A Mohawk in Peru #3: Thoughts on leaving Peru
Today, with sadness, I leave Peru to head back to other parts of the world. I had planned on staying longer to report on the mass protests, but must leave unexpectedly to assist with an Indigenous engagement on a large project for a company that has little understanding of Indigenous traditions or culture. Kudos to the company as they’re trying to do it right from the outset of the project. This is economic reconciliation, something Peruvian Indigenous people have experienced very little of.
Peruvian Indigenous protesters have said to me, don’t worry you’ll be back because your heart is with the Indigenous people. As a Mohawk person, this is a tremendous compliment. In fact, I have been in Peru on and off for over a year with Peruvian Indigenous people in the “campo” (countryside) of the Sacred Valley.
In leaving Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city, en route back to Lima, it was very difficult to travel as the government has limited mobility within the country. These are “state of emergency” measures to thwart the movement of protestors and to limit freedom of speech. It has been reported that there are over 80 roadblocks throughout the country. Peaceful protestors are being detained arbitrarily by the government.
For me, this has meant numerous canceled flights as the airports are opened and closed repeatedly and without warning. The government does not want the rural Indigenous protestors in the major cities like Lima and Arequipa. At the airport in Arequipa, there was a very strong military and police presence. Despite what many thought, the protests are not getting smaller, but are gaining momentum throughout the country with more and more individuals joining in the fight. The Indigenous protestors have assured me that not to worry, the protests will be going strong upon my return to Peru. For them, this is a life or death struggle.
Being in Peru for the last ten days on the frontlines, I have witnessed only peaceful protests. I have not seen the violence or the destruction of property that the Peruvian press widely reports and the North American press mimics. You are better off getting more accurate reporting on Facebook and TikTok. The Indigenous protestors mostly communicate through Facebook.
The protesters represent a large swath of Peruvian society, from the Indigenous people from the “campo” and a variety of others that support a fairer Peru. The country has experienced incredible growth and has a strong middle-class and is regarded as a middle-income country. Peru’s economy is ranked 8th among 32 countries in the Americas region, and its overall score is above the regional and world averages. However, this growth has not been shared with the Indigenous people. They have been left behind.
In Arequipa, I encountered my first pro-government protest of about 100 people. This protest was completely different from the Indigenous protests. The protesters looked affluent and were sporting high-end brands and were non-Indigenous. They were chanting slogans telling the Indigenous people that they should get jobs or go back to work. The status quo is the friend of these pro-government protestors. They just want things to go back to normal so that they can reap the benefits of the exploitation of the rich land where the Indigenous people live. They don’t want to see or hear Indigenous people.
I observed the pro-government protest with some Indigenous protestors and saw the hatred and anger directed at us. The Indigenous people simply watched the display with hurt and helplessness. This was not new to them. I thought at any moment there could be violence against the Indigenous people if they showed any displeasure with the pro-government supporters. Fortunately there was no violence on this day.
When arriving in Lima, I had the opportunity to talk with many young professionals from Lima who all were utterly unaware of the plight of Indigenous people in their own country. They recounted the right-wing dominated media reports about the “extreme violence” of the Indigenous protests. When pushed further on this point, they admitted that they personally have not seen violent protests nor the destruction of property. I enquired whether they knew that the media in Peru is controlled by one ultra-conservative family with its own agenda. This they did not know. Perhaps what they were seeing on TV was not reality? They were completely shocked when I told them I have not witnessed damage to property or any violent acts towards the police or military. They were astounded that I could be on the front-lines for 10 days and not see anarchy. I informed him that we have similar issues in North America where media outlets report content that represent their political persuasion and agenda. Ignorance is bliss and there was plenty of ignorance with these young, well-off professionals. The challenges of the poverty-stricken Indigenous people did not register or strike a chord with them.
