COVID in Cusco: Week 36

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November 21st 2020
Published: November 21st 2020
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The third president in the past two weeksThe third president in the past two weeksThe third president in the past two weeks

Our new president this week is Francisco Sagasti, who many Peruvians are already comparing to Colonel Sanders.
Sunday, 15 November, 2020

Today was so overwhelming I don’t even know where to begin. Covid is definitely not the top story right now. The whole country has been protesting for a week now, which finally convinced most of the new cabinet to resign. A majority of the cabinet resigning forced Merino himself to resign today at noon.

There were already protests planned for today at 2pm, in response to the police killing two young protesters yesterday. Merino’s resignation just two hours before protests were scheduled to start certainly calmed some of the anger. Instead of demanding that Merino step down, the protests were left with their secondary purpose, to hold a candle-light vigil for the two people killed and to protest police brutality.

I stayed home, but most of my Peruvian friends went to the protests today. I lived vicariously through my journalist neighbor Washington Roman Rojas (yes, his first name is Washington) as he went to the protests today. I watched his videos on his facebook page and was so impressed with how many people were in the main square and also relieved to see all of them wearing masks.

The news tonight was full of the deaths of Jack
The neighborhood juntaThe neighborhood juntaThe neighborhood junta

Just like the ronda campesinas that protect rural communities, many neighborhoods have their own junta to keep the place safe. Unlike American militias, these are not armed juntas.
Brian Pintado Sánchez, 22 and Jordan Into Sotelo Camargo, 24. Some news sources are also reporting of another 16 missing, though the police maintain that they have only arrested six people. One Peruvian newspaper is actually reporting 94 injured and 42 missing after last night’s protests. Missing people here bring fears of so many South American governments who have “disappeared” political dissidents, like the 30,000 people who have never been found after Argentina’s “dirty war.” Only 104 of over a thousand missing people have been found in the wake of Pinochet’s reign over Chile.

The fear of the police or other armed forces working for the government in Peru is real. It’s not just the other countries in South America which are known for disappearing people. “According to the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances, Peru registered the highest number of enforced disappearances in the world between 1987 and 1990.” It didn’t stop in 1990. Since March, the headlines in Peru are almost always about Covid, drowning out ongoing attempts to find missing people, such as a conference in February this year in Ayacucho, when families tried to get media attention for their family members who have yet to be found.

So, when people start disappearing at protests, most families fear more than a dead cellphone battery that prevents their family member from checking in with them. Nobody knows how far the congress will go in its attempt to take control of the country, now that
Covid still ragesCovid still ragesCovid still rages

The political crisis shouldn't distract us from the pandemic that is still spreading rapidly around the world. Taxis here now have a plastic partition to separate the driver from the passengers in the back and all have Covid information posted along with hand sanitizer.
they have gotten Martin Vizcarra out of the way. Former president Vizcarra, who was removed from office last Monday with nothing more than a vote by congress, continues to call his removal “illegal and illegitimate.”

Now that Merino is out, there is a very scary power vacuum in Peru. How long will it take to replace Merino? Will the people accept the replacement, or will they continue to protest in the streets? How violent will the protests get? How many people will disappear? Will the military step in to fill the vacuum and stage their own military coup?

This has been a hard day for Peru and there is no sign that it will get any easier anytime soon.

Today I received this email from US Embassy in Lima: “Due to ongoing political events, marches and protests are planned to occur today and over the next few days in Lima and throughout Peru. The nationwide protests have resulted in tens of thousands of protesters with media outlets reporting two deaths and multiple injuries during yesterday’s demonstrations in Lima. Most protests have been peaceful, and usually organized and advertised in social media though spontaneous protests can occur anytime. As political
HJK is open!HJK is open!HJK is open!

My friend Hannah Jenkinson finally opened her shop in Cusco! If you want the best baby alpaca sweater in Cusco, go see her on Calle Carmen Alto.
uncertainty continues, marches and protests are expected to become more frequent and could become violent. In areas where protesters gather, expect traffic congestion and disruptions.”

My participation in the protests has been limited to what I can do from home. Mostly, that means that whenever a group marches down my street, calling for people to come out and join them, I participate from the window. Lots of neighbors are also leaning out their windows, banging on pots and pans like me, encouraging those in the streets, while also staying in the safety of our own homes.

Monday, 16 November, 2020

The suspense is driving all of us crazy. Today there is still no president and the congress is having a terrible time agreeing on any kind of transitional group or even an advisory panel to help us form a transitional group or appoint a new president. It’s still political chaos but the protests today are much smaller and calmer. There isn’t really any doubt in people’s minds about what kind of person will be appointed or what kind of politics they will espouse. Almost all politicians in Peru at the moment are some variety of the right
Knitting in real timeKnitting in real timeKnitting in real time

Vanessa is one of the women who knits for Hannah and the sweaters she makes are fabulous!

