Suh-lam! And the Plaza de Armas shook yesterday as smoke rose from the “white rat”–a roughly six inch long and one inch thick, illegal, stick of gunpowder. The explosion may have made many tourists wonder or worry as normality seemed severely shaken. People jumped in their chairs with shock as the percussion pounded the cafes and restaurants on the Plaza. Though tourist officials, and workers, might wish such explosions never happened they are a part of the real Cuzco.
In two waves marchers arrived at the Cathedral steps where they concentrated. More than eighty people filed in behind a banner, to the sound of drums and chants–“the people united will never be defeated”, and occasional bursts of stick bombs. They also came with white flags of peace and rainbow flags of Tawantinsuyo, the Inca lands. Then a second group came in with at least double the number of protestors and noise.
These were from two different unions: the Trabajadores en Construcción Civil y Afines (Workers in Civil Construction and Related Jobs) and Sindicato de Construcción Civil y Artes Decorativas del Cusco (Union of Civil Construction and decorative Arts of Cuzco.)
While this was a national strike to pressure the government of Peruvian President Ollanta Humala to better the conditions and salary of construction workers through out Peru and stop the state-sponsored deaths of it union workers, it also was a specifically Cuzco demonstration with particular issues and problems.
In Cuzco the demands included an eight hour work day, salaries that equaled the Peruvian norm, instead of lower pay in this pricey tourist city, the payment of overtime, and payment for work that still was un-remunerated.
When the two groups met in front of the offices of the Regional Government of Cuzco, whose representatives refused to meet with them, a conflict with shouting and blows opened between the two groups.
Though to outsiders the noise and suddenness of the demonstration that stopped traffic and interrupted tourism, as well as other work, with angry sounds and demands may have seemed unusual, there is a long history of unions and union strikes in Peru. Indeed labor unions have played an important role in the formation of modern Peruvian society.
Though many might wish to present a Cuzco that is like an historical theme park with colorful children selling finger puppets, women dressed in iconic costumes offering to let you take a picture of yourself them with a llama or baby lamb, or a man in Inca-ish regalia standing stoically by the Twelve Cornered Stone for pictures of himself with tourists, Cuzco is not an enclosed Machu Picchu ostensibly frozen in time.
It is a city through which struggle flows and ultimately leads to the society that embraces tourists and gives them a good and interesting time while visiting what is called the imperial city.
Marches around the plaza of workers, while not a daily event, are not uncommon. They are as much, nor more so, Cuzco than the dancers with small llamas hanging from their waists who frequently practice or perform before the cathedral in civic pride.
Cuzco, like Peru, is a vivid and vital place. Demonstrations and social struggle are part of its life blood and part of the full tourist experience.