¡Viva El Status Quo!

Peru’s new social divide
huaraz — On May 31, 1970, Huaraz, the capital of Peru’s poor, mountainous Ancash province, was levelled by an earthquake that registered 7.75 on the Richter scale. Many title deeds were lost in the disaster, and in the rebuilding effort most properties were up for grabs. A lot of native old-money Huaracinos didn’t bother rebuilding and relocated to Lima or other parts of the country. Into this vacuum came people from the mainly indigenous communities around Huaraz. Anyone who could muster the resources to build a basic house then leveraged their ownership to obtain government-issued land titles. Much of the original post-colonial city was destroyed, but its grand Plaza de Armas survived.

Today Huaraz is a city of potholed streets lined with drab buildings, many of them erected gradually, one storey at a time. Owners add more rooms or levels when they can afford to, so many top floors sprout tufts of rusty, bent rebar, reaching up into the sky as if praying for another wave of prosperity to wrap them in cement. But while the city isn’t much to look at, it is growing rapidly, buoyed by the mining industry and tourism — every year, thousands of hikers and climbers are drawn here by the surrounding Cordillera Blanca mountains. Like many cities in South America, Huaraz is also home to an expanding middle class and its trappings: exclusive clubs, suvs, and self-serving government spending. The municipal authorities are busy beautifying the already impressive Plaza de Armas, yet a kilometre away children play on unpaved streets, and residents have to throw their trash into mountain streams for lack of decent waste-disposal programs. Less than forty years after the city was rebuilt, the gap between rich and poor is painfully obvious. And when I worked for a summer in Huaraz, it was also clear that many of Peru’s newly prospering citizens have little sympathy for the rural underclass they left behind.

It was last year, in mid-July, when a nationwide strike was paralyzing Peru. An ongoing teacher’s strike had overlapped with protests against land reform and a free trade agreement with the United States. But there was something else at stake. The middle-class population of Peru’s cities is growing so quickly that the traditional divide between an elite of haves and a majority of have-nots (half the population lives on less than a dollar a day) is fading; a gulf between a lower-middle, urban class and a poor, rural one is taking its place. The paro (Spanish for “stop”), a mass protest during which the entire country literally grinds to a halt, is a way for Peru’s disenfranchised social groups to make themselves heard with a loud, if not necessarily cohesive, voice.

I was on my bike, running late to meet friends at a café in Huaraz, when I ran into a protesters’ roadblock. The street was deserted save for a group of men in dirty jeans, knock-off T-shirts, and traditional wide-brimmed hats. They were building a crude barricade out of chunks of broken pavement, stopping to drink beer out of tall bottles or glare at me as I considered how to proceed. The biting Andean sun was directly overhead, and I was nervous. A taxi rolled up beside me. Inside were a well-dressed father and mother with babies in their laps. They looked nervous, too. Then the driver accelerated, aiming his car at a gap in the rocks as a hail of bricks bounced off the car. The men laughed as the taxi sped off, and I took advantage of their distraction to dodge through.

Pedalling as fast as I could, I reached the café, which, like most other businesses, was officially closed. But Tim, the owner and an ngo consultant, let me in and invited me up to the roof, where I watched the protesters stream by. Most of them were Quechua farmers, waving anti-government banners, with the motto of Latin American protest on every one of thousands of sets of lips: El pueblo unido jamás será vencido! Every now and then, they hurled bricks at buildings or cursed at the riot police standing in formation along the streets.

“This is how they can show the city people that they still exist,” said Tim. “This happens about every two weeks now.”

After the protesters dispersed for the night, some fellow expats and I headed to a popular bar owned by a local, Javier. After a few beers, I asked him why the paro was called.

“It’s always something different,” he said dismissively. “This is their chance to come to town, make trouble, and get away with it.” Simply by virtue of owning a business, he had become detached from the movement.

