Peru: Humala Submits to the United States and the Mining Industry

October 1, 2013


On April 28, 2013, Peruvian President Ollanta Humala delivered a speech with major implications for the future of democracy in Peru. Referring to Peruvian and international laws guaranteeing indigenous peoples the right to free, prior, and informed consultation on development projects in their communities, the president declared that “there are no native communities … in the [Andean] highlands; the majority are agrarian communities. For the most part,” he continued, “native communities are [only] found in the [Amazonian] jungle, those indigenous groups that years ago were out of contact, but which we are now trying to articulate to the national community with infrastructure and modernity.”

2002 Photo by Peter D'Amato

This bold denial of the demographic, cultural, political, and historical realities of the indigenous Aymara and Quechua people—who form the majority of highland communities—stands in flagrant contradiction with Humala’s own landmark Indigenous Peoples Prior Consultation Law, which was unanimously passed by Congress a few weeks after his July 2011 inauguration. At the time, the law was welcomed by both the left and the right as a way to defuse the increasing—and often violent—conflicts that have accompanied the expansion of extractivist activities, resulting in 19 deaths since Humala took office. The law requires the Peruvian government to consult with indigenous peoples directly affected by all major development and investment projects, including infrastructure, mining, drilling, and forestry. In contrast, under Humala’s new criteria, consultation rights will be applied selectively. In the words of then Minister of Culture Luis Peirano, the law would apply only in those cases where “a community feels it is affected by a project [and] … provided it is an indigenous community.” Peirano’s opinion was especially salient because his ministry administers the census instrument used for the identification of indigenous peoples. Indeed, in the days following Humala’s speech, the Ministry of Culture announced that its “Database of Indigenous Peoples”—which provides information on Peru’s approximately 6,000 indigenous communities—would not be made publicly available.1 The implications of Humala’s denial of indigenous identity to highland communities became quickly apparent when Jorge Merino, Peru’s Minister of Energy and Mines, announced that the consultation law would not be applied to 14 new mining projects in the Andean highlands.2

Humala’s deceitful manipulation of indigenous rights will certainly stand out as the most emblematic measure of the “fast and furious” antidemocratic regression that took place between April and the annual July presidential message to the nation. These measures included a ban on sexual education for high school students; the imposition of mandatory military service on low-income youth; the restriction of women’s reproductive rights; the decriminalization of violence against gays and lesbians; the curtailment of rights for disabled people; and the reduction of public workers’ rights to collective bargaining and to strike. These “reforms” not only marked a radical departure from Humala’s electoral promises, they also dramatically undermined the democratic gains made in recent decades by the most vulnerable and marginalized sectors of Peruvian society.

This crackdown on political and democratic rights went hand in hand with the announcement of a new “legislative package” aimed to “restore investors’ confidence” shaken by the sliding prices of gold and copper—the leading Peruvian exports—and the “meager” 4.5% GDP growth for the first quarter of 2013. Investment would be bolstered by a new “expropriation law” speeding up the granting of land for infrastructure projects in the export sector.3 Cultural and environmental safeguards and timelines for approval of extractivist projects were also radically scaled down and shortened. The Ministry of the Environment was ordered to evaluate environmental impact assessments for new mining projects within 100 days of submission. The Ministry of Culture was handed the even more absurd requirement to certify the existence (or inexistence) of archeological ruins at new extractivist and infrastructure sites, within a period of 20 days.4

Following such moves, few doubts remained of Humala’s continuing commitment to the “commodity consensus,” a strategy of development sustained in the large-scale extraction and export of primary goods, which Argentine sociologist Maristella Svampa has described as hegemonic among both right and left leaning regimes across the region.5

Reminiscent of former president Alan García’s egregious legislative package, known as the “Law of the Jungle” that triggered the 2009 Amazonian uprising, one of the most widespread popular mobilizations in the country’s recent history, Humala’s “reforms” and “economic package” mark his definitive submission to the interests of the powerful mining industry.6 These “reforms” will intensify the dispossession of workers, peasants, and indigenous peoples, and deprive the nation of the natural landscapes, common goods, and cultural patrimony that stand as pillars of Peru’s national identity.

