Mirrored shades and maestros

A state of emergency has been declared in Peru. I’d hoped for a coup, at least—what’s the point of South America without cavalcades of men with mustaches and mirrored shades?—but a month-long suspension of civil liberties will have to do.

It’s very festive. In the town square in Arequipa, there are hundreds of baby-faced soldiers standing around trying not to lean on their tanks. They’re not quite sure what to do, but they pose handsomely for my photos. Most of them look about sixteen, and I want to feed them up with papas rellenas. The riot police are older and world-weary, standing on the street corners with their plexiglass shields and helmets. Kids keep shouting ‘Ciao! Ciao!’, in a mysterious outbreak of Argentinian, when they march by.

The teachers are on strike. They haven’t taught in three weeks, because they are demanding a salary increase of 200 soles a month (a little under $60). Toledo says they can have 100 soles a month, and that’s it—there’s nothing else in the treasury. So they rioted at the Rio summit in Cuzco, and then a few days ago they blockaded the roads all over the country. I was stuck in unlovely Lima, watching them march and yell in little yellow paper baseball caps. Finally, the army was called in to reopen the roads.

I keep asking if there’s general support for the teachers. It’s clear that they don’t make a living wage: they supplement it with payments from students, or with support from their families. People seem generally sympathetic, but they are worried about their kids being out of school for so long, and annoyed that the unions won’t compromise; they’re not the only ones who can’t survive financially. Blocking the roads was not a popular tactic.

The transport workers went on strike the week before the teachers. Before that, it was the police, who earn so little that they have to demand bribes and fines just to survive. Strikes were forbidden under Fujimori, and now the wave of discontent and repression is finally breaking. One taxi driver explained that the state of emergency was really a victory for democracy. Only now did they have the right to do something extreme enough to get their rights suspended for a month. I liked his thinking better than another taxi driver, who spattered my face as he explained that the Peruvian economy was so dire because the Americans, the British, and the Spanish wanted to keep them and everybody else poor so they could control the world. Um, whatever you say, señor.

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