Peru’s president Pedro Castillo will travel to the Andean city of Cusco on Friday to address the demands of protesters angry about the rising cost of living who have blocked roads and a railway this week, stopping tourists reaching the ruins of Machu Picchu.
Thousands of Peruvians joined a two-day strike in the Cusco region on Monday and Tuesday over the soaring cost of fuel, fertiliser and food, caused in part by the war in Ukraine. Some blocked roads with rocks and burning tyres.
The train service between Cusco and the mountain citadel of Machu Picchu was suspended and police had to escort tourists to the city’s airport. The local chamber of commerce said that 4,200 tourists had cancelled trips to the region during the 48-hour stoppage.
Photos and videos on social media showed foreign tourists arguing with local people at road blocks and trudging along a railway line in the dark carrying backpacks. The disruption followed an air traffic controllers’ strike that forced the closure of Cusco airport and the cancellation of hundreds of flights nationwide in Easter week, an important time for the tourist industry.
The unrest in Cusco followed weeks of protests across the country in which at least five people died in clashes with the police.
Many Peruvians say they can no longer cope with inflation that is running at 7 per cent, its highest rate in a generation. Some want Castillo to quit after just nine turbulent months in government while others want him to fulfil his campaign promises to draw up a new constitution, nationalise the gas industry and implement agrarian reform.
Until now, hostility towards Castillo has been concentrated in Lima and the opposition-led congress, which has twice tried to impeach him. However, the recent protests suggest that discontent is spreading, and the inexperienced president is losing support among his rural Andean base.
A recent Ipsos poll suggested that his approval rating had dropped below 20 per cent. No recent Peruvian president has been so unpopular so early in their rule.
“The government is playing with fire because it’s mixing up issues, like the calls for a constituent assembly and the renegotiation of gas contracts, with the more pedestrian complaints that people have over price rises,” said Rodolfo Rojas, director of local risk consultancy Sequoia. “It’s a cocktail that could prove explosive.”
Castillo is due to lead a cabinet meeting in Cusco on Friday and kick off a round of negotiations with the protesters.
“People are expecting solutions right now, while the government is talking about 30 or 60 days of dialogue,” Rojas said. “The gap between what the government can offer and what people want is enormous.”
Meanwhile, protests have shut down two major copper mines in southern Peru, unusual even in a region rife with mining conflicts.
In Apurímac on Wednesday, indigenous villagers forced Chinese-controlled mining company MMG to halt production at Las Bambas, which accounts for some 2 per cent of global copper supply. The villagers were relocated more than a decade ago to make way for the mine’s construction and say the company has not fulfilled its commitments to them.
A separate community protest lasting over a month has also forced the closure of the Cuajone mine, owned by the US-headquartered Southern Copper Corp.
Between them the two mines account for a fifth of copper output from Peru, the world’s second-biggest producer of the metal.
Castillo came to office in July last year as the most unlikely president in Peru’s history. A rural primary school teacher, farmer and trade union activist, he had never held public office before. He had no political party of his own and was adopted by a Marxist party, Free Perú, as its candidate.
His first nine months in power have been chaotic. He has rattled through four cabinets and about 50 different ministers as his appointments have come under intense scrutiny in the wake of a series of scandals. The attorney-general’s office is investigating him for corruption, although he denies all such allegations.
On Thursday, after Castillo’s prime minister had criticised a Peruvian cardinal, calling him “wretched” and saying that he always stood up for the elites in Peru and not the poor majority, the traditionally powerful Catholic Church weighed in to the debate over Castillo’s government.
“Nine months after the start of the current administration and after four ministerial cabinets, the absence of leadership and of a sociopolitical and economic horizon is very worrying and requires an immediate solution,” it said in a statement. “Our weak democracy cannot stand more instability.”