Of the 25 political parties listed for the 2021 elections, a full 20 are right wing conservatives. Two are centrist and only three actually qualify as leftist. This is partly in response to the leftist Shining Path, which was horribly violent and resulted in leaving any leftist party with a damning black mark. The Shining Path was a revolutionary Communist party which terrorized Peru from 1970 through the 90s. To this day, there are small remnants of the Shining Path still active in some parts of the Peruvian Amazon jungle, where the government has little to no ability to enforce actual laws.

Finally, this afternoon the congress has named Francisco Sagasti as the next president. Sagasti is from the Purple Party, which is one of the many right wing parties. He is not well known politically and he spent most of his career in business and as a university professor. At 76, he has still had several years in politics after he left teaching.

At this point it sounds like he will still be considered enough of a newcomer to politics that Peruvians won’t have quite so much to protest. At least, maybe it will take them a day or two to decide
Covid Covid CovidCovid Covid CovidCovid Covid Covid

Entering any shop here you are met with either a hand washing station or hand sanitizer.
if he’s worth protesting right off the bat, or if we should give him a chance first. Merino was very well known and widely considered one of the most corrupt politicians in Peru. He really didn’t have any chance of public approval and I’m sure that he was counting on the police and military support being enough to keep him in power. That obviously backfired.

Listening to the podcast This American Life today, one of the people interviewed said that 2020 has been its own decade. The year has certainly felt long enough to me to count as a decade, and if the pandemic is somewhat under control for most of 2021, historically it will go down as a year separate from both the 2010s and the 2020s.

Tomorrow Peru will get our third president in the past two weeks, which also makes 2020 feel like its own decade. The US will certainly have three presidents in the 2020s, with Trump hanging on through most of January 2021 and Biden/Harris hopefully in the White House through January 2029. Is it too early for me to hope for AOC to win the 2028 elections?

Tuesday, 17 November, 2020
Driver protocolsDriver protocolsDriver protocols

This is a poster from a bus station, where passengers are informed of all of the rules that bus drivers are supposed to follow.

Today, at 4pm, the next president was sworn in. I am just glad that there will officially be somebody in power. On Sunday and Monday I really was nervous about the possibility of a military coup, which would have been easy, considering the power vacuum that was left after the previously mentioned protests and cabinet resignations forced Merino’s hand.

Today’s president, Francisco Sagasti is still unknown enough that Peru seems to be on pause, waiting to see if the protests resume. I think the real test will be the cabinet that he names. If he fills his cabinet with politicians widely considered to be corrupt, the streets will fill again. His best chance will be if he can find people who have somehow kept their record clean during the corrupt presidencies of Kuczynski, Humala, Garcia, Toledo and Fujimori. From what I’ve read, and from what Peruvians have told me, finding politicians who don’t have corruption charges filed against them is actually pretty difficult.

As I’ve written about before, Fujimori’s new constitution in 1993 was designed by politicians, for politicians and practically embeds corruption in the system. Since the founding of the US, when slavery was widely practiced,
It's everywhereIt's everywhereIt's everywhere

You really can't look anywhere around Cusco without seeing signs about how to prevent the spread of Covid.
the US system has had racism built into the system. Problematic in a very different way, the Peruvian political system has corruption inherently built in as part of the system. It will take more than getting peacefully to elections next April to start to fix the political problems here.

The news is still full of missing people though thankfully some are starting to be found. Many of those really did have dead cell phone batteries and were unable to get home or contact their families for over 24 hours. Others have emerged from what they are describing as abandoned houses, where they were beaten by police and locked in for three days without food or water. Basically, they were held captive by the police since the protests last Saturday. This is exactly what people have been afraid of. If the police start down this road, any future protests are likely to see more people disappear and there will increasingly be the risk that they will not be found.

Wednesday, 18 November, 2020

Sagasti survived the night as president and I am hopeful that he will keep the country stable enough to get to elections next April, with a peaceful transfer of power in July, 2021. I want enough stability that
Permanent signsPermanent signsPermanent signs

Some of the signs around town look permanent. It looks like PeruRail is setting in for the long haul of not allowing people to sit next to anybody else.
the congress can go back to helping Peru survive the pandemic and economic crisis. This is far from a sure bet.

The last president that Peruvians actually elected was Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, in 2016. He lasted less than two years before resigning the day before the congress was prepared to impeach him. His vice president, Martin Vizcarra lasted less than three years before the congress forced him out last week. Vizcarra’s replacement Merino lasted five days. There’s just no telling how long Sagasti will be president.

