Peruvians worry their country is heading toward collapse. Food shortages and Garc'ia's failure to act spur strikes and calls for his resignation

Peru's economic crisis is fast turning into a political and social crisis. The nation is running out of wheat. And some opposition members are calling for the resignation of their leader. President Alan Garc'ia has rejected official calls for his resignation, which would be permitted under the Constitution.

But most political observers suggest the situation could turn ugly and spin out of control within the next two months if Mr. Garc'ia doesn't come up with a coherent plan to deal with the crisis and offset the chronic lack of confidence handicapping his government.

Teachers and public workers plan to join striking miners, textile, and sugar co-op workers in coming weeks. No one knows what will happen if the current shortages of wheat, sugar, milk, rice, and cooking oil grow more severe and average Peruvians have to limit their diet more than they already have.

Some 51 ships carrying essential imports of milk, wheat, and other basics are stranded outside Peru because the central reserve bank doesn't have the necessary foreign reserves to back up credit letters for them.

``The country is being taken toward a situation of social collapse,'' said Sen. Javier Silva Ruete, leader of the Solidarity and Democracy Party, a small center-right party. The senator, a former ally of Garc'ia's, is lobbying for his resignation.

``The political crisis is that the government is not governing,'' Senator Silva Ruete, a former finance minister, said. ``If we continue along this path we are going to have a country with violence because of strikes and the lack of food and medicines.''

Critics like Silva Ruete say the headstrong Garc'ia often changes his mind after agreeing on policy suggestions from his ministers and prefers to personally decide on things on a case-by-case basis rather than in accordance with a long-term plan.

In the earlier, heady days of power, many Peruvians found Garc'ia's populist individualism refreshing. Now, with the economic situation compounding daily, the President has little support in the polls and much less room for maneuver.

``He's pushed himself into a corner where he can't get out,'' says political analyst Manuel D'Ornellas. ``No one trusts him. If he veers to the right there might be a bit less alarm. If he veers to the left, it's a vacuum because they're not going to put people on the streets to help him, and they want to keep their distance because of electoral reasons.''

Garc'ia can expect little help from the country's left and right opposition parties, who are already gearing up for municipal elections next year and national elections in May, 1990.

A political adviser close to Garc'ia says: ``What the President is doing now, what his main job will be in the time left - will be a careful balancing act.''

The left, grouped under the United Left coalition, and the right, under the Democratic Front, are trying to smooth over internal disputes on leadership and strategy. But they seem more interested in controversy than joining forces. (The Democratic Front represents the two traditional right-leaning parties and a citizen's opposition movement led by the writer Mario Vargas Llosa.)

The exception is Alfonso Barrantes Ling'an - a former United Left leader and mayor of Lima - who is seen as a contender for the 1990 presidential vote. Mr. Barrantes is actively lobbying for a political consensus that would include workers, business leaders, and politicians to help Peru weather the current storm.

``It is deplorable that some parties and some political leaders have already begun electoral activities,'' Barrantes says. ``What we need is a dialogue that goes beyond election ardor to work out a minimum of a plan to help solve the economic crisis.''

Garc'ia has another thorn in his side. He knows that whatever he does or doesn't do will be held against him and the ruling American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA) party.

The stakes are high. The party is highly sectarian and had to work underground or in exile for much of its 61-year history because of political persecution by successive military governments working in conjunction with the country's oligarchy.

It is widely suspected that a small group of militant APRA members could be involved with the mysterious paramilitary group calling itself the Commando Rodrigo Franco after a government official was killed by guerrillas, the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), last year.

The paramilitary group has been stepping up its actions, mostly bombings, throughout the country ever since it carried out its first public action in July, when it murdered lawyer Manuel Febres. Shortly before his murder, Febres had successfully won an aquittal for Osman Morote, a prominent Sendero leader who has since been sentenced to 15 years in jail.

The command's latest action has been to send death threats to Silva Ruete, following his appeal for Garc'ia's resignation, and several prominent television journalists who have been also critical of the Garc'ia government.

Garc'ia has promised an investigation after opposition politicians increased their accusation that the police haven't provided any information on the group.

While the capital is rife with rumors about coup plots - including one suggesting Garc'ia would like a coup in order to save face - it seems unlikely the military will intervene unless there is widespread chaos in the streets.

Peruvians are still overwhelmingly in favor of constitutional rule. In one recent poll, 63 percent of those interviewed said they had confidence in the loyalty of the armed forces to the President. In the same survey, 79 percent of respondents rejected the notion that Garc'ia resign before his five-year term ends.

The government seems to have gained ground in the fight against Sendero with the capture of its top leader - Mr. Morote - who was turned in by a fellow guerrilla for a large reward and passage out of the country. But there are disturbing signs that Peru's consolidation of democracy will not be peaceful.

Statistics gathered by a Senate commission investigating violence and solutions for pacification show that nonpolitical and political violence are sharply rising. In the first 10 days of November there were 41 homicides, about double the average of 10 years ago, and 69 deaths as a result of the eight-year-old insurgency war, according to commission statistics. The number of policemen killed on duty has also increased dramatically.

``Levels of social aggression are increasing,'' said Enrique Bernales, the United Left senator who headed the commission as it traveled throughout Peru. ``This country has very few options to pacify itself. The clear perception is that we are going toward destruction.''

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