Peru's mass march - the upshot?

Some 300,000 marchers are set to protest this week against the July 28 inauguration of Fujimori.

As President Alberto Fujimori prepares to celebrate his third-term inauguration on July 28, Peruvians from across the country are arriving in Lima for three days of pro-democracy protests.

The March of the Four Suyos (or regions of the Inca empire) has been gathering steam throughout Peru since opposition leader and ex-presidential candidate Alejandro Toledo announced the event after dropping out of the second-round election in May. By bus, truck, or boat, thousands of Peruvians have begun traveling to the capital city to take part in one of Peru's largest demonstrations in the past10 years.

"The march is an act of protest that stems from Peruvians' indignation in the face of Fujimori's illegitimate government," says Doris Sanchez, a march organizer with Peru Posible, Mr. Toledo's political group.

After effectively changing the Constitution so he could run for an unprecedented third term, Mr. Fujimori won a May 28 presidential election unopposed. Days before the vote, Toledo withdrew from the electoral process as part of an international protest over what observers later confirmed to be lacking in fairness and transparency.

But despite initial fury from democracy watchdogs and the Organization for American States, international pressure against Fujimori has waned. The government shows little sign of making good on its promises to democratize Peru. And that leads observers to say the country's political crisis will be played out largely in the streets.

"The March of the Four Suyos will define how Peru's political crisis develops in the future and will send a clear message to President Fujimori that he is not going to be able to govern with any measure of stability," says Fernando Rospigliosi, a political analyst with Caretas, Peru's leading newsmagazine. "People are outraged. The demonstrations will continue until Fujimori leaves office."

March organizers say they expect 300,000 people to fill Lima's historical center - 50,000 of them - from provincial cities across Peru. Simultaneous protests are planned in major cities across the country.

Giovana Peaflor, an analyst with the Lima polling firm Imasen, estimates some 150,000 will people will actually show up - significant nonetheless. She says, "In a country like Peru, where popular demonstrations have been demonized as a result of the issue of terrorist violence, Peru is only just beginning to recuperate the space of the street."

In the midst of a fierce economic recession, unions, citizens groups, and opposition parties have turned to creative methods to finance their participation in the march. Aymara indigenous communities in southern Peru have issued "Toledo bonds" bearing the opposition leader's face, which they peddle from door to door to raise money for the trip to Lima. Others have collected funds through raffles, concerts, and bingo games.

"Whether or not Peru makes a turn toward democracy depends on this march,"says Johnny Herrera, who will travel to Lima from the northern city of Tumbes with a delegation of 150 others. "Toledo has done his part abroad, but now it's up to us to fight for democracy from within."

March supporters are preparing an elaborate infrastructure to attend to the out-of-towners, who will have the option of sleeping at one of five tent cities planned at different parks and plazas in Lima. Complete with communal cooking areas, medical services and legal advice, each tent city is expected to house around 6,000 people.

Since Toledo's return last week from Mexico, where he obtained a pledge of support from Mexican president-elect Vicente Fox, the ex-candidate has traveled to several Peruvian cities to send off delegations of demonstrators headed for Lima.

Though Toledo and other opposition leaders have emphasized the peaceful nature of the march, the government-controlled press continues to paint march organizers as violent agitators determined to plunge the country into chaos. Meanwhile, Toledo has accused National Intelligence Service agents of attempts to infiltrate march-organizing committees and has warned of government plans to provoke violence in order to discredit the demonstrations.

President Fujimori has assured he will not interfere with Peruvians' right to peaceful protest and says he has no plans to institute a curfew. But many believe government attempts to undermine the march are already under way.

On Saturday, police blocked a boat carrying marchers from the jungle city of Iquitos and detained two delegation leaders on charges of terrorism and drug trafficking. Two students involved in march preparations in Huanuco are still in jail after their arrest earlier in the month on charges of terrorism. Many march sympathizers say they have been put on government wanted lists to prevent them from traveling.

In such a context, many expect police response will be ugly,especially given recent police propensity to use tear-gas bombs against demonstrators in the aftermath of the May elections. Opposition newspapers report that the Ministry of the Interior has bought more than 50,000 tear-gas bombs for this week's march. In response, local residents have taken to making anti-tear gas masks out of household items such as plastic soda bottles and tin cans stuffed with vinegar-soaked rags. The Lima Bar Association has set up a hotline to receive complaints of police abuse during the demonstrations and will post lawyers at police stations throughout the city.

Despite the risks, march supporters are not backing down. "We're prepared to confront whatever response the government takes," says march coordinator Pedro Carrasco. "It is a sacrifice we're willing to make to recover democracy."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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