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Economic Crisis Leaves Poor Hungry, Desperate in Peru

February 28, 1989|JAMES F. SMITH | Times Staff Writer

LIMA, Peru — It is 6 a.m., a Sunday, still dark and chilly on the coastal desert plain. But food lines are already forming outside bread shops and people's markets across the Peruvian capital.

A bakery opens in the Pueblo Libre (Free People) district, a treeless swath of older, tidy brick homes owned by teachers and technicians alongside the flimsy grass-and-reed shacks of newly arrived squatters from the Andes highlands. A line forms, the people oblivious to the stench of garbage from the dusty edges of Tomas Valle Avenue.

The middle class and the poor mingle in the line, sharing a reality that over the past six months has taken hold everywhere but in the handful of well-to-do sections of this city of 6.1 million people: More often than not, if you want something in Lima, you have to wait in line for it, if it is available at all.

"The economic crisis is drowning us," Guillermo Torres Valle, one of the original householders in Pueblo Libre, said after buying a few bread rolls. "We are up to our eyes. These paquetazos (government austerity packages) are killing us.

"In some areas, there are people who eat a bit of bread for breakfast, and again for lunch, and drink water to fill their stomachs."

Torres Valle watched his sullen neighbors waiting in line and observed: "People are passive, too accepting. But there is going to come a time when things explode. They are going to be sacking the markets."

Peruvians are no strangers to frustration. Governments have been breaking promises here since the Spanish conquered the ruthlessly efficient Inca empire more than four centuries ago. Public buses are a trial for commuters trying to get home to the slums, and bank transactions can take hours. Patience is not just a virtue but a necessity.

But an economic program gone wrong is indeed straining the traditional resilience of Peruvians, who endured inflation of nearly 2,000% last year. Medical supplies are often unavailable, even for those with money. Strikes by hundreds of thousands of workers turn routine chores into daylong ventures. One of the longest lines is outside the passport office--people who want to flee the country.

Rumors of a coup have eased once again, and President Alan Garcia, his popularity in tatters, maintains that he is on the verge of righting the economy after a spending spree that lasted nearly four years and almost bankrupted the country.

The hardships, his government says, are the necessary result of a series of reforms imposed since September. They include the near-elimination of government subsidies, a move that has more than doubled the price of fuel and some staple foods since September.

The importance of food for the future of democracy in Peru has not escaped the surging Maoist guerrilla movement, Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path. Earlier this month, the guerrillas exhorted dozens of shantytown residents to carry out an illegal potato harvest on a private farm on the outskirts of Lima--and killed a guard who tried to stop them.

In the meantime, Peruvians of all classes share a pervasive despair--and try to cope.

"Tell your people that we are dying of hunger here," a young man shouted to a foreign reporter as a food line inched forward in Trebol, an old section in the city's north. After buying his rice, the man, Andres Villanueva, elaborated: "The people are getting desperate. Communism is growing stronger in these poor areas. It is very dangerous."

Shortage of Staple

Hundreds of people had gathered at dawn outside the Trebol people's market, without even knowing whether there would be any rice, a Peruvian staple.

Every Saturday, usually by mid-morning, a government truck arrives at each market and dumps a load of one-kilo bags of rice (2.2 pounds each) at the curb to be sold by municipal workers. On Sundays, the chances that a truck will arrive are only 50-50.

On this Sunday, the people were fortunate. A truck appeared at 10 a.m. and deposited 3,000 bags, enough rice for 600 families. The workers sold each customer up to five bags for 375 intis each (about 25 cents). Schoolteachers are paid about $25 a month.

In Jesus Maria, an older Spanish colonial section of Lima north of the downtown area near decaying Inca ruins, tension infused a rice line that stretched around a block of closed shops.

A day earlier, the supply had run out before half of the people were served, setting off scuffles that came close to being a riot.

Women in the line, their faces taut with anxiety and their eyes hawkishly attentive, kept a lookout for any sign of cheating or cutting in. Several people, many with relatives in the line, formed a semicircle around the pile of rice bags on the sidewalk to monitor the sale.

"Don't sell five bags, sell four!" one woman shouted. "There isn't enough!"

The government worker in charge, nervous that the sale would collapse in chaos, vainly pleaded with the people to move back.

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