A City-Wide Strike and a Long Walk Home

Last Thursday, Cusco shut down for almost an entire day.  Hailing from New York, a complete cessation of public transportation seemed completely infeasible to me; I didn’t believe any of the hype in the days preceding the strike.  I was quickly proven wrong.

The traffic and chaos that dominate the streets of Cusco have consistently amazed me.  Traffic patterns are irregular and unpredictable and the streets are inundated with taxis, buses, and personal cars.  I would even venture as far as to say that the traffic in Cusco is worse than that which I’ve experienced in New York.  Drivers often use their horns, rather than turn signals, to indicate their intended path or warn pedestrians against attempting to cross.  I asked one of the taxi drivers I rode with about the lack of traffic laws and was told that even the stop signs here are simply suggestions meant to signal a busy intersection.  Yielding to pedestrians and stopping at stop signs are not enforced here in Cusco and it is apparent… makes for exciting walks to class.  The incessant hustle and bustle that dominates Cusco made it hard for me to imagine how this strike could possibly pan out.

Typical traffic right outside of my school; note the three necessary traffic officers present at this one small intersection

My host father, Sandro, works as an economist for the regional government of Cusco and so he was really helpful in answering my questions about the causes and consequences of the strike.  According to Sandro, strikes are not an uncommon occurrence in Cusco but had been much more frequent in the 90s.  During this time, there was a real revolutionary undercurrent in many universities in Cusco and other major Peruvian cities.  However, the presidential administration that came to power in the 90s put a stop to this movement and the frequent strikes, even using force to do so.  Since then the residents of Cusco have still relied on strikes as a method for broadcasting their grievances and mobilizing politicians, but less often. The most recent strike that I witnessed was conducted in protest against rising gasoline prices and stagnant wages for Cusco’s many transportistas.

The night before the strike, people started lining the streets with large rocks to prevent transportation by bus or car.  Parking lots around Cusco started to fill up with taxis that would be out of commission the next day.  Any cars on the street past 8:30am on the day of the strike had rocks thrown at them or their tires slashed.  Luckily, my class begins at 7am so I was able to take a taxi to school in the morning before the strike commenced.  Recently, the government placed an increased tax on juices, sodas, and gasoline.  The increase in gasoline prices causes the cost of living for people all across Cusco to increase.  However, this change was especially cumbersome for the taxi and bus drivers, who have no choice but to adapt to and absorb increasing gas prices.

Some of the remaining rocks in the empty street, 6 hours after the start of the strike

I am extremely interested in social movements specifically how and why people mobilize.  It was amazing to be right in the heart of Cusco during this strike.  I had the opportunity to talk with people who filled so many different roles in this situation: taxistas, teachers, and even an economist.  I was astonished by the extent to which the people of Cusco were able to quickly, uniformly, and effectively mobilize.  I don’t think that a strike to this extent could possibly occur in a major US city, specifically thinking of my own home in New York.  The complete silence on the roads last Thursday was equal parts impressive and eerie.  Throughout my entire hour-long walk home from school that day, 6 hours after the strike began, the only car I saw driving was a police vehicle beginning to collect the rocks and barriers from the street.  In the days that followed, similar strikes sprouted up in other regions of Cusco; a sign of the success of this preliminary resistance to the taxes.

I can feel my Spanish improving every day and it is such an exciting experience.  It is amazing to have the vocabulary and the ability to speak about important applicable issues pertaining to social movements, governmental policy, and the economy.  Conversing and learning about current issues has really helped me gain confidence and speed while speaking.  I’m also so thankful for my host family, they have taught me so much and don’t seem to be sick of my incessant questions quite yet.