Toledo: Down to His Last Card?

Protests in Peru
A man dressed as an Inca protests living conditions in the slums of Lima, June 26, 2003 (Photo: Jaime Razuri/AFP-Getty Images).

President Alejandro Toledo’s May 27 declaration of a 30-day state of emergency to quell a swelling tide of labor strikes and civil unrest threatens to paint the beleaguered chief executive into a tight corner. At best, Peruvian press commentators warned, Toledo will emerge from the latest confrontation with a negotiated truce that further exposes the administration’s indecision and political vulnerability. At worst, he could face the prospect of prolonging military intervention in response to a fresh wave of strikes and street violence.

Toledo’s action “was inevitable faced with the...chaos that had prevailed when, under the pretext of the agricultural strike, uncontrolled groups proceeded for two days to block roads at...35 points across the nation, preventing the passage of trucks and buses and...raising the serious risk of [food] shortages,” La República observed (May 29). But “the government will have to do something about [income] redistribution and an increase in wages in order not to have to extend the state of emergency or invoke another later—but will it do so?”

Carlos Basombrío, a former deputy interior minister writing in Ideele (May 28), argued that the real issue was not whether  the state of emergency was justified but rather “how we could have arrived in such a short time at a situation in which Toledo felt that the only way to maintain public order was through an extreme measure of this type.”  What is especially troubling, he wrote, is that the declaration leaves “nothing more in the repertoire of drastic solutions permissible in a democratic order....If the mobilizations were to continue and succeeded in defying the state of emergency, the situation could become politically unmanageable, as happened to [Argentina’s Fernando] de la Rúa.” While this scenario seems improbable, he added, “Profound changes are required to signify a genuine relaunch of the government...for its three remaining years.”

El Comercio expressed concern (June 6) that legitimate demands to raise teacher salaries have been exploited by leftist radicals sympathetic to the guerrilla movement Shining Path. “Taking advantage of the weakness of the government in negotiations,” the teachers’ union SUTEP “has made a series of provocations and defied the democratic state, plunging the nation into a state of emergency” even as it has continued to escalate its demands in what amounts to “crudely blackmailing the country,” El Comercio said.

Juan Carlos Tafur warned in Correo (June 6) that concessions to unions may have the devastating impact of rolling back hard-won economic, pension, and public-sector reforms. “The leading the country to a restoration of the 1980s,...the so-called lost decade, when triple-digit hyper-inflation and surging deficits plunged the nation into economic crisis,”  Tafur wrote. “If a government loses its vision of the future, it ends up leaving the field open to those who are nostalgic for times past.”