Peruvians were shocked by the resignation Dec. 10 of Prime Minister Salomón Lerner Ghitis, only 136 days into President Ollanta Humala’s administration.
Along with Lerner went the entire cabinet, and Humala named retired colonel Óscar Valdés, who was minister of the Interior, to take over the position. Eight of 18 ministers were reinstated — Foreign Relations, Economy and Finance, External Trade and Tourism, Education, Health, Housing, Transportation and Communication, and Development and Social Inclusion — while the heads of the ministries of Production, Agriculture, Energy and Mines, Environment, Culture, Women, Interior, Defense, Labor, and Justice were replaced.
The cabinet change was triggered by protests against Conga, a US$4.8 billion project to mine gold and copper beneath four lakes in southeastern Cajamarca, in the northern Andes, to be executed by Minera Yanacocha, which belongs to US company Newmont Mining, Peruvian firm Buenaventura, and the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a World Bank affiliate.
Since mid-October, Cajamarca’s people have staged a protest against the project, which is located at a headwater and would endanger the area’s water supply. The environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the project was approved quickly in October 2010 by the Ministry of Energy and Mines. A review of the EIA by the Ministry of Environment found serious breaches, including the lack of a hydrogeological study, which is essential to understand the functioning of the lakes, and did not evaluate the importance of the environmental services provided by those ecosystems.
The situation became more complicated when Humala said in a Nov. 16 press conference that “the government does not accept ultimatums from anyone” in regard to the pressure from the communities against open pit mining. He added that “natural resources would be protected, but so would productive activities”, and that he wanted to make people understand that “we want the water and the gold.”
Humala’s new discourse is diametrically opposed to what he said before thousands of people in Cajamarca in May, during his campaign: “What is more important, water or gold? You don’t drink gold, you don’t eat gold. The mining companies had better not take over the water table.”
The president’s recent declarations unleashed an indefinite strike in Cajamarca on Nov. 24, staged by local organizations and supported by the municipal authorities and regional government. A group of ministers headed by Lerner participated in talks on Dec. 4, but no agreement was reached because Lima refused the local leaders’ request for 24 hours more to talk with the constituency. Humala’s response that day was to declare a state of emergency in Cajamarca’s four provinces and order a freeze on the regional government’s accounts. On top of that came the illegal “holding” two days later of a group of leaders from Cajamarca for 10 hours at National Security headquarters in Lima after a Congressional meeting.
Lerner’s resignation was immediate. On Dec. 10 he announced his departure from the Presidency of the Council of Ministers and the departure of the entire cabinet.
In a letter to Humala, he emphasized that the guidelines set forth by the cabinet he headed “was for dialogue and consensus building among Peruvians to avoid confrontation and reaffirm our democratic life and vocation,” adding that “as I have stated, the beginning of a new stage of government work requires adjustments in the general conduct of government,” thus leaving the president free to rebuild his team.
A firm hand
Unlike the fleeting first cabinet, known as the “consensus”, which engaged renowned professionals and figures on the left, the new one has been labeled as “coherence cabinet.”
Immediately the media and the right, which during the election campaign had demonized Humala, applauded the turn taken by the president to have removed the progressive officials from the cabinet and acted with a “firm hand” to control the protests in Cajamarca.
Business associations, which during the second round of voting publically supported candidate Keiko Fujimori, daughter of imprisoned former President Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), now welcome Humala’s decision to go down the same neoliberal economic path and appoint “technical” rather than political ministers to stay that course.
The president of the National Confederation of Private Business Associations (CONFIEP), Humberto Speziani, told the press that “the new cabinet will reinforce the expectations for economic growth in the country. It was a good change. I think the markets will react well… The Peruvian and foreign investors that invest in Peru will be more relaxed.”
Nevertheless, a wide range of analysts highlighted their concern for the possible “militarization” of the government. The two most important figures in the Executive branch, the president and prime minister, are ex-military, as is Humala’s chief advisor, retired colonel Adrián Villafuerte.
In her column in La República, Patricia del Río posited that the ministerial changes are a product of “the same improvisation that seems to be marking Ollanta Humala’s [style of] management, the same lack of coherence that accompanies rulers who, unclear of their role, listen to a thousand voices and give into the one that shouts loudest in their ear.”
Del Rio agrees with others who have been around Humala that he “has been trained to follow orders without hesitation or grumbling.”
A journalist who asked to remain anonymous told Latinamerica Press that Humala “is a labile man who doesn’t know how to make decisions because he only got to the rank of lieutenant colonel. [He] knows how to lead a troop, but never made it to the upper ranks, where decisions are really made. Those around him who decide are firstly his wife Nadine Heredia, Villafuerte and now Valdés.”
20 years is nothing
Political analyst Augusto Álvarez Rodrich, also a columnist in La República, was surprised by the parallels with 1991 — the year before Fujimori’s coup on Apr. 5, 1992 — and 2011: “A regime that is born with improvisation; a change from a statist script during the campaign to a pro-investment one once in power; leftists in the first cabinet; their quick removal; their replacement by technocrats; expressions to make the ‘principle of authority’ felt; the distancing of the parties; and seeking shade beneath the military tree.”
What is clear, former deputy minister of Environmental Management in the Ministry of Environment, José de Echave, told Latinamerica Press, is that “we are in a new political era, a moment with a very complicated twist.”
Historian Nelson Manrique wrote that “the fall of Lerner’s cabinet is a turning point that until now seems to indicate a turn toward the right, right down the line.”
“What we’ve lived in recent days leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth, like we are attending the revival of a bad play with a script we already know: economic power-holders lose the elections, but they invariably end up ruling. Just looking at who applauded Ollanta Humala’s shift should be enough to know where the government is headed”, he said.
That being so, it is not difficult to predict the exacerbation of social conflicts — more than 200 now, according to the Office of the National Ombudsman— as Humala fails to comply with the expectations of those who voted for him and the tendency to solve the conflicts with a “firm hand.”