Economic crisis is hitting Peru, particularly in the popular areas, where there are hundreds of communal kitchens. There they also organize in response to the pandemic as well as to the political crisis that exploded this month. It is a process of resistance often invisible to the mass media.
The popular kitchens have multiplied in Lima in the months of the pandemic. It is estimated that there are more than 800 in the city, primarily in the poorest areas. They appeared to confront the hunger resulting from the economic recession, the closure of the informal economy, and the lack of sufficient government response to the crisis.
In the district of Independencia, in the northern part of Lima, there are sixty. One of them is in the area of Ermitaño, at the top of the hill, from where one can see the city and, in the background, the glow of the Pacific Ocean. Zoraida Vargas Manya is there, in charge of the kitchen with about 40 other people, mostly women.
“We began because of all that we are going through, we started meeting among all the moms seeing the need that exists here in our town,” explains Vargas Manya, while the neighbors carry sacks of 50 kilos of rice for the cooking pot the next day”.
“The government had said that we should not leave the house, and so many people have lost their jobs, many were living from day to day, so they could not go out anymore, old people, mothers with children who previously could go out with their children on their backs to do their day to day. The hunger came, and then the kitchen”.
They asked for food everywhere: the Mayor’s Office, the Ministry of Social Inclusion, social organizations. The response has been insufficient, says Vargas Manya, in charge of the kitchen that feeds 150 people every day from Monday to Friday. “We are all going through the same situation, we are suffering because of what is not there,” she says.
Vargas Manya and her neighborhood were part of the protests when Congress ousted President Martin Vizcarra on November 9. “We did not agree with the removal of President Vizcarra, because a corrupt person cannot remove another person,” she says, referring to the fact that more than half of the current congressmen have corruption cases.
In Ermitaño they went out to the streets, to the center of Lima. “We think that the politicians are out for their own interests, they are not thinking about us, for the people, that is what they defend, that is what I think,” says Vargas Manya. She expressed a feeling that seems to be widespread among a majority of the population.
Organizing against the pandemic
The Independence district organization was not only against hunger, they also created the anti-VOCID community committees. “We are neighbors who have organized ourselves to coordinate with the doctors at the health centers,” explains Zulay Reinaga, who forms one of the eight committees in the district.
The committees were originally proposed by the Ministry of Health, but, in reality, lacked the necessary support. “The Ministry promoted them, but the populations were the driving force”, says Rafael Almonte, a Peruvian doctor who graduated in Venezuela and gave the training to the committees for the fight against COVID-19.
With the committees, health promoters were formed in the neighborhoods, to work at the primary, prevention level, and thus explain to the community about the pandemic, how to detect symptoms, and how to deal with cases in collaboration with health centers.
The presence of the committees has been necessary, says Reinaga, particularly because of the situation in the health centers: “When we have been doing the campaigns we have seen the deficiencies of the Ministry of Health, of the municipality, the limitations they have put in the health centers, with lack of medicines, of implements that the personnel should use.
The deficiencies of the Peruvian health system are a central part of the explanation for the number of cases due to the pandemic: nearly one million cases, more than 35,000 deaths, and the highest mortality rate.
“We have developed a system to help the population because the health system is broken, primary care was not given from the beginning, there were many deaths because the State did not take the necessary measures,” says Victoria Yépez Placencia, head of the district anti-COVID committee, called Túpac Amaru.
One of the priorities was to go “to the high areas, without access to networks, to the internet”, says Placencia. There they gave “talks to the settlements themselves, with the mothers, and we have found apart from the problems of COVID, an economic problem, 70% of Peruvians are informal, and having closed everything they had no food, so they have been forced to create their common kitchens”.
The committees were able to deploy an organizational and preventive effort, something that Dr. Almonte points out as strategic: “People are empowered and want to know about health, and health is the responsibility of all citizens”. And, along with that, an immediate material victory: “With the pressure we have achieved the creation of a social pharmacy next to the municipality, with access to cheap products”.
Erick Macías is known as a Celt and is part of the Plasma Collective. “We do community work in the neighborhoods, in the settlements, in the peripheral areas where many times neither the municipality nor anyone else reaches, we recover the public spaces in those neighborhoods and we activate them with art and culture,” he says.
Celta was in the mobilizations when Congress dismissed Vizcarra and appointed Manuel Merino, who was forced to resign after five days as a result of massive social pressure.
“I was there more than anything else because it should be a duty of each one of us to go and complain about things that do not seem fair to us, and what was seen in the protests was the authorities’ mistreatment of the people who were protesting, they used weapons, there were injuries, murders”.
After the protests they decided to paint two murals in their area, Tahuantinsuyo, part of the district of Independencia. One of them says “New Constitution”, and the other one “Messed with the wrong generation”, with a tribute to Inti Sotelo and Jack Bryan Pintado, the two young people killed on November 14 during the police repression.
There are several youth collectives in the district, cultural, artistic, feminist. There are some articulations between them, although Celta says that it is necessary to advance even more, particularly at a time when the role of youth – the so-called wrong generation or bicentennial generation – has proven to be decisive in national politics.
Many believe that this new generation has a central role to play, like Yolinda Quiquia Saez, from the same popular kitchen where Zoraida Vargas Manya works: “The majority of the population may not have adequate knowledge, but our young people are more aware of the realities that are happening in our nation with the Congress, with so much corruption, we must give them the opportunity”.
The Time of the Invisible
The social and popular resistance has been central in confronting the overlapping crises: health, food, politics. Those who lead it have often been made invisible by major media: women, youth, from poor neighborhoods, built up hills, by those who came from rural areas, like Quiquia Saez, in search of work.
There is a discrediting of political representatives there, the usual practices of candidates who visit the neighborhood on campaign and once elected no longer appear. For this reason, and especially out of necessity, they decided to organize themselves, to sue the State while simultaneously developing their responses independently of institutional capacity, and to protest and take to the streets when Congress, in dismissing Vizcarra, took the step that went beyond the limits.
The needs are many, particularly in the most neglected sectors. The kitchens are overflowing and the situation of the pandemic threatens a probable second wave. In this context, the new government of Fernando Sagasti -emergency government, as he himself has called it- must succeed in providing material answers, as well as political indications that not all political representation operates according to the way people think in this neighborhood: by turning its back on the people.
Translation by Internationalist 360°