Americas Quarterly published a great article two days ago explaining one of the main reasons that Peru and many other South American countries are very unstable. As I mentioned on Monday this week, Peru has over 20 political parties. One result of this overwhelming number of parties is that Peru has “an unruly and fragmented Congress that fails miserably at everything except looking out for its own self-interest.”

I know that many Americans will look at that statement and say, well that’s part of the problem in the US too. I agree that there are certainly members of congress in the US who are focused, like Trump, on looking out for their own self-interest. However, having two established political parties makes the US and Peruvian situations completely
Just a random observationJust a random observationJust a random observation

Grocery stores sometimes have the strangest or funniest things. One can of imported water from La Croix is worth more than three sandwiches here.
different. Also, despite what Trump says, almost everybody is sure that there will be a peaceful transfer of power in January.

Nobody in Peru is sure that there will be a peaceful transfer of power next July, or if Sagasti will be the one to hand over the presidency. In the US, we all know that Trump will stay in the White House until he is dragged out like a five year old having a temper tantrum. I wonder if he’ll be so intent on staying in the White House that he won’t even leave to go golfing in January.

Trying to escape politics this afternoon, I went shopping for the backpacking trip I’m leaving for on Saturday. I’m going with a group of friends to hike a loop around Mt. Ausangate, which you can see from Cusco, though it’s about a four hour drive from town to the trailhead. I have all of the camping gear that I need, but snacks are high on my list. Peruvian chocolate is definitely a must and I’m also looking for my favorite salty snack here: Inka Corn. That really is the brand name, though corn is obviously English. I still can’t
Every day of 2020Every day of 2020Every day of 2020

I think that I deserve this medal for every day I have made it through since Peru was shutdown on March 15th.
figure out why you would use English in the name of such a Peruvian snack. It’s a lot like corn nuts, except with the giant corn kernels that are common here. In Peru, I’ve actually never seen the kind of corn that you can get in the US. There is giant corn, purple corn, red striped corn and several kinds of blue corn. There are actually over 50 varieties of corn in Peru, though the ones available in Cusco don't look anything like the corn I used to buy in the US.

Thursday, 19 November, 2020

I’m really starting to get excited for the Ausangate trip! This is going to be a very different experience from any backpacking trip I’ve been on in the US, Canada or Europe. Seven friends are joining me, plus Auqui as our guide, plus a cook and his assistant, plus a horseman and his assistant and three pack horses. The only other trips I’ve done supported with pack horses were in Peru: Salkantay in 2013 and Lares last December.

Today I also have a new student! Since leaving SAM Travel, I have decided to work on everything else I already have going on, rather than try to find another job in tourism. This new student was recommended to me by a friend. She’s Cusqueñian and trying to learn English. She’s enrolled in online English classes but says that the lessons are chaotic and the teacher never checks comprehension during class or even their homework. She wants one class per week, for two hours each time.

When I asked her why she needs to learn English, she said that she was an archeologist for ten years but now wants to switch to teaching English. She’s perfectly capable of teaching basic English to young children but needs to pass a TOEFL exam to be able to teach anything beyond the most basic of first year classes. TOEFL is certainly not my speciality, but she needs to work on her English itself before I will recommend that she work with Kerry on how to pass the TOEFL exam.

I’d still rather find more people who want to learn French, but for now most of my students are Peruvians who want to learn English and expats who need to improve their Spanish to be able to live here. There is a surprising number of expats in Cusco who really don’t speak Spanish. Some came here to learn Spanish, only to have the enforced isolation of quarantine ruin their plans of learning organically by traveling around Peru or having Peruvian friends. Seriously, is there anything that the pandemic didn’t turn on its head?

Friday, 20 November, 2020

I love packing and am going to try to focus on the excitement of the Ausangate trip today and not check the news. If something really big happens, somebody will tell me.

The best thing about pack horses is that I don’t have to carry my tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, extra clothes or even more food besides my snacks. As long as we have horses, we also have a tent for the kitchen and another tent, complete with table and little stools so we don’t have to sit in the mud to eat.

As much as I’ve complained that the rainy season is late in arriving, I really wouldn’t mind if it held off just one more week. One night our camp will be at about 16,000 feet of elevation and the highest pass we walk over is at 17,000 feet. Any storms that bring rain to Cusco will bring snow to the higher sections of our trail. Of course, we all have rain gear and I have plenty of practice hiking in the rain in the Pacific Northwest. My big complaint with rain here is that it ruins my view of Ausangate itself, whose peak is almost 20,945 feet high. I’ve taken hundreds of photos of Ausangate from Cusco and I really want to be able to see the mountain up close. Hopefully, with four days hiking a loop around the peak, we will get plenty of good views, even if there are some clouds or rain/snow storms during the trip.

I am publishing early this week because tomorrow 4am is when we leave for Ausangate. Saturday, and the whole backpack trip, will be on the next blog!


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