mass media and only token attention throughout the West.

There have been in excess of 130 killings of protesting campesinos by the police and army over the last half decade with many more wounded – at least ten times as many it would appear. The campesinos have been protesting the pollution by giant Western mining interests of water supplies on which the farming and very lives of the rural population depends.

There have been 60 or more sites of such protests at the least, often led by local politicians, mayors and governors. The largest have taken place in the northern region of Cuanajarca where the U.S. mining behemoth, Newmont, the only gold company listed on the S&P 500, holds a majority interest in the giant $4.8 billion Conga gold mining operation. Last November 10,000 campesinos poured into the streets of Cuanajarca, a city of 200,000, confronting riot police, throwing up barricades and for a short time taking over the airport. When the police were unable to gain control, Peru’s newly elected president, the “progressive” Ollanta Humala, sent in the army and declared a state of emergency. Several of his cabinet resigned in protest. The actions in Cuanajarca continue to this day with a week-long strike as this is written.

Shortly before we arrived in Peru, and unbeknownst to me since I had seen no reports in the U.S. press, another protest had broken out, this time against the Anglo-Austrian company Xstrata, owner of the Tintaya mine in the province of Espinar, which is part of the Cuzco region, as is Machu Picchu. The campesinos there demanded an end to pollution of the Salado and Cañipía rivers and an increase of Xstrata’s contribution to a local development fund to 30 percent of its operating profit from the current measly contribution of 3 percent. Two protesters were killed in these demonstrations. While we were in Cuzco, the new president repeated his performance in Cuanajarca and declared a state of emergency in Espinar, which meant the suspension of habeas corpus and all political activity. The mayor of Espinar was arrested for his role in the protests and is still detained “preventively” in Ica, far from his province.  The next day the students of Cuzco city spilled onto the streets, striking to protest the state of emergency. The young woman who was the concierge in our hotel was almost in tears at the developments in Espinar. She told me that Espinar was totally cut off, with no one allowed in or out and that no one was helping “the poor people of Espinar.”

In recent months in addition to the protests directed at Newmont mining and Xstrata, campesinos have successfully disrupted Southern Copper Corp.’s Tia Maria project and Bear Creek Mining Corp.’s Santa Ana project. At least 10 people died in those actions, with hundreds more wounded – and the number of dead is probably an underestimate since some of the wounded likely died later.

Former president Garcia was a right winger savaged by Peru’s left for shooting campesinos and declaring states of emergency in response to environmental and other social protests. The new president, Ollanta Humala, elected last year months before the large protests in Cuanjarca, is a former army officer, who ran as a man of the Left. But in the last months of the campaign during the runoff, he abruptly changed his views, shifted to the Right and won. Like his predecessor, Humala promptly ordered up a regimen that included gunning down peasants and states of emergency to back foreign mining interests. The “left” activists who backed him, have belatedly withdrawn their support after the election, although they seem still to be begging him to “do the right thing.” One disaffected ally, Sinesio Lopez, wrote an op-ed on “the capture of Ollanta“, comparing the Inca king Atahualpa’s capture and ransom by Pizarro in Cajamarca, 474 years earlier, with today’s ‘capture’ of President Humala by bankers, finance ministers and big mining. A comparison to Barack Obama and U.S. progressives suggests itself.

Let’s consider this in an international context. Here we have a president who is “killing his own people” as Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice might put it in other contexts. Imagine if the same events had happened in Venezuela or Cuba or Bolivia or Ecuador or China. The U.S. press and the human rights cottage industry would be frothing with righteous indignation, and every American would be informed of the atrocities with numbing repetition. Imagine further if some outside agency, like the CIA or the Gulf Cooperation Council, began to arm the peasants. The death toll would climb quickly into the thousands. And that would fuel the imperial indignation even more.

How easy it is for the U.S. mass media to manipulate the image of a nation that is not toeing the line for the Empire. Simply report on every human rights abuse or environmental abuse in a defiant nation while overlooking those in countries that are duly obedient. No lies involved – just a matter of “emphasis.” (Of course as we learned in Iraq if more is needed to adequately demonize the enemy, there are plenty of falsehoods waiting in the wings to be trotted out by respectable sources.)

It is not surprising that the U.S. Empire is blind to the environmental and martial law atrocities in Peru. A glance at the map provides a hint of why the Empire looks fondly on that nation. Peru is sandwiched between Bolivia and Ecuador, both of which are doing their best to follow the examples of Cuba and Venezuela, pulling free of Yankee imperial control. Peru has been teetering between the two camps recently. In addition, Peru abuts Colombia, Brazil and Chile. Thus, Peru appears to be of strategic importance to the Empire, both as a prize in, and of, itself for its wealth and as a counterbalance to Bolivia and Ecuador. There have been persistent rumors of secret U.S. bases planned or already existing in Peru. And with the expulsion of the U.S. military from its base in Ecuador, Peru has obvious military value with its extended coast as the U.S. “pivots” to the Pacific. Rumors also abound of the U.S. navy already patrolling unduly close to the Peruvian coast. Finally, although the insurgent “Shining Path” movement is reported to be dead, there are reports of “remnants” staging highly lethal attacks on the Peruvian armed forces, which must send tremors through the imperial strategists.

When we finally got to Machu Picchu a few days before the student demonstrations, I was lucky enough to find a guide named Felix, a literate guy in his mid fifties who did not seem in the best of health. He worked at Machu Picchu every day with only two days off a month to go home to his wife and five children in nearby Cuzco, a typical work schedule for those working in the tourist town at the foot of the mountain where ancient Machu Picchu stands. Felix had no health insurance. After a brief conversation during which I mentioned the growing strife in Espinar, he asked whether I had read Noam Chomsky. He had, and considered Chomsky to be a very wise man.

When one regards the Felixes of Latin America, one has to consider the Cuban model of development, all too often sniffed at as passé by Western intellectuals these days. The question is not so much the total course of development, which may take many twists and turns. But where should development begin? In Cuba the streets are not clogged with traffic as in Lima, but neither are there vast slums. In Cuba one can be sure of first-rate health care* and education for one’s children. Nor does one have to live and work away from one’s family 28 days of the month. For the giant mining companies and the upper classes of South America, the Peruvian path of development is just fine. But for the Felixes of the world, it does not even come close to Cuba.

* Peru’s health care system is a patchwork affair, the largest segment of which is run by private insurers with profits very much in command. The government-run program for the poor and rural population, somewhat reminiscent of our Medicaid, is shamefully underfunded. The failure of the health care “system” has led an ever increasing number of Peruvians, perhaps a third of the population, to seek out chamanes.

John V. Walsh, @JohnWal97469920, until recently a Professor of Physiology and Neuroscience at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School, has written on issues of peace and health care for several independent media. Read other articles by John V..