Deadly protests in Peru as people take to the streets over high costs and inflation

VILLACURI, Peru — Marcelo Gonzales is tired and angry about the soaring cost of living in his dusty village on Peru’s desert coast, where food and fuel inflation sparked by the war in Ukraine has sparked protests that threaten to destabilize the government.

The social upheaval in the Andean country underscores how the impact of Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine is playing out around the world, with leaders in Sri Lanka and Pakistan also coming under public pressure over difficult economic conditions.

Inflation in Peru has hit its highest level in a quarter of a century, hitting people who have been severely affected by the coronavirus pandemic since early 2020.

“The cost of a family’s basic daily necessities has gone up brutally,” Gonzales told Reuters, surrounded by hundreds of angry residents of the western village of Villacuri, where people from all parts of Peru come to work in the large orchards nearby.

Last week, Gonzales led people from his village, which is about 240 km (150 miles) south of the capital Lima in the Ica region, to block the country’s main highway and urged the government to lower prices, particularly for essentials such as vegetable oil, chicken, rice, and cooking gas.

“We can’t afford rent or buy things for our children,” says Maribel Condori, mother of three in Villacuri.

Peruvians in poor rural towns across the country have taken to the streets, sometimes violently, to demand lower prices, making Socialist President Pedro Castillo’s already shaky government nervous. The former teacher survived a second attempt at impeachment on March 28 following allegations of bribery, which he denies.

At least six people have died in clashes with police, including one in Ica, authorities said. Officials have so far been unable to reopen many of the closed roads, although the Pan-American Highway, which crosses Peru along the Pacific, is currently open after a 48-hour truce that ends on Saturday.

Peru has also used its military to regain control of its highways.

Earlier this week, Castillo imposed a curfew in Lima to try to stifle the protests, but that backfired as thousands took to the streets in defiance. Some looted shops and government buildings.

“We’re not against the president,” Gonzales said. “We are against Congress, which cares deeply about impeachment but never works for the people.”

“We want to change the constitution, especially changing the part that says the government can’t control the prices set by private companies,” said Gonzales, who plans to continue the post-truce blockade unless the government commits to lower prices.

Despite being economically stable, Peru has been plagued by political crises and protests this year, causing Castillo’s support to wane and raising doubts as to whether he will exercise his full mandate until 2026.

EMERGENCY RESPONSE

Inflation in Peru was just under 7% last year, but prices for essential goods have risen faster. The increase has accelerated since the beginning of the war. Ukraine and Russia account for 29% of world wheat exports and 19% of corn shipments.

According to Peru’s national statistics agency, inflation in food, housing, energy and fuel has increased by over 11% over the past year. Cooking oil and sugar have increased even faster, up 50% and 35% respectively.

“The price increase for essential items is real,” Prime Minister Anibal Torres said on Wednesday. “But what is sometimes not said … is that this is an international problem that stems from the war between Russia and Ukraine.”

The government has taken some emergency measures to cut costs, including waiving most taxes on gasoline and giving poor residents vouchers to buy cooking gas. The minimum wage was also raised by around 10%.

But so far it has had little effect in cooling public anger.

Villacuri residents said they earned just over minimum wage, about 1,400 soles (about US$375) a month, by helping farm businesses during harvest season.

“Honestly, it’s not enough,” said Condori, the mother of three. “If you add up what we need to buy: chicken, rice, sugar… it’s not fair. It’s time for the government to defend the people. We want a new constitution.”

Chants calling for a new constitution can be heard throughout Villacuri, where a stretch of the Pan American Highway is covered in glass powder and rocks, a sign of recent clashes. Toll booths were burned nearby.

Peru’s constitution, a pro-market text seen as conducive to business growth, was drafted by former President Alberto Fujimori in the 1990s after he violently crippled Congress and the judiciary. Many support it as a basis for relative economic stability, but opposition is growing.

“We’ve always wanted a Constituent Assembly,” said Cediano Lima, another Villacuri resident. “Now we want it even more because prices have gone up, so we’re asking the President to call one once and for all.”

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