The denial of consultation and self-identity rights to Quechua and Aymara-speaking peoples will also reinforce the colonial nature of the Peruvian state and social formations, widening the fractures that continue to divide Lima’s Creole elites from the large indigenous and non-indigenous majorities in the rest of the country. By favoring mining over all other economic activities, but particularly agriculture—as in former President García’s description of Peru as a “mining and non-agrarian” country—Humala’s recent measures also represent a serious menace to food sovereignty and environmental sustainability in a country that already faces the rapid depletion of water resources as a consequence of global warming.7

For Peru’s economic and political elites—who were recently described by former Foreign Relations Minister Rafael Roncagliolo as “anchored in the nineteenth century”—Humala’s “reforms” brought comforting reassurance from a president whose election they adamantly opposed.8 Thus, the president of the powerful National Confederation of Private Business Institutions (CONFIEP), Alfonso García Miró, welcomed Humala’s initiatives as a “wise step” to recover “business confidence.” García Miró gave special praise to the president’s support for extractive industries, hydroelectric, and infrastructure projects as means to build a closer “partnership” between the government and investors.

2003 Photo by Peter D'Amato

Right wing media—including the Wall Street Journal—also praised the measures as an important move towards the full modernization and integration of the country in the global economy. More than a modern and innovative economic model, however, Humala’s neo-extractivist strategy of “development” seems to many Peruvians a mere recycling of the neocolonial, pro-imperialist proclivities of Peru’s late 19th century oligarchic order.9

Such concessions to the export elites paved the way for Humala’s early June visit to Washington. During his few days in Washington, Humala sought to further distance himself from the promises of a 2011 electoral campaign in which his candidacy was strongly and publicly opposed by both the U.S. and international mining interests. By 2013, however, a changed Humala now hoped—in the words of El País—to show that “Peru is a partner the U.S. can [confidently] work with.” During his 2011 campaign, Humala had promised to revise and reconsider the most damaging aspects of free-trade agreements with both the United States and other countries, to the country’s sovereignty and national interests. Two years later, Humala was insisting on the importance of an “open economy” as the key factor “to improve commerce” between the two countries. Following their meeting in the Oval Office, Obama declared Peru to be one of the “strongest and most trustworthy partners in the hemisphere” for the United States. The two presidents also agreed to “strategically deepen” the combat against “transnational drug trafficking.”10

Humala’s agenda, however, went beyond bilateral agreements. Even before his trip to Washington, Humala had acted to reaffirm Peru’s role in the Alianza del Pacífico (Pacific Alliance), a commercial bloc formed by Chile, Colombia, Peru and Mexico—countries that the Wall Street Journal described as the paramount “free-market stalwarts” in the region.11 The Pacific Alliance was formed in 2011 to undermine or disrupt the important strides towards regional integration taken by the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). Founded in 2008, UNASUR aims to integrate its twelve member countries into a distinctive geopolitical bloc that could counter U.S. attempts to form a hemispheric Free Trade Area of the Americas. In contrast, the governments of the countries in the Pacific Alliance maintain close ideological and political affinities with the United States. More than a commercial agreement, then, the Pacific Alliance—and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) of which it forms part—must be understood as geopolitical schemes aimed to shore-up U.S. hegemony. As discussed by Pierre Charasse in the Mexican daily La Jornada, the TPP’s main goal in Latin America is to isolate countries like Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, and other ALBA countries whose principles and initiatives represent a serious challenge to historical U.S. hegemony in a region sometimes still considered as its backyard. Participation in the TPP also condemns the Latin American “partners” of the United States to endlessly reproduce the traditional role imposed by colonialism and imperialism as “exporters of nature”—in the words of the late Fernando Coronil.12

