LIMA, PERU -- The Surquillo food market is usually a hive of commerce, thronged with shoppers haggling for potatoes, squash, meat, spices, fresh flowers and an array of flimsy kitchen gadgets that hawkers offer with a money-back guarantee.
But in these days of "Fujishock," sellers far outnumber buyers -- and the few who do come tend to be like Rosalina Guerrero, an elderly woman who cruised the stalls one recent day, examining, questioning, bargaining, moving on.
"I've just been walking back and forth, trying to find the best prices," she said. "I can't afford half what I used to. Fortunately, I just have myself and my daughter to feed. Things seem to be worse every day."
Peruvians are still reeling from the month-old effects of President Alberto Fujimori's economic adjustment plan, or Fujishock. After promising during the presidential campaign that he would not inflict widespread pain with a radical anti-inflation program, Fujimori all at once lifted a host of subsidies and controls that had kept prices artificially low.
Finance Minister Juan Carlos Hurtado Miller announced the measures the night of Aug. 8. By the next morning, the cost of a gallon of premium gasoline had jumped from about 13 cents to nearly $4. The prices of some food staples shot up tenfold, as the value of the Peruvian inti against the dollar fluctuated so wildly that no one could tell what anything really cost.
Bustling Lima became eerily silent, as shops remained closed and buses stayed in their garages. As nearly as possible in a nation of more than 20 million people, the economy stopped dead in the water.
Now the initial shock is beginning to wear off, and Peru is facing the prospect of substantial gains against the stubborn inflation that has crippled the economy in recent years -- but at a high social cost.
By most estimates, at least a half-million workers have been laid off. Food prices have begun to come down but remain at levels five to 10 times higher than before. Planned social initiatives to lessen the shock, such as donations of food to communal kitchens in shantytowns and urban slums, have been slow to get underway.
Labor conflicts, which have made central Lima an almost daily battleground between police and small groups of workers in recent months, have intensified -- although the government has avoided the major explosion that many initially feared. A general strike called by two big labor confederations largely flopped, as did an attempt by the powerful miners union to paralyze what is perhaps the country's most vital industry.
"Nobody likes this plan," said pollster and political scientist Alfredo Torres, "but poor people still have hope that it may bring results, and this drained away possible support for the strikes."
There has been some looting, and clashes between security forces and hungry crowds have led to at least a half-dozen deaths, but wider turmoil had been thought likely. Attempts by leftist insurgents to capitalize on the situation -- including a car bomb at the presidential palace -- apparently have won little support.
Still, even in a country that has spent the last three years falling into ever-deepening economic disorder under former president Alan Garcia, the new measures enacted by Fujimori constitute a staggering blow.
The Fujimori government's intention is to break the cycle of inflation by letting prices rise once and for all to reasonable levels, ending costly subsidies that for years were financed simply by printing currency, trimming the bloated government payroll, lowering tariff barriers to admit cheaper imports and allowing the value of the inti to fall to levels that will make Peruvian exports competitive, thus fueling a recovery.
It amounts to a new orthodoxy in a region that once believed in controlled economies centered on production for the internal market. In the last two years this same basic approach has been tried by Presidents Carlos Andres Perez of Venezuela, Carlos Menem of Argentina and Fernando Collor de Mello of Brazil, with varying success.
In Argentina and Brazil, adjustment programs have been accompanied by widespread efforts to sell off money-draining state monopolies. Fujimori has promised not to do this in Peru, but Hurtado Miller has already begun saying that Peru "cannot afford the luxury of an excessive and bureaucratic public sector."
These adjustment plans are designed in part to bring Latin nations back into the good graces of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund lenders, as has been happening with Mexico, which earlier switched to the new orthodox approach.
An IMF delegation is expected to arrive here this week to look at what Fujimori has wrought. Garcia had angered international lenders with his unilateral decision to restrict payments on Peru's $20 billion debt. Fujimori has said he wants to reach a new accord that could eventually allow new lending to begin.
The new government's measures caused inflation to reach 397 percent for August, a record even for Peru. This month, prices are expected to rise 15 to 20 percent, an indication that Fujishock is at least partially having the desired initial effect.
"The exchange rate for the inti is beginning to float toward the level the government wants," said a Western diplomat. "Maybe Peru can have an export-led recovery. Maybe -- maybe -- they can pull it off."
The plan initially met sharp political opposition, especially in the Congress, where Fujimori's Change 90 movement is outvoted by stronger forces on both the left and the right. But more recently, the criticism has softened somewhat, focusing more on what is to be done next.
For many Peruvians, however, the focus is less on government policy than on obtaining the necessities of life. Even before the new measures, less than a fifth of Peru's workers had full-time jobs, according to one study. Lima residents lucky enough to have full-time jobs are earning Third World salaries -- a minimum wage of about $50 a month -- in a city that suddenly features First World prices.
Two pounds of potatoes at the Surquillo market that cost 35,000 intis barely a month ago shot up to 300,000 intis in the days after Aug. 8, then slowly settled to the current price of 140,000. Two pounds of tomatoes used to cost 35,000 intis; now the price is 350,000 and shows no sign of coming down.
"Business does not exist," said a woman whose vegetable stand was full of produce and bereft of customers. "We're hurting. Customers who used to buy two kilos of something now buy just a half-kilo."