Thu, Jul 15, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Peru's president jittery over calls for a mass strike

AP , LIMA

The least popular president in the Americas was facing a nationwide strike yesterday that could undermine his authority after a communist-led labor federation called out thousands of workers to paralyze the country.

Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo planned to send riot police out on street patrols to maintain order and deploy army troops to guard public installations including electricity and water plants.

"The Interior Ministry has mobilized 93,000 police officers to avoid violence ... and the armed forces will protect some public sites and services," Interior Minster Javier Reategui told foreign reporters.

The communist-led Confederation of Peruvian Workers, the country's largest labor federation, called the strike last month to press demands for higher wages and bring an end to free market economic policies.

Some 150 unions, including those representing construction workers and teachers, and other organizations were expected to participate.

Striking workers planned to march from half a dozen outlying districts to the city center where a mass rally was planned. Organizers predicted 300,000 workers would march through the capital.

front-runner

Former president Alan Garcia, head of the populist Aprista party, Peru's largest opposition group, has backed the protest. The charismatic Garcia is an early front-runner in presidential elections scheduled for 2006.

Reategui said hundreds of soldiers would be used to free up more riot police, but would not join in the street patrols.

Labor leaders accused the government of overreacting with its security plan.

"We will hold security forces responsible if there is any type of repression against the marchers," confederation leader Juan Jose Gorriti said.

Gorriti promised that public transportation and people would not be targeted.

Political analyst Alberto Adrianzen said the government had mounted "an absurd campaign to demonize the strike."

"In a country where conflicts explode into anarchy, it is better to negotiate" with labor leaders, he said.

The unions have demanded that the government introduce higher wages and curb free market economic policies, including servicing the foreign debt at the expense of social programs.

But many see the strike as more political than economic -- aimed at undermining the authority of a president whose approval ratings have dropped to single digits since January.

Toledo came into office in July 2001 with polls showing him supported by nearly 60 percent of Peruvians, just eight months after the collapse of authoritarian former president Alberto Fujimori's decade-long regime.

unkept promises

But Toledo's approval rating quickly eroded, with Peruvians complaining he was untrustworthy, indecisive and had not kept promises to create hundreds of thousands of jobs.

It now appears that people simply detest him on a personal level, public opinion surveys show.

The timing of the strike is particularly embarrassing for Toledo. The first round of the Copa America soccer tournament was to wrap up yesterday.

In all, the competition includes teams from Costa Rica, Mexico and 10 South American nations -- with hundreds of reporters from around the world sent to cover it.

The government decided to deploy a large security force after intelligence reports suggested that radical communist groups and remnants of the Shining Path guerrillas were planning to infiltrate crowds to incite violence, Reategui said.

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