Potosí Protest: Resolved or Postponed?
On August 16, after 19 days of blockades and hunger strikes in urban Potosí and surrounding areas, Potosí civic leaders and MAS officials reached an agreement to end protests. After protest leaders and Bolivian government officials met in Sucre, the Morales administration agreed to begin work on the demonstrators’ six demands.[i] While this agreement marks a positive step forward, and ended blockades, both sides continue to blame each other for poor handling of the conflict. Potosí leaders openly insulted the Morales administration for failing to keep its promises, while MAS officials accused protest leaders of unnecessarily inciting political friction.
After a series of negotiations, the MAS government agreed to:
- fund the proposed cement factory in Corama, Potosí
- prioritize the construction of an international airport in urban Potosí as promised in national legislation (one is already underway in Uyuni, a popular tourist destination)
- preserve the Cerro Rico peak as a historical city landmark
- complete the stalled construction of a metals plant in Karichipampa
- finish road projects in the region
- work toward demarcating the Oruro-Potosí territorial boundaries
As the strike ended, miners returned to work and blockades lifted, allowing badly needed food supplies to reach the city and to evacuate foreign tourists trapped for more than two weeks.
Celebration and scorn in Potosí
On August 16, supporters cheered returning civic leaders and celebrated in the streets of urban Potosí. However, some of these events became platforms for leaders to criticize the MAS government. The general secretary of the Potosí Civic Committee (Comcipo), Luis Pastor announced that the committee would prevent President Morales from attending the department’s anniversary ceremony on November 10, although national leaders traditionally attend. “Potosí’s message to Morales and to MAS is to not even dare to come on November 10: we will not allow the president in Potosí because the people didn’t deserve the abusive treatment of his administration and his party for the past 18 days of protests,” declared Pastor.[ii] A group of protestors also burnt an effigy of Morales.[iii]
National government bites back
On August 17, only one day after negotiations ended in Potosí, Oscar Coca, Minister of the Presidency, who led the government’s negotiation team in Sucre, accused Potosí protestors of creating an “unnecessary conflict.”[iv] He implied that there were ulterior motives behind the demands, blaming Potosí’s mayor and 2009 ex-presidential candidate, René Joaquino of the opposing Alianza Social party, for inciting the conflict in order to remain in office. The Bolivian government tried to suspend Rene Joaquino on July 27 for the irregular purchase of used cars through his municipal office during his previous term in 2006, but the strikes postponed his removal.[v]
The day following Coca’s statement, the Municipal Council of Potosí officially suspended Mayor Joaquino while prosecutors investigate corruption charges brought against him. Joaquino is the fifth official to be suspended since the Morales administration modified the Autonomy Law in May of this year. While the charges against Joaquino are separate from his role in the protests, the timing is unfortunate; Potosí civic leaders see it as government hostility toward their department and an attempt to weaken the opposition. However, since Joaquin’s own Alianza Social party holds the majority of seats in the Municipal Council, his temporary replacement will also be chosen from his party. As the suspended mayor explained, the Municipal Council removed him in order to avoid charges being brought against the entire council.[vi]
The MAS party announced plans to block or isolate several of its representatives for participating in the hunger strike, including Potosí governor Felix Gonzalez and MAS senator Eduardo Maldonado. Unlike Joaquino’s suspension, these punitive actions are directly related to the conflict between national and regional interests within MAS. Furthermore, Morales said that social movement leaders are “wasting their time” by asking him to remove cabinet members who protestors say prolonged the conflict on the government’s side, such as minister of Autonomy, Carlos Romero.[vii] Civic leaders in Potosí, accuse MAS of punishing Potosí sympathizers while refusing to consider faults in national leadership.
MAS meets expectations in Oruro
On August 22, Morales announced plans to build Bolivia’s second largest airport in neighboring Oruro, showing the MAS administration is under pressure to develop public works across the country. While this airport will certainly benefit Oruro, the timing of the decision may seem insulting to some Potosí leaders who protested for three weeks to achieve their goal, although the airport in Potosí was a priority in national law. Carlos Romero justified the decision by saying, “In Oruro, there is no political manipulation. When there is compromise between a region and a government, obviously the solutions are going to appear more rapidly and less traumatically. (In Potosí) they mobilized for some demands that are now being met, so obviously the scenario was complicated and acquired a political connotation that made solutions more difficult.”[viii] MAS’ handling of the Oruro airport may fuel further tensions with Potosí civic leaders and raise expectations for projects in other departments.
Both the MAS government and Potosi leaders remain unwilling to put the conflict behind them or to make further concessions following the dissolution of protests. Opposition members accuse MAS officials of not keeping promises and of continuing their political “witch hunt,” while the Morales administration promises to provide evidence of regional subversion. Compliance with the accord will be instrumental in relieving future tensions and strengthening the Bolivian government’s credibility in Potosí. The agreement will most likely lead to increased demands from other sectors and regions, placing even greater pressure on the Morales administration to meet long-postponed demands and ever-rising expectations.
[i] For more information see AIN’s memo on the conflict, “Potosi Population Protests Postponed Projects,” http://ain-bolivia.org/2010/08/potosi-population-protests-postponed-projects.
[ii] Los Tiempos, “Evaluación: El gobierno perdió en Potosí.” Pastor: “Potosí le está diciendo al señor Evo Morales y al MAS (Movimiento Al Socialismo) que ni siquiera se atreva a venir el 10 de noviembre: no le permitiremos que entre a Potosí al presidente del Estado porque este pueblo no merecía ese trato de su gobierno y su partido durante estos 18 días de movilizaciones”. 17 August 2010.
[iii] Reuters, “Bolivia ends protest hitting top silver mines”
16 August 2010.
[iv] Los Tiempos, “Coca: En Potosí hubo “un falso conflicto.”18 August 18 2010,
[v] Los Tiempos, “Seguidores en vigilia impiden la suspensión de Joaquino,”28 July 2010,
[vi] Los Tiempos, “Alcalde de Potosí es el quinto opositor suspendido por nueva ley de Morales.” 18 August 2010.
[vii] Los Tiempos, “Evo se aferra a ministros cuestionados por movimientos sociales.” 19 August 2010.
[viii] La Razón, “Evo atiende a Oruro y le da dinero para su aeropuerto.” Romero: ““Porque en Oruro no hay un manejo político. Cuando existe concertación entre una región y un gobierno, obviamente las soluciones van a ser mucho más rápidas y menos traumáticas pero si (en Potosí) se generó un escenario de movilización por unas demandas que ya estaban respondidas, entonces evidentemente el escenario se complejizó y adquirió una connotación política que dificultó su tratamiento.” 23 August 2010.