As Peru’s unrest drives visitors away, many fear for their livelihoods

LIMA, Peru — As protests swept Peru this month, hundreds of foreign tourists were stranded near Machu Picchu, the ancient Inca site that has become the Andean country’s number one tourist attraction.

In recent days, however, visitors have finally been able to travel home a suspension of demonstrations that reopened the airport and nearby roads to allow the passage of food and travelers.

But as they leave the country, would-be travelers cancel their trips and a new regional and perhaps national strike begins, the abrupt shutdown of the tourism industry has dealt a severe blow to tens of thousands of Peruvians who depend on the travel economy for their livelihoods.

It’s not just that “everyone has started canceling,” said Nancy Bautista, 41, a tour guide with two children in the department of Cusco, home of Machu Picchu. Once the tourists left, protesters once again closed roads in the surrounding region, causing fuel and food shortages.

This is just one example of the financial toll that more than 10 days of nationwide unrest has taken on Peruvians. While Cusco felt calm on Monday, Ms. Bautista said chicken supplies in the city were running low. Beef was completely sold out. Gas prices skyrocketed.

The challenge of providing basic necessities is causing widespread concern in a region where the worst drought in more than 50 years and high fertilizer prices are already causing food shortages.

In the Cusco department, with its capital of the same name, many people struggle to eat enough, with almost 20 percent of children under the age of 5 suffering from chronic malnutrition, according to the government.

Cusco has about 2,000 tourism agencies, more than 1,000 hotels and 25 rural communities that depend on tourism, but the past few days have felt like the busy visitorless months of the pandemic, Ms. Bautista said.

“All of this takes you back to the time when everything was uncertain,” she added.

Built by the Incas before the arrival of the Spanish, historians believe that Machu Picchu may have been constructed as a royal estate or sacred religious site during the 15th century, although the exact purpose is uncertain.

Tourism to the site began to grow in 1983 when UNESCO declared the area a World Heritage Site.

The surrounding region, known as the Sacred Valley, has also seen a huge surge in tourist numbers in recent decades.

In 2019, 1.5 million people visited Machu Picchu, most of them foreigners. The number of tourists increased so much that many feared for their safety, and the government began restricting entry.

But Rolando Mendoza, head of tourism of Cusco, said the regional tourism sector had been hit hard by the pandemic and the government’s strict lockdowns and was still recovering when the protests began.

This year the authorities had hoped for at least one million visitors. Mr. Mendoza estimates that there will be closer to 700,000 to 800,000 visitors by the end of the year due to the protests.

In early December, protests erupted in Peru after the country’s left-wing leader, Pedro Castillo, attempted to dissolve Congress and install a new government that would rule by decree – actions that went beyond the limits allowed to the president by the constitution were imposed.

The move was widely condemned as an attempted coup and Mr. Castillo was soon arrested for rebellion. His vice president, Dina Boluarte, a former ally, soon took office.

But Mr. Castillo’s supporters, many of them from poor, rural areas, have taken to the streets to call for new elections. Many are also demanding his reparations, sometimes blocking highways with burning tires, vandalizing government buildings and throwing rocks in the streets.

At least 26 people have died as a result of the protests, according to the Office of the National Ombudsman, and various human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have accused the police and military of using excessive force against protesters.

Nine protesters, including a 15-year-old boy, were killed in clashes between the military and protesters in the city of Ayacucho on Thursday.

At least 356 civilians and 290 police officers were injured during the protests, according to the Ombudsman.

By Monday, the number of protests across the country had dwindled, although groups were calling for a new strike to begin this week, making it unclear whether the country would see the unrest ending – or just a brief lull.

Since taking office, Ms. Boluarte, a leftist from a largely poor region, has tried to strike a conciliatory tone by calling for unity in a deeply divided nation and speaking Quechua, the indigenous language spoken by many of Mr. Castillo’s supporters .

But it has also declared a state of emergency, suspended many civil liberties and deployed the military in some places – actions that seem to alienate the very protesters it is trying to calm.

On Sunday, in interviews with the national press, she said that the deaths of protesters should be investigated by military justice rather than prosecutors, a move that could mean lighter sentences for soldiers accused of abuse. The explanation was immediate criticized by lawyerswho said a previous Supreme Court case, as well as international law, made it clear that allegations of human rights abuses in the civilian system should be investigated.

A day earlier, the country’s anti-terrorist police raided the offices of a left-wing party and a campesino organization in downtown Lima, detaining several demonstrators for hours.

Police accused them of using violence during demonstrations and showed reporters weapons confiscated from protesters, such as slingshots and machetes, although protesters said these had been planted. Human rights groups condemned the raids as illegal intimidation tactics by the authorities.

As the raid unfolded, Mrs. Boluarte addressed the crisis in a televised presentation with the Chief of the Armed Forces, a character intended to focus narrowly on external threats in Peru.

“I’m very sorry for the death of these people,” she said, speaking of the dead demonstrators. “We build bridges to meet with the leaders of these social movements. But you can’t dialogue with violence. To calm oneself down.”

Aside from the possibility of Mr. Castillo’s reinstatement, protesters have been calling for new elections to be held as soon as possible, while Congress recently rejected efforts to postpone them to December 2023, well ahead of their scheduled 2026 date.

An Ipsos poll for America Television released Sunday showed about 85 percent of respondents supported new general elections, and 33 percent also backed what the poll called Mr Castillo’s “coup,” a figure that was published in rural Peru rose to 52 percent.

Another poll showed that just 17 percent were satisfied with the way Peru’s democracy worked, the lowest level since at least 2006.

There was some support even among some whose livelihoods have been upended by the protests.

In interviews, people working in the region’s tourism industry said they sympathize with the protesters’ motivations, although they disagree with the violence and hope there will be a solution soon.

“Among friends who work in tourism, we talk and there’s always this concern about political issues that can lead to such deadlocks,” said David Mora, 41, who runs a small tourism business.

“But these strikes were very aggressive,” he added. “These were not normal protests and there was also a lot of repression by the authorities, the police and the army.”

Mitra Taj reported from Lima, Peru; Genevieve Glatsky of Philadelphia; and Julie Turkewitz from Ayacucho, Peru.

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