General strike slows Peru, but fails to close it down
April 28, 1999
LIMA, Peru (CNN) -- A general strike called to protest President Alberto Fujimori's economic policies failed to paralyze the country Wednesday, but still marked the strongest show of popular discontent since Fujimori came to power.
Fujimori deployed more than 20,000 police backed by army units to keep order in industrial areas and on roads as many public sector, transport and construction workers obeyed a strike call by the top union that claims hundreds of thousands of members.
Soldiers with automatic weapons guarded public buildings, and armored troop carriers patrolled streets, while military helicopters circled overhead.
There was scattered violence as protesters stoned buses and blocked streets with burning tires. Police fired tear gas at demonstrators in downtown Lima near the headquarters of the populist Aprista Party of former President Alan Garcia.
Protest was first general strike this decade
The one-day strike and widespread protest marches -- backed by most political parties -- marked the first time the opposition had managed to organize a nationwide general strike since Fujimori was elected in 1990. It was seen as a test case for Peru's opposition, which has struggled to unite against Fujimori ahead of his widely expected bid for an unprecedented third term in 2000.
"This is the first strong show of force after almost nine years when unions and social sectors were not able to demonstrate on this scale," political analyst Alberto Adrianzen said.
"The strike has been respected by 70 percent of the workers at the national level," said Jose Risco, leader of Peru's largest labor organization, the General Confederation of Peruvian Workers.
However, the government discounted the impact of the stoppage. While admitting that there were "restrictions" in public transport, Labor Minister Pedro Flores said, "The (impetus for a) strike ran out of steam."
"This is not a labor protest, but rather it is one with political overtones," Flores told Reuters.
Flores on Tuesday had declared the strike illegal, warning workers that their pay would be discounted if they did not show up for their jobs.
Strike more successful in provincial cities
The protest appeared to be only a partial success as most Peruvian workers ignored the strike. In downtown Lima, where the demonstrators concentrated their protests, at least half of the businesses closed. However, the rest of the capital saw a relatively normal working day.
Health and education employees generally stayed away from work, and with Fujimori's main political rival -- Lima Mayor Alberto Andrade -- supporting the strike, most of the capital's local government employees joined the protest.
However, the crucial mining sector functioned normally, as did banks, refineries and most private businesses.
Orange-uniformed street cleaner Zenobia Solorzano, a 45-year- old widow with three small children, was one of the workers who showed up because she could not afford to lose a day's pay of $4.50, or worse -- her job.
"I work for a private company, and I came to work because if I didn't, they would have kicked me out," she said as she swept up trash in downtown Lima.
The strike was strongest in major provincial cities. Stores remained shuttered in Iquitos in the Amazon jungle and in Cuzco, Ayacucho and Arequipa in the southern Andes.
While Fujimori had faced protests in the past, they were limited to specific sectors of the economy or regions of the country. This was the first nationwide general strike that had occurred during his time in office.
President's policies, re-election bid at issue
When Fujimori took office in 1990, he inherited an economy coping with hyperinflation of 7,000 percent. His free-market policies tamed the inflation, while his success in putting down the long-running revolt by the Maoist Shining Path rebels boosted consumer confidence and encouraged investment from abroad. As a result, Peru's economy grew by a scorching 32 percent between 1993 and 1996.
But the policies have had a cost. Privatization of state industries has left tens of thousands of people unemployed. Much of the outside investment pouring into Peru has gone into activities such as mining and oil, which rely heavily on technology and do not generate large numbers of jobs.
In addition, a two-year recession -- exacerbated by massive damage done by the El Nino weather phenomenon -- has hit retailers and manufacturers hard, forcing more layoffs and increasing public dissatisfaction.
The strike call also has united Peru's opposition against a possible Fujimori re-election bid as polls show most voters are against him running again because they believe an ambiguous constitution forbids it.
The president, whose approval ratings have risen steadily this year to about 40 percent, has said he will decide whether to make another bid at the end of the year.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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