On my last couple weeks in South America, I traveled from Cuzco to Sucre for an ethnohistory conference being held there. Since I had time before the conference started, I decided to go through Puno to find out what was in their archive and then to go overland to Sucre from there. The plan would have worked well except that when I was travelling the people of Puno were protesting the opening of a mine in the area. Despite merely awaiting the transition to Ollanta, Alan Garcia’s government has enacted a series of unpopular measures intended (in my opinion) to cement his neoliberal legacy by any contravening policies much more onerous to enact. In addition to proposing private universities to rival the state-run schools in several Andean cities, Garcia also gave a special concession to a Canadian mining company to begin exploration in the Lake Titicaca region despite the possibility that mining in the area could contaminate a water-source of key importance to both Peru and Bolivia. The response from the majority Aymara population was immediate and overwhelming: they cut off all major roads into and out of the region, they staged major demonstrations outside of key government facilities, when demonstrators were killed in the police response they destroyed government buildings and broke the windows of banks. Their action forced the government to withdraw the concession, a move which infuriated the Canadian mining company but which seems irreversible now that Garcia is leaving the presidency.
I started following the demonstrations from Cuzco, where some remained eager to support the actions despite the fact that the road blockages cut off the tourists who usually arrive from Bolivia by way of Puno. Puno itself remained tense even after the concession was removed as news arrived of several deaths and the continuation of protests against police violence.
In addition, the Lake Titicaca tourist industry was basically put on hold with little idea of when things would return to normal. My own trip required that I take a boat across the lake, hike through farmers fields to a small border town north of Copacabana where I took a bus to La Paz, then to Potosi, and finally to Sucre. Despite the hardships for the tourist industry, the protests remain overwhelming popular in Puno and will undoubtedly be a major early challenge for Ollanta (who received close to 80% of the Puno vote).
Posted by David Klassen — PhD Candidate in History at NYU