Humala’s lackadaisical role as president pro tempore of UNASUR (2012-13), however, played against regional independence. More ominously, as suggested by Óscar Ugarteche, coordinator of the Latin American Economic Observatory, during his tenure Humala has created an unparalleled opportunity for the United States to recover the economic and political influence lost during the last decade.13 In a nod to both Washington and Peru’s right wing, Peru’s Minister of Economy and Finance, Luis Castilla refused to assume leadership of the UNASUR’s Financial Integration Group. As a crucial working group within UNASUR, the Financial Integration Group is charged with implementation of the Banco del Sur, the financial arm established to break regional dependency on the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. Castilla’s posturing was facilitated by the Peruvian government’s decision to block the visit of a Brazilian functionary charged with the public presentation of the goals and importance of the Banco del Sur.

In another unequivocal bow to Washington—and despite its ex-officio membership in UNASUR’s South American Defense Council—Humala’s Peru also played an active role in rescuing the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (TIAR) in Valparaiso, Chile, late last year. Considered by the majority of South America’s defense ministers as an “obsolete and ancient” Cold War relic of U.S. political control, TIAR seemed slated for obsolescence when UNASUR created the South American Defense Council. Weakened with the resignations of Mexico and five ALBA countries, the creation of the Alianza del Pacífico may have given TIAR a new although severely scale-down lease on life.

Humala’s eagerness to ingratiate himself with the right and the United States comes at a very high political cost. By intensifying mechanisms of dispossession of both territories and rights, Humala has also strengthened the resolve of peasant and indigenous peoples to challenge extractivist industries. Mobilizations such as the ongoing resistance to Cajamarca’s Conga mining project, have also spurred the emergence of an ecological consciousness and the formation of a broad—if loosely organized—political and social movement in defense of water and life. Sustained by a long history of anticolonial resistance, these dispersed and locally entrenched struggles directly challenge the dominant extractivist mode of accumulation and the exclusionary and discriminatory political regime. During the last decade, environmental issues, particularly those concerning mining, have stood as the most important source of social conflict in the country. Indeed, within six months of taking office, Humala’s first major political crisis was triggered by resistance to the proposed Conga mine. Last June alone, socio-environmental conflicts represented 65% of the 223 conflicts registered by the Ombudsman Office across the country.14

Last June also recorded Humala’s lowest approval rate since taking office in July 2011. The latest poll indicates a 7-point monthly drop from 39% to 32%. Tellingly, this decline is more severe in his former electoral bastions in the highland regions (from 38% to 28%), where Humala captured more than 60% of the vote, than in the capital city of Lima (from 39% to 35%). According to pollsters, the main source of dissatisfaction was Humala’s unfulfilled promises—or what many consider outright lies. Popular discontent also extended to the entire political establishment. Political parties in their entirety were disapproved of by 68% and approved of by only 20%. More significant was the fact that 76% of those polled did not feel represented by any of the current political leaders.15

Mounting disenchantment with the current administration, and Peru’s increasingly unstable and fragile democracy more generally, sparked an unusual wave of popular mobilizations, marking the definitive break between Humala and the popular sectors and political forces to his left. On July 12, the national trade union CGTP called a Jornada Nacional de Lucha as the first action on a national scale. Its broad call in defense of labor and democratic rights, in support of the demands of the LGBT movement, and in solidarity with the struggles against open-pit mining mobilized thousands across the country. The action also marked the political baptism of the recently created Frente Amplio de Izquierda (FAI), endorsed by six left-wing parties and organizations.

The FAI issued a call to build “a broad and unified political reference (referente político) of political parties, leaders, individual citizens, and members of social organizations as a real government alternative.” They have also promised, “to promote [grassroots] mobilization and organization across the country” as a vehicle “to achieve social justice, to strengthen democracy, and to attain ecological sustainability.”16 Taking as precedent the examples of Brazil’s PT, Uruguay’s FA, and Colombia’s Polo Democrático, the FAI also aspires to participate in a unified manner in the upcoming 2014 municipal and regional elections, and in the 2016 presidential elections.

