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A Test For Peru's Leader

Protesters stoned buses and burned tires in Peru's capital Wednesday in the first national strike against President Alberto Fujimori since he took power nearly a decade ago.

Soldiers with automatic weapons guarded public buildings and armored troop carriers patrolled streets. Police fired tear gas at protesters burning tires in downtown Lima near the headquarters of the populist Aprista Party of former President Alan Garcia.

The government ordered 20,000 policemen into the streets to protect workers who defied the strike call.

For the first time since he took office nearly a decade ago, Fujimori faced a powerful national strike organized by leftist-led unions and supported by a broad range of groups, including opposition parties and even business organizations.

"The strike has been respected by 70 percent of the workers at the national level," said Jose Risco, leader of Peru's largest labor organization, the General Confederation of Peruvian Workers.

Fujimori labeled the strike organizers as "communists" and Labor Minister Pedro Flores declared the strike illegal.

"Only those who have full wallets have the luxury of not working," Flores said, warning workers that their pay would be discounted if they did not show up for their jobs.

Orange-uniformed street cleaner Zenobia Solorzano, a 45-year-old widow with three small children, was one of the workers who showed up because she could not afford to lose a day's pay of $4.50 or worse her job.

"I work for a private company and I came to work because if I didn't, they would have kicked me out," she said as she swept up trash in downtown Lima.

Most buses stayed off the streets early in the day but began to circulate by midday.

In outlying shantytowns the only transportation was motorized rickshaws. But they had few passengers, indicating large numbers of workers were staying home.

The strike was even stronger in major provincial cities. Stores remained shuttered in Iquitos in the Amazon jungle and in Cuzco, Ayacucho and Arequipa in the southern Andes.

Soledad Vargas was one of the protesters against Fujimori's free-market economic policies and any plans he might have to run for a third term in April 2000.

Her husband lost his job five years ago when the state-owned phone company was privatized. Since then Mrs. Vargas, her husband and their three children have survived on what she earns selling clothing at a tiny wooden stall in a street market.

But a recession has dried up her small business.

"Last week I didn't sell even one school uniform," she said, shaking her head in disgust. "I don't even make enough to pay for breakfast. People don't have money to buy because they don't have jobs."

Peru's unions, weakened by anti-labor legislation under Fujimori, have gained renewed energy as his free-market reforms have done little to generate jobs or reduce overty.

In recent years, economic growth has stagnated and even the privileged classes now complain about Fujimori's policies. Vacant signs dot offices in Lima's business and upscale shopping districts.

As a result of Fujimori's free-market reforms, Peru's economy grew by a scorching 32 percent between 1993 and 1996. But one of every two Peruvians still lives in poverty. Ragged street beggars are visible everywhere.

By Monte Hayes