Peru: The Week After

LIMA - The aftershocks that followed the 8.0 magnitude earthquake that struck southern Peru last week included much more than just the powerful temblors that rattled the devastated region. Almost from the first day, the government struggled against accusations of incompetence and neglect while tens of thousands were left homeless and begging for help in the streets of their ruined cities.

The toll, as of Thursday, was 514 dead, 1,090 injured and 39,741 houses destroyed, according to Peru's National Institute of Civil Defense. More than 85,000 people have been affected by the disaster.

Within hours of the quake on Aug. 15, President Alan Garcia was personally directing relief efforts from an airbase outside of Pisco - one of the cities hardest hit. The hands-on approach led to accusations of micro-management and, as problems providing medical care and basic necessities to the survivors mounted, these complaints were aimed squarely at the administration.

Garcia - whose first administration ended in shambles and paved the way for the authoritarian rule of Alberto Fujimori (whose presence continues to lurk on the scene) - cannot afford to bungle the relief effort a la Bush and Hurricane Katrina. Many Peruvians still remember that it was Garcia's ill-advised attempt to regain sagging popularity in 1987 by nationalizing the banks that led to the country's economic collapse.

During last year's presidential election, Garcia went out of his way to assure Peru that he had changed his way and learned from his mistakes. The earthquake, many feel, is the first test of that part of his promise.

These issues bubbled briefly to the surface this week in a bizarre incident where tins of tuna handed out to survivors boasted the mugs of Garcia's main rival to the presidency, nationalist Ollanta Humala and Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Garcia blasted the move as an example of using the relief efforts for electoral propaganda, Humala's political party distanced themselves from it and one Venezuelan minister said the tuna was part of an "insane plot" to undermine Chavez' leadership.

For now, Garcia insists the response to the disaster has been an overwhelming success. A poll taken this week seemed to bolster his claim. Before the quake struck his popularity had languished at 35 percent but now it has risen to 76 percent - the best for any South American head of state.

Despite the sunny prognostications, Garcia's lieutenants remain on the defensive. His prime minister, Jorge del Castillo has taken the media to task for it's continual criticism of relief efforts and denied accusations that $38 million in international aid for the earthquake disaster is not being used properly.

The assessment of disaster response by the respected British publication, The Economist, was positive but tempered: "The government's response to the emergency was less than perfect. But given the difficult circumstances, it has so far not been that bad either."

And Garcia's government is already looking ahead, pledging more than $100 million reconstruction effort that will include rebuilding the devastated cities, "more beautiful and larger than before." Yet it seems likely that his ability to ride out the longer-term effects of the quake will depend greatly on how much the disaster affects the country's economic bottom line.

One thing that has played in his favor is that rescue and relief efforts have focused on the survivors and the actual scope of the disaster remains unknown. While the official death toll still hovers just over the 500 mark many bodies have not been recovered from the ruins. Already, building experts are singling out the extensive use of sub-standard building materials and lax construction standards as a culprit in the extend of the damage.

Yet, despite the political bickering, efforts to rebuild the shattered infrastructure have started to make progress. According to the government, the majority of public spaces in Pisco and Chincha now have lighting but just more than a third of the residences have had electricity restored.

That figure may not be as dire as it seems given the number of structures destroyed and the rapidly shrinking population of the communities. More than 70 percent of the city of Pisco was destroyed by the earthquake and as much as 40 percent of the population that survived in Pisco has now fled the city, officials said.

Garcia has promised to employ thousands of residents of the quake-affected areas in a program to help clear tons of rubble from adobe homes that crumbled in the quake. The impact of the massive temblor to rural areas has yet to be fully assessed and some aid groups, such as Oxfam America, have urged prioritizing humanitarian efforts there.

C.J. Schexnayder is a freelance journalist based in Lima, Peru. For the past four years he has penned articles covering issues across the region

for newspapers and magazines in the US and the United Kingdom. He is also the publisher of the newsblog Andean Currents