Peru prefers to keep foreigners out of the country as they go through this revolution. The government has indefinitely shut down the most visited tourist destination in Peru, Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail. The UNESCO World Heritage Site was built by the Incas around 1450. Most tourists travel to Peru to see this marvel, but no longer. The biggest news story out of Peru for the North American press has been the closing of Machu Picchu and not the struggle of the Indigenous people. Also not the unlawful imprisonment of former President Pedro Castillo, the first Indigenous rural Andean president in Peru’s history.
I have been confronted many times by pro-government supporters, demanding to know who I was, and why I was here reporting on the events from the front-line. Conversely, I have been approached by the rural Indigenous people, thanking me for reporting on the events here and for putting a microscope on these issues. In Peru, they are now effectively keeping the outside world out of the country.
For example, Evo Morales, the former president of neighbouring Bolivia and Aymara Indigenous, has attempted to gain entry into Peru to observe the protests and human rights violations. The Peruvian government has banned Mr. Morales from entering Peru as they know his presence will stoke the protest fire. Mr. Morales’ primary mandate when President of Bolivia was improving the legal rights and socio-economic conditions of the marginalized Indigenous population and fighting the political influence of resource-extracting multinational corporations.
Peru and Bolivia share a common history in that both nations were once part of the Inca Empire and both have a significant number of Quechuan and Aymara speaking Indigenous people. It appears that Bolivia and Peru are on the brink of war due to the extreme violence and killing of protestors. Lisa Kenna, the CIA veteran turned US ambassador to Peru, supported the overthrowing of the democratically elected Castillo. Kenna met with the Peru defense minister one day before the removal of Castillo. She has since been meeting regularly with top officials in Peru’s coup government, including unelected president Dina Boluarte and her ministers to discuss investment opportunities and plans to develop and expand the extractive industries. It is clear it is much easier to conceal human rights abuses when you keep your friends like the United States close and block entry to the prying eyes of Indigenous supporters like Morales.
There is now a collection of fourteen countries that support Castillo’s release from prison, new elections and the removal of interim president Boluarte. This must include constitutional reform. Theses countries include Columbia, Mexico, Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Honduras. This groundswell of support means a lot to the Indigenous people on the ground. The President of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, this week asked the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States for a joint statement against what he calls “repression” in Peru and stated, “we must not leave the brotherly people of Peru alone.”
Noticeably absent is the United States and Canada, who support the Boluarte government. The United States and Canada prefer the status quo so that they can reap the benefits of mineral-rich Peru to the detriment of the Indigenous people. Castillo was a threat and nuisance as he wanted a social safety net and hospitals and schools to be built in the rural Indigenous areas. These initiatives got in the way of corporate profits.
Instead, Canada and the United States support a coup regime that recently tabled a bill in the country’s congress that would strip “uncontacted” Indigenous people of the Amazon of protection and dismantle existing reserves created for them. This should be familiar to Canada as there is a legacy of land and rights theft from Indigenous people that continues to this day. Canada has deep experience in what has been identified as genocidal practices against Indigenous people. Yet, Canada has maintained the charade of one of the most just and equitable countries in the world. Just and equitable for whom in a country where Indigenous people are vastly overrepresented in the prison system; where the suicide rate for Indigenous people is at least double the national average; where communities still exist that do not have clean drinking water. Yet, Canada is still proud of its efforts as it continues to get a failing grade for not implementing the “Calls to Action” from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report.
I leave Peru with a heavy heart as the fight continues. It is clear that the protests will not stop until demands are met. I believe this as I have seen the protests grow and become more intense. Money is being raised and food and water being sent from all over Peru to the protestors. Peruvians living in Spain, Italy and the United States are collecting money to support the protestors. They are sending food and medicine. New people are joining the fight everyday. It has been surprising to see the protests gain this momentum as it is tiring business to be on the front-lines and to be giving your time and commitment to something that seems so unrealistic. The Indigenous people of Peru are fighting for better lives and this has evolved into a life or death struggle for a better future for their children and generations to come. There is a saying in Peru that resonates, “I prefer to be with those who fight for their rights, than with those who fight for their privileges.”