Although seen by many as a welcome addition to a political debate hegemonized by recalcitrant neoliberalism, the Frente Amplio has also generated skepticism among many activists due to its emphasis on electoral politics, its lack of a clear anti-extractivist and anti-capitalist stance, and the presence of veteran leaders identified with the factionalism that brought failure to the United Left (1980-1990s).17

Two weeks after the Jornada Nacional de Lucha, youth and other sectors launched an even more dramatic challenge to Humala’s neoliberal schemes. In the days leading up to Peruvian Independence Day and Humala’s annual state of the union address, youth, labor organizations, collectives, citizens groups, and the recently formed FAI, joined forces to protest political corruption and cronyism. Summoned and organized through social networks, these mobilizations marked a turning point in popular, citizen, and left-wing opposition that has, until now, rested mostly upon the shoulders of indigenous and peasant-led local and regional movements against extractivism and in defense of such democratic rights as consultation.

The specific trigger for the protests was a spurious deal between congressional representatives of the president’s own party, allies of former center-right President Alejandro Toledo, and the extreme right represented by followers of jailed president Alberto Fujimori, to appoint individuals of doubtful moral and ethical character to key supposedly “non-partisan” positions in the Constitutional Tribunal, National Ombudsman (Defensoría del Pueblo), and Central Bank. However, the scope of citizen and popular reaction to this deal—which was popularly dubbed as the repartija (share-out)—suggests that Peruvians are losing patience with a political order passed down, with a few cosmetic reforms, from the authoritarian regime of Alberto Fujimori. Rooted in the 1993 Constitution of the Fujimori-Montesinos dictatorship, Peru’s single-chamber electoral democracy is dedicated to furthering such fundamental neoliberal principles as the subsidiary character of the nation state, the territorial rights of foreign capital, executive privilege, and the centralized power of key ministries such as the Ministry of Economy and Finance.

It is against this backdrop of an undemocratic constitutional order, that Peruvians have reacted to the arrogance of back room deals to appoint unqualified officials or redefine basic rights such as prior consultation. For the vast majority of Peruvians, however, such authoritarian moves are just business as usual in a country in which each of the past three presidents—all of whom were elected on popular democratic platforms—have very quickly succumbed to the control of what Latin Americans call los poderes fácticos, or the real power behind the throne: big business, neoliberal technocrats, media conglomerates, the military, the right-wing, and the Catholic Church.

Ignoring citizen demands for a change of political and economic course, Humala’s yearly message to the nation delivered on Independence Day (July 28) patently reaffirmed his submission to the same poderes fácticos that he so adamantly opposed as a presidential candidate. Intended to reassure big business of his commitment to create even better conditions for investment, his message to the nation failed to mention any of the progressive major policies or programs he had promised in his electoral campaign and that were at the center of his inaugural speech. In what was the briefest and least articulated of his three speeches, a grave and weary Humala offered a self-indulgent, partial, and disorganized listing of his government’s accomplishments.

Throughout the speech he repeatedly vowed to uphold the current neoliberal and extractivist course that, in his own words, had placed Peru among “the countries with the fastest growth in the world.”18 Right-wing press and analysts praised the presidential message as a positive step to “restore investors’ confidence,” and CONFIEP president Alfonso García Miró justified the evasion of any reference to social issues as an appropriate strategy “to avoid polemical topics that could polarize the country.”19

For analysts and commentators in the opposition, however, Humala’s message left a “bad taste of continuismo.” Former vice-minister of the environment and anti-extractivist activist José de Echave found the presidential address “uninteresting and weary.”20 Opposition congressman Yonhy Lescano considered the speech “empty, isolated and divorced from reality” and insensible to the common citizen’s everyday “needs and problems.” Moreover it did not address or offer any hint of a solution to the demands coming from the streets—be they from striking doctors and nurses in the public health system, peasants mobilized against the Conga mining project in Cajamarca, or from the youth, citizens, and workers demonstrating in downtown Lima at the same time that Humala delivered his speech to Congress. More important—stressed Lescano—the message “shows that president Humala is in the hands of transnational corporations and big business.”21

