Peru protests move to president’s doorstep
Reuters in Lima
After struggling for months to defuse protests against mining companies in far-flung provinces, President Ollanta Humala is now facing strikes in the capital by teachers and doctors who want a piece of Peru’s record fiscal surplus.
Thousands of teachers from two factions of the national teachers union marched in Lima on Wednesday to demand big wage increases after a decade without raises, while many of the 14,000 doctors who work for the Health Ministry participated in a walkout that has meant patients have to wait in long lines.
Humala tried to forestall the teachers’ strike by sending a bill to Congress that would reform pay scales, but the legislature has yet to act and he has not been able to persuade impatient union members to stay on the job.
“This is in the hands of Congress. We hope they resolve it as soon as possible. The ball is in their court,” he told reporters on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, after police clashed with rock-throwing teachers and doctors pushed through a police cordon at a hospital, a frustrated Prime Minister Juan Jimenez said, “The strike makes no sense.”
The protests in Lima have put renewed pressure on Humala after the president enjoyed several weeks of relative quiet following a cabinet shuffle he carried out in July to calm anti-mining strife.
Humala’s approval rating has hovered around 40 per cent for the past three months after falling from highs of more than 60 per cent when he took office.
Pay increases for doctors depend solely on Humala’s cabinet and do not need congressional approval.
“We are open to dialogue, but under favourable conditions, without violence, blackmail or threats,” Health Minister Midori de Habich said.
Leaders of the strikes have complained that Peru’s economic boom over the past decade, which pushed average annual growth to around 6 per cent, has yet to benefit them.
Now, with a fiscal surplus that hit 7 per cent of gross domestic product in the first half of this year and central bank reserves that swelled to $60 billion, the unions are asking for what they see as their fair share.
“We demand a financial rescue for our sector to give better attention and a new salary structure. We can’t continue with these salaries,” the head of the health workers’ union, Cesar Palomino, said on Saturday.
Doctors want their monthly pay doubled or more. The current pay scale runs from 850 soles (or US$327) to 3,400 soles.
Palomino said the strike has affected some 170 hospitals and 1,500 clinics, many of which offer emergency-only services.
Teachers want their wages doubled from an average of 1,200 soles a month. The government has accused at least one faction of the teachers union of being led by far-left radicals.
At least 15 people have been killed in conflicts over natural resources in the interior of the country since Humala took office in July last year.
Critics of mining companies have said they do not bring enough direct economic benefits to poor rural towns, soak up scarce water supplies, or cause pollution. The government says mines generate exports, tax revenues and jobs.
Johnson Salvador, a 46-year-old teacher who left his classroom in the rural province of Tarma empty to join daily protests in the capital, said he voted for Humala because he promised to support workers and the poor.
“But he’s turned out to be just another puppet,” he said as he and other protesters blocked a main avenue near Congress on Wednesday. “If he really wanted to improve education he would raise the education budget and worry about people in this country that have been forgotten.”