The next day, radio reports told of chaos throughout the country: trains carrying tourists to Machu Picchu were pelted with debris; in Puno, bloody street battles raged; and in Lima scores of union leaders had been arrested. But in Huaraz, the paro ended without a major incident. By Saturday morning, the city was back to business as usual. The main avenue was once again clogged with traffic, shoppers, and European backpackers. Construction crews were back at work on the Plaza de Armas. The middle class had taken back the streets. The only reminders of the “united people” were the remnants of their barricades, some smashed windows, and a few women who had stayed behind. Sitting on colourful alpaca wool blankets in front of cellphone boutiques, they hawked T-shirts emblazoned with the ubiquitous black and white features of Che Guevara.

5 comment(s)

CarloApril 05, 2009 06:44 EST

Interesting picture about Huaraz. But you should be very careful when you write about things that you know superficially. The supposed "new social divide" that you claim can be seen as nothing new in fact: Peru has had many different kind of divisions since civilization came into existence, just as in any other place in the planet.

I don't know from where are you but imagine that I go to your country and picture the things I see creating more divisions between your connationals and contributing to the fostering of stereotypes abroad.

For example, I could go to some parts of NY and describe pictures of bus strikes, drug abuse, rapes, crimes and so on, would NY like it? Of course not, I have to tell also about the good things to be found in NY to be politically correct and not appear prejudiced. You have much to learn as a writer: more research and open-mindedness, are only two of them.

CarloApril 05, 2009 07:12 EST

ok, Canadian journal and possibly a potential Canadian apprentice of a writer... so if you spent a summer in Huaraz, why dont you mention that half of those protests and half of those growing divisions come from the presence of two Canadian mines? Why? Why? Why?

ChrisApril 05, 2009 10:01 EST

I wonder - does Jan's editor think this is a credible article? In my opinion, it's really slanted towards the dramatic. To describe Huaraz, even partially, as "a city of potholed streets lined with drab buildings" shows the author's skills clearly. As an example of the careless writing, the article begins by telling us about the 1970 earthquake that "leveled" the city - but yet the Plaza de Armas survived? Folks, there was NOTHING about the Plaza de Armas in Huaraz that survived that earthquake. Jan, do you think that maybe the earthquake and the incomprehensible destruction that resulted has maybe a little something to do with the basic, non-ornamental construction style that you deride? Tens of thousands of people needed shelter - the Peruvian military as well as volunteers from all over the globe came and rebuilt the main structure of the city (along with the rest of the callejon de Huaylas)in a very "workmanlike" style - unadorned. Not cute, but at least the town got back on track. This is a non-credible article in many important ways - too bad it was "published" - even in this simple manner.

AnonymousApril 06, 2009 01:44 EST

All these comments in the one day - we must all be following the same link of Facebook. I have never been to Huaraz, so I can't say how true to life the article is, but I think the writers point is exactly that as the city "got back on track" it developed an increasing rich vs. poor and city vs. country inequality. While I think the article might be a bit dramatic, it's pretty grim and I think the writer isn't trying to insult Huaraz, but rather show the problems affecting the city. Just my two cents. Oh, and Chris, this article WAS published in the magazine - this is an excerpt from the January 2008 issue.

MartucciApril 09, 2009 10:40 EST

Peru has always been divided first by its challenging terrain; costa, sierra, selva. From that perspective you can look at its different cultures and how they have evolved. The politics is local, regional, national and international just like any nationalized culture.

Huaraz has always been isolated in many ways- mostly because of its geographic location. In peru in general there is an opportunism that exists and it is not the fault of any one person or subculture- it is what is left over from the paternalistic spaniards who tried to conquer the incas. I don't think they succeeded completely.

It's quite obvious in the sierre and selva that traditions still exist and that their is much to learn from and respect about what is still preserved from these cultures that are not Peruvian. They are Andean and Amazonian and we shouldn't confuse them with Lima's politics first of all.

And what is poor by the standards of first world people, require years of observation so that you can appreciate how a POOR man feels and how a RICH man feels respectively.

In peru- just shut up and watch what happens and don't jump to conclusions. Be relative and phenomenological and if your really bored read Cien Siglos de Pan by Fernando Cabieses

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