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Associated Press/Photo by Esteban Felix

Peru: poco a poco

Lima, at 9 million people one of the 10 largest cities in the Americas, is economically stratified but not stagnant. Here are snapshots of progress in the city that was once the capital of Spain's New World empire

Issue: "Fighting poverty," March 13, 2010

PERU-How to describe Lima? If my early-1970s Marxism still possessed me, I would describe homeless residents living and defecating on trash heaps. Families living in flimsy homes on hillsides. Then I would juxtapose those details with snapshots of rich Lima residents paragliding above a Malibu-like, oceanfront mall or shopping at the mall's 14 jewelry and 18 gift stores. But two other comparisons suggest a different perspective.

First comparison: Cuba and Peru. Five years ago in Havana, the phrase I heard frequently was "uno mundo mejor," a better world. That was the official goal of the Castro regime, but many Cubans used it sarcastically: Five decades of Communism had stopped economic progress and turned the island into a prison. In Lima recently, though, the phrase I often heard was "poco a poco," economic improvement little by little.

I'd like to show you how, in a world full of thorns and thistles, little by little is the way to create gardens. In the 1980s, Peru faced hyperinflation and Maoist "Shining Path" terrorism. Now most of that is relegated to the file of bad memories, as Peruvians have roadmaps to progress. Huge economic, political, and spiritual problems remain, but Lima is now home to a drama of upward mobility. Let's see parts of it . . .

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Look: A trash heap in the dangerous Tacora section of Lima, the place to fence stolen goods. Seven men passively sitting on a sidewalk, some apparently drugged out although it is still before noon. Suddenly two vans pull up and nine men in light blue shirts surround the sidewalk-sitters.

An arrest? No. One of the blue shirts attracts attention by banging a bass drum, much as Salvation Army members did a century ago. A second blue shirt pleads with the sitters: "Not long ago we were all like you sitting there. God sent Jesus to die on the cross for you and for me. I was a drug addict for 12 years. God gave me back my family, gave me love. If I can change, you can change. Look at the effort God makes to show His love for you. You don't even have to go. God comes to you."

Look: Men who were on a trash heap a short time ago now live at the Lima dormitory of Victory Outreach, a ministry begun in San Antonio by Freddie Garcia four decades ago. Garcia discipled Luis Salazar, who now disciples men in Lima and throughout the Hispanic world. The men dance and jump as they sing hymns: They are novatos, novices, and do intensive Bible study. Over a two-year period the men can become guerreros, warriors; then vencedores, overcomers; then conquistadores, conquerors. They gain greater liberty and responsibility as they show that their hearts have changed. Later, some work as bakers, carpenters, mechanics, or pastors.

Look: Their counselors through the stages are men like Ricardo Castro who themselves were long-term addicts. Castro left a broken home at age 14 and spent the next 16 years as an addict, sometimes on a trash heap, sometimes sleeping in cemeteries. He went through rehab programs, therapies, and medical treatments, but not until he grasped God's love for him did he change. He's now had 16 drug-free years.

The ex-addicts come from similar backgrounds and have similar problems to those currently on the trash heap. God uses the constructive envy of those who ask, "If that person can leave drugs behind and lead a better life, why can't I?"

Drive to the outskirts of Lima, to an area known as San Juan de Lurigancho. Land uninhabited or unimproved for at least five years can now be occupied by the landless poor, and hundreds have moved onto one stony hillside here. Such "invasions" in other countries have often been wrongful seizures of the property of others; Peru, largely through the work of free-market economist Hernando de Soto, has worked out a better path that allows the poor to become owners of land that was going to waste.

Snapshot: As families put up structures-initially straw or hay, then plywood, then brick or concrete with a stucco finish-the process of legitimization begins. Over several years the "invasion" becomes known as a "human settlement," and city authorities provide electricity and water. Residents work hard. Many men go early to their jobs as bricklayers (earning $20 per day), bus and cab drivers, and street vendors, and they don't return home until the evening. Many women do needlework or peel garlic for 10 cents per pound, making $3 per day.

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