(IPS) – Peruvian President Ollanta Humala is taking an increasingly hard-line stance against protests, and is losing important allies less than five months into his term.
The centrist party led by former president Alejandro Toledo, as well as left-wing leaders, pulled out of the government after retired army officer Oscar Valdés was promoted from interior minister to prime minister.
Valdés replaced Salomón Lerner, who stepped down as prime minister on Dec. 10 in disagreement over Humala’s declaration of a state of emergency and the subsequent deployment of army troops to the northern highlands region of Cajamarca to crack down on protests by local authorities and indigenous and peasant communities against the Conga gold mining project that would transform four high mountain lakes into reservoirs.
Lerner wanted to continue negotiations in Cajamarca, which had stalled, but Humala opted instead to send in troops, as Valdés advised.
The state of emergency declared in the south of Cajamarca, the arrest of one of the leaders of the protests, social activist Walter Saavedra, and the blocking of national government funds to that region were all initiatives of Valdés that Lerner opposed.
By adopting these measures to quash the protests, Humala distanced himself from Lerner and the moderate and leftist factions in the government that backed the former prime minister.
Former president Toledo (2001-2006) announced that his party, Perú Posible, had pulled out of the cabinet because “we cannot form part of a regime with a militaristic, authoritarian bent.”
He said “we supported Humala as a guarantee of democracy, but now we will not back a government whose decisions are taken by a ‘petit comité’ made up of retired military officers like Humala.”
He was referring to Valdés; the head of the National Intelligence Directorate (DINI), Víctor Gómez; and the president’s security adviser Adrián Villafuerte.
Valdés was one of Humala’s instructors in the Chorrillos Military School; Gómez was one of his classmates; and Villafuerte headed his election campaign in 2006, when he was narrowly defeated. The three retired officers already had close ties with Humala before he became president on Jul. 28.
The leader and spokesman of Perú Posible, Juan Sheput, told IPS that “from now on, we are not responsible for Humala’s decisions.”
Ana María Solórzano, spokeswoman for the parliamentary bloc of the governing Gana Perú party, expressed her total support for Valdés. “Someone who applies the letter of the law cannot be called militaristic or authoritarian,” she told IPS.
“In his role as interior minister, with respect to the Conga case, Valdés demonstrated efficiency, energy and resolution. It’s not a question of gauging an official by whether he is on the left or the right, but by his effectiveness,” Solórzano said.
The exodus of left-leaning leaders from the Humala administration began on Nov. 24 with Carlos Tapia, Lerner’s adviser, and continued with the minister.
Then Aída García Naranjo resigned and was replaced by Ana Jara Velásquez at the head of the ministry of women and social development; singer-songwriter Susana Baca was replaced by Luis Peirano in the ministry of culture; and Ricardo Giesecke was replaced by Manuel Pulgar-Vidal as environment minister.
Escalation of force
Analyst Fernando Rospigliosi had warned that social conflicts “will reveal Humala’s authoritarian streak.”
“The president believed his leftist allies, because of their alignment or close ties with the leaders of the protest against Conga, would help him resolve the problem easily,” Rospigliosi told IPS. “However, not only did they not do so, but they torpedoed him from within the government. As a result, he has kicked them out or they have left.
“What is dangerous is that now the faction that has military origins will consolidate their position around Humala. The temptation for the president to turn to the armed forces every time a social problem crops up, as Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) did during his government, is growing stronger and stronger,” he added.
In response to the first major protest since he took office, Humala declared a state of emergency in four provinces: Cajamarca, Celendín, Hualgayoc and Contumazá, in the region of Cajamarca.
Two days later, anti-terrorism police arrested Saavedra, president of the Environmental Defence Fund of Cajamarca and one of the leaders of the movement in Conga, in Lima.
The government said he was arrested as a suspected member of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). But the insurgent group was active between 1980 and 2000, and analysts and political leaders believe it is now defunct.
And on Thursday Dec. 8, the economy ministry cancelled the transfer of central government funds to the provincial government of Cajamarca, led by Governor Gregorio Santos, who supports the protest against the gold mining project.
The Conga mine is to be run by the U.S.-based Newmont Mining Co, which operates the nearby Yanacocha mine, the largest gold mine in Latin America.
Economy minister Luis Miguel Castilla admitted that he took the step of cutting off funds at the request of Valdés, who claimed the leaders of the demonstrations were using local government funds to mobilise protesters.
On Friday Dec. 9, Humala cancelled his attendance at the swearing-in ceremony of re-elected President Cristina Fernández, and reports of Lerner’s resignation began to circulate, and were confirmed the next day.
When he was appointed as the head of the 18-member cabinet, Valdés said the Conga project would be subjected to an evaluation by international experts due to the “reasonable doubts” expressed by local residents in Cajamarca.
Catholic priest Marco Arana, who has a degree in social conflict resolution and heads GRUFIDES, a Cajamarca-based human rights, development and environmental organisation that works with local communities impacted by mining, says the promise of an external audit of the Conga project will not resolve the conflict.
“The technical evaluation is only one component of the conflict,” he told IPS. “There is another extremely important issue that the new prime minister has said nothing about.”
The question is whether the communities that will be affected by the gold mining project will be consulted, said the priest, who has made an international name for himself as an environmental activist – he was on Time magazine’s Heroes of the Environment 2009 list.
Under Peruvian law, mining companies must consult local communities and obtain prior approval before conducting any operations.
Arana also wondered how Humala will regain the trust of the people of Cajamarca, after specifically promising them on a visit during his campaign that he would not accept abuses by mining companies.