The Peruvian government today faces its second national strike since coming to power in 1985, a sign that its increasing economic difficulties are breeding wider social discontent. But for the first time, President Alan Garc'ia's government confronts a serious complication to the problem of labor unrest: a Maoist guerrilla group is supporting the strike. The group, Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), has ruthlessly waged war for nearly eight years in Peru. Many worry there could be violence during today's strike.
Sendero Luminoso's backing for the 24-hour strike marks a shift in its tactics. Previously, the radical group - which wants to totally restructure Peruvian society - regarded labor-union activity as merely reformist and condemned the relatively moderate left-wing labor leadership.
The general strike has been called by the Communist Party-led General Confederation of Peruvian Workers (CGTP), Peru's largest and most powerful union federation. The CGTP also headed a 24-hour general strike in May.
Now, in a document published earlier this month, the guerrillas say that union struggles are legitimate terrain for political agitation and that Sendero Luminoso must play a leadership role.
It is feared, however, that Sendero's support is the main reason the strike could be bloody. Luis Arce, editor of the pro-Sendero daily newspaper El Diario, says the guerrillas ``want a combative strike.''
According to Ra'ul Gonz'alez, one of Peru's top analysts of the Shining Path, ``Sendero wants to expropriate the strike politically. They want the government to have blood on its hands and to be able to say that the masses have superseded the old union leadership.''
The Garc'ia government has declared the work stoppage illegal because officials say it is a political strike rather than strictly an action for wage demands. The CGTP says the strike is a political protest against the government's economic and labor policies, but that it is no less legitimate for that reason.
Given the bleak panorama of Peru's economy, further social upheaval is likely, and Sendero is poised to take advantage of the situation. In its new document, called Bases for Discussion, Sendero says for the first time that it is seeking to form a broad political front that would include not only workers and peasants but the middle class, specifically small and medium-sized business. It also puts new emphasis on its work in urban areas, in contrast to its traditional concentration on the country side.
With this new tactical twist, it seems to be aiming to attract the constituencies of the legal, electoral left. Peru's electoral left, the largest in South America, is joined in a coalition of some six parties, called United Left.
The coalition has been limping along with considerable internal differences. Some of the differences focus on its divergent views of Sendero and Peru's second most important guerrilla group, the Tupac Amar'u Revolutionary Movement (known by its Spanish initials MRTA).
As the United Left has fumbled over the last year and a half - having lost the Lima mayor's office to the ruling party in the November 1986 election - its more radical wing has increasingly pressured for a tougher stance against the Garc'ia government. Thus, in recent months some radical-left sectors have had a ready sympathy for MRTA, which, with much the same agenda as the electoral left, began its armed rebellion in 1984.
The MRTA, a pro-Cuban, Marxist-Leninist group with links to Colombia's M-19 guerrillas, was largely an urban guerrilla group until last October, when it launched its first rural guerrilla column. In the first week of November, MRTA took over a provincial town and a few small villages in the central northeast province of San Mart'in. Far more publicity conscious than the hermetic Sendero, MRTA allowed one take over to be filmed by a national television crew. Guerrilla leaders gave press interviews, were shown dancing with local girls, and refrained from any of the typical Sendero practices of killing government officials. They called for a program of peace and justice and demanded better wages for workers.
The public's fairly warm reception of this new style of guerrilla, in contrast to Sendero, prompted a flustered President Garc'ia to first condemn, then offer to negotiate with the MRTA if it would lay down arms. When this was rejected, the government declared San Mart'in under military emergency and sent in the Army.
The Army has scored some successes against MRTA, chasing various columns into the far reaches of San Mart'in and capturing a major arms cache. Nonetheless, MRTA has hung on.
Sendero Luminoso sees MRTA as competition for the radical left's support, according to Mr. Gonz'alez and Manuel Granados, another analyst of Sendero. MRTA's relatively positive public image and its efforts to explain its actions have helped force Sendero to show another, less brutal face and present its program more clearly, Mr. Granados says.
But Sendero's reputation for harshness, recently reconfirmed by reports of three massacres of approximately 80 peasants in Ayacucho Province, will be hard to shake. In addition, four peasants last week told of being held hostage by Sendero and forced to work on a highland farm for more than three years.
Granados says as conditions worsen in Peru and democratic political options narrow for how to solve the country's crisis, Sendero could take Peru to a full civil war in the next two to three years.
Peru's bleak economic scene
Peru's economic outlook is gloomy.
A continual, rapid rise in the cost of living has squeezed family budgets. While the economy has registered robust growth rates in the last two years - 7 percent in 1987 and 8.5 percent in 1986 - inflation last year rose to almost 115 percent. This was up from 63 percent the year before. Some economists are predicting an inflation rate of 200 percent this year.
President Garc'ia has had to ask his countrymen to be patient and tighten their belts. He argues that, despite Peru's meager resources, his government is trying to improve living conditions.
The President says he has increased the monthly minimum wage by 511 percent from 360 intis (the Peruvian currency) when he came to office in July 1985 to 2,200 intis today. But devaluations of the inti have eaten up much of that raise, which in official exchange rate dollar terms climbed from just $21 to $35 a month.
While the prices of many basic goods, such as milk, cooking oil, and rice, remain controlled, much of the economy is geared to the black-market dollar. That now hovers at about 90 intis to the dollar. Further, price controls have provoked hoarding of and speculation in many products.
To aggravate the problems, Peru's foreign exchange shortage has begun to produce scarcities, as factories slow down because imported parts or inputs are unobtainable.