June 2, 2020
by Morgana Herrera, PHD candidate in Latin American studies at the University of Toulouse Jean Jaurès and member of the Institut des Amériques scientific committee.
Peru had the best record in the Americas: it was the first country to implement a lockdown, had the most ambitious economic relief plan and the president had one of the highest approval ratings in the region (82% in early May).
But as the pandemic is increasingly devastating South America, Peru is the second most affected country, after Brazil, in terms of infection and death rates. Some see this as a paradox, while others point out that the situation is easily explained by the poor wealth redistribution in the country.
The approval ratings of the government in general may still be high, but professionals in the cultural sector are highly critical of their Ministry’s lackluster management of the crisis. Cultural public policies have been historically scarce in Peru. Since its creation in 2010, the Ministry of Culture has done little to change this tendency. Counting on a limited budget (0,32% of the State budget), the ministry is in charge of archeological heritage, cultural industries and “interculturality” in Peru, which means that native nations from the Andes and the Amazon depend on this Ministry.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak, minister Sonia Guillén has kept silent, letting civil society debate over the fate of indigenous communities and cultural professionals, two sectors of Peruvian society that rely on her Ministry and that are particularly vulnerable in this crisis. In the first weeks of the quarantine, a weekly support of 380 soles (=$110) was allocated to the poorest households. When performers who had lost all their sources of income asked for similar aid, a journalist shocked the cultural workers in an article accusing them of pettiness and of theft from those who were “actually poor”. In response, Susana Baca, a world-famous Afro-Peruvian singer and former minister of Culture reminded that most of the country’s artists are precarious workers, using the example of travelling musicians from Andean villages and emphasizing the fact that the journalist had a very limited, Lima-centric, vision of what culture meant.
Peru’s informal employment reaches 70% of the labor market and often brings forth images of street shoe shiners or sidewalk empanadas vendors. But artists are also part of this informal economy and the current sanitary conditions make it impossible for them to keep working. The Peruvian quarantine which started in March has been extended until June 30 and plunges them in a serious economic crisis. “The Ministry doesn’t know our needs. We’ve never been the object of any census. Without this data, we cannot receive help,” says Eugenie Tazé, scenographer and member of the Movimiento Independiente de Artes Escénicas del Perú (MIAEP), founded during the quarantine.
Governmental institutions have offered no proposals; the MIAEP therefore has had to elaborate its own plan of “impact mitigation and economic recovery” and submitted it to the Ministry. Since then, an emergency decree for culture has unlocked 50 million soles ($14.5 million) on May 21 but will not be implemented before mid-June.
The Ministry is still greatly criticized for its poor management of the native communities from Amazonia, the region with the most COVID-19 after Lima. The death toll is rising, in Iquitos, the most populated Amazonian city, as well as in the indigenous communities of Loreto and Ucayali and in the Shibibo-Conibo community of Cantagallo in Lima. On May 25, native nations of the Amazonian basin have released an official joint statement asking for the resignation of Sonia Guillén and the vice-minister of interculturality. They accused them of not having met the ministry’s mission to “develop Amazonian nations.” Guillén finally resigned on May 30th, but for a fraudulent labor contract case.
The situation faced by Shipibo artist Olinda Silvano, a leader in her community in Cantagallo, summarizes the contradictions that the crisis has brought out. Many institutions acknowledge that Silvano is an ambassador of Shipibo culture and frequently highlight her as proof of the country’s cultural diversity. Yet today, she faces a severe economic crisis due to being infected with the novel coronavirus. As an autochthonous woman and artist, she epitomizes those forgotten by the Ministry of Culture who are told to organize their own collective resistance. In order to help her community, despite being sick and deprived from work, Silvano is part of a project called Dibujos por la Amazonía.
The platform auctions drawings donated by Peruvian artists, the proceeds of which are given to three organizations that have helped Amazonian nations during the pandemic: the Iquitos Vicariate, Radio Ucamau and the Shipibo Conibo and Xetebo Council. The chosen entities are the ones that provide help to these communities in the absence of governmental solutions. Father Raimundo Portelli and bishop Miguel Fuertes from the Iquitos Vicariate have organized the fundraiser that has provided the city’s oxygen plant, confirming thus the historical role of the church in Peruvian Amazonia, often more present than the state. A group of musicians and producers specialized in tropical music have also decided to donate the funds they will raise with their “SOS Iquitos - Amazonía Relief Fund” campaign to the Vicarate.
The death in the midst of the crisis of three psychedelic cumbia icons (Ranil and members of Los Wembler’s de Iquitos), has motivated the collective to help Iquitos, the historical birthplace of this particular genre.
As artist Christian Bendayán, one of the initiators of Dibujos por la Amazonía, puts it: some of the most creative solutions to the crisis in culture are coming precisely from within the sector, which is one of the most impacted. The new models of self-organization they created while in quarantine are changing the Peruvian cultural scene. These models will arguably become sources of inspiration to be reckoned with in the future.
Thanks to Karim Kattan, Charlotte Arnautou and Céleste Haller for helping me with the translation.