With three years left in Humala’s term in office, bracing for an inevitable slowdown of the world economy, and with an extremely reactionary elite nostalgic for the oligarchic good times on the offensive, the best prospect of change rests on the shoulders of both the anti-extractivist movements of resistance and the recently created Frente Amplio de Izquierda. Although an important step for anti-neoliberal forces, the electoral platform proposed by the FAI, only partially addresses the environmental issues central to both the socio-political conflict, and the global sustainability crisis caused by the predatory territorial and labor regimes of extractivist capitalism. While FAI has been endorsed by labor unions and many urban popular organizations, youth collectives and more importantly peasant, indigenous and local networks of resistance to extractivism have remained skeptical of FAI’s electoral emphasis.

Without the participation of peasants and indigenous peoples, moreover, any attempt to build a politically viable and potentially anti-systemic force is doomed to failure. Although disregarded by many on the left as solely motivated by defensive local interests, these popular resistance movements are the best hope for a counter-hegemonic intercultural perspective on development, environmental sustainability, and state organization. These movements, informed by deeply rooted traditions of resistance, challenge not only the logic and authority of neoliberal extractivist capitalism but also question the very same nature of western modernity.



1. Roció Maldonado Chavarri, “Gobierno retrocede y no publicará la Bases de Datos de Pueblos Indígenas,” May 15, 2013,

2. Nelly Luna Amancio, “Gobierno sabe que 14 proyectos mineros requieren consulta,” May 5, 2013 5 de mayo, 2013,

3. Rumi Cevallos Flórez, “Presidente Humala lanza 7 medidas para promover la inversión,” May 25, 2013,

4. “Humala declaró de ‘interés nacional’ la promoción de inversions en el Perú,” May 24, 2013

5. Maristella Svampa, “Consenso de los commodities y megaminería,” 473 (March 2012): 5-8.

6. Gerardo Renique, “Blood at the Blockade: Peru’s Amazonian Indigenous Uprising,” June 8, 2009,

7. Alan García, “El síndrome del perro del hortelano,” October 28, 2007.

8. Jacqueline Fowks, “Peru es el país más conservador de América Latina,” July 28, 2013,

9. Fowks, “Peru es el país más conservador de América Latina”

10. Eva Saiz, “Humala garantiza a Obama que Perú es “un socio con el que se puede trabajar,” June 11, 2013,

11. Robert Kozak. “Peru Leader Surprises Critics with Free-Market Policies,” June 10, 2013,

12. Pierre Charasse, “El Transpacific Partnership y el Gran Mercado Trasátlantico, instrumentos al servicio de la hegemonía estadounidense,” June 1, 2013,

13. Oscar Ugarteche, “El Perú rehúsa liderar UNASUR,” October 5, 2012,

14. Defensoría del Pueblo, (Junio 2013).

15. Rocío Maldonado, “Baja de Humala llega al 32%; 61% espera solución a inseguridad,” July 21, 2013,

16. Las Izquierdas al Perú, “Pronunciamiento: Frente Amplio,” June 23, 2013

17. “Edy Benavides: descalifico afán político del Frente Amplio de Izquierda,” June 30, 2013,

18. “Editorial – El Mensaje,” July 29, 2013,

19. “Confiep: “Mensaje a la Nación contribuye a tranquilizar al país,” July 28, 2013

20. José De Echave, “La mineria y la protección ambiental en el discurso presidencial,” July 30, 2013,

21. “Yonhy Lescano: Ollanta Humala ha dado un mensaje divoricado de la realidad,” July 28, 2013,



Gerardo Renique is associate professor of history at City College of the City University of New York.



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