Bolivia May 5-14: Crisis of Compromise and Consultation
Widespread protests, marches, counter-marches, blockades, and strikes continue throughout the nation, and do not show signs of diminishing. Doctors, medical students, and health workers continued to protest, entering their eighth week of strikes on Monday, May 14th. Public university students and staff as well as transportation unions joined the measures. Early in the week, the Morales administration proposed a suspension of Supreme Decree 1126, the law that extends the public health sector’s workday by two hours without additional pay, but the concession was resoundingly rejected as inadequate. On Thursday, May 10th, Evo Morales asserted that the highway through TIPNIS would be constructed and that the health workers’ demands would not be met. While La Paz and Cochabamba were the epicenters of conflict, there were also violent clashes in Tarija, Potosí, Santa Cruz, and Sucre. A clash between coca growers and eradication forces in the Chapare region and police hostages in a rural community north of Potosí also made headlines. On Sunday, May 13th, the government started dialogue with the Executive Committee of Bolivian Universities (CEUB), and after 12 hours of discussion, signed a preliminary agreement. However, many issues were left unresolved and public health workers are still on strike.
- Police & spouses demand higher salary: Bolivian police officers and their spouses demanded a 250% raise on Monday, May 7th to make their salaries comparable to those of the armed forces. This demand comes in the wake of a recent police academy scandal with the national commander and other officers under investigation, pending promotions that may force hundreds of colonels into retirement, and weeks of having to intervene in protests. The average police salary is currently 1,200 Bolivianos, or about $174 USD per month.
- Members of rural community took police hostages: Residents of Mallku Khota took two police officers hostage during an ongoing conflict between community authorities and the Canadian mining company South American Silver that has a mining concession to explore the area for silver and indium. The Curaca Mayor (community authority) stated that the government had not consulted them before granting the concession, and that the mining company has previously polluted the water supply of more than 30 communities in the region. After a dialogue with the governor of Potosí, they released the bruised hostages on May 9th. On May 11th, the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB) incorporated the reversal of South American Silver’s mining concession into their Platform of Demands of the Ninth Indigenous March.
- Clash between Joint Task Force and coca growers: A clash between a group of Chapare coca growers and the Joint Task Force left least three farmers and 11 security officers wounded after troops attempted to begin coca eradication early on the morning of May 9th. Accounts from Los Tiempos, Eju TV, Erbol vary about how many people were involved in the incident.
Ongoing protests and strikes:
- Continuation of TIPNIS march and counter-TIPNIS blockade: The second march against the TIPNIS highway that began on April 27th in Trinidad continues as marchers make their way toward La Paz. Marchers encountered a blockade at San Ignacio de Moxos by residents who support the construction of the highway, forcing marchers to go around the community. Some march leaders believe the national government might have supported the blockade.
- Public sector doctors and health workers continue to strike; joined by COB and public universities: COB initiated a 72-hour strike on Wednesday, May 9th. Public universities declared an indefinite strike starting on Monday, May 7th, which lasted through Friday, May 11th. Public health workers continue to strike as of Tuesday, May 15th.
- Background on the public health sector: Doctors in the public sector typically work six hours a day in public hospitals and clinics, and then see patients at private practices afterwards or give classes. Doctors often have overnight shifts, and many volunteer regularly. The World Health Organization’s standard is that doctors are supposed to spend 15 minutes with each patient; adding an extra two hours means seeing eight more patients per day. Many were concerned that the health system simply does not have the infrastructure to support that type of increase. Because of these reasons, medical professionals and students express concern that the decree would result in a decline in the quality of care and an increase in malpractice. In addition, under Supreme Decree 1126, doctors and other public health workers would be expected to work 25% more without an increase in pay.
- Pro-MAS march in Cochabamba: On Wednesday, May 9th, coca growers from the Chapare Six Federations arrived in Cochabamba with unaffiliated transportation workers and other social groups to march “to defend the process of change started in 2006,” and in opposition to recent protests by other sectors. Press accounts vary between 3,000 and 25,000 participants.
- City-by-City Breakdown:
- La Paz: Violent clashes between protesters and police throughout the week. Protesters fought tear gas and rubber bullets with stones, sticks, fireworks, and balloons filled with paint.
- Cochabamba: Thursday, students and health workers protested in two locations. Police used tear gas, rubber bullets, and water hoses to disperse protestors after 1 pm, The time determined by Bolivian government to break up blockades each day. Rubber pellets wounded three students. Protestors threw stones, fireworks, and Molotov cocktails, wounding three police officers.
- Santa Cruz: Medical students blocked the road to Viru Viru International Airport and the highway to Argentina. COB members marched to the main plaza.
- Potosí: Medical students detonated dynamite in the door of the government offices. Health workers blockaded the road to Potosi.
- Tarija: Students detonated explosives in the government office and threw balloons with pink paint at the building.
- Trinidad: Health workers blockaded the highway between Trinidad and Santa Cruz.
- Sucre: University students and teachers marched with COB resulting in minor conflicts with police. They also announced future plans to block roads.
- Transport workers’ strike
- La Paz: National bus and taxi drivers called a 48-hour strike rejecting new urban transit restrictions. The government closed schools and shortened work hour to compensate. On May 7th in La Paz, conflict between neighbors and protesters resulted in four wounded when neighbors attempted to un-block the road.
- Cochabamba: The Transportation Federation of Cochabamba went on strike for one day in support of COB’s declaration, the repeal of Decree 1126, public universities’ autonomy, and raising fares.
Government response and controversies:
- President Evo Morales & his administration responds: To celebrate Journalists’ Day on Thursday, May 10th, Evo Morales insisted that both the construction of the highway through TIPNIS and the extension of health workers’ hours would indeed happen, saying he “doesn’t understand how the COB can defend a privileged bunch who only wants to work 6 hours.” (Please see note above about the public health sector.) He also remarked that the transportation strike had not affected him, as he worked from “four in the morning to midnight,” and that “at this time you don’t feel the blockade.” Friday, May 11th, Minister of Government Carlos Romero asserted that social and political actors are trying to take advantage of this situation, but that the current conflicts “do not have the possibility of generating a crisis of government, much less a crisis of the state.” As the government had threatened, it discounted the entire month of April from doctors’ and health workers’ pay.
- Alleged beating and torture of a nurse accused of throwing a rock at Vice Minister: In La Paz, government officials accused nurse Leonor Boyán of hitting Vice-Minister of the Interior, Jorge Pérez in head with a cobblestone during a demonstration on Thursday, May 10th. Boyán ended up in intensive care; hospital officials reported bruises and signs of beating to the abdomen, chest, and face and severe damage to her kidneys. Minister of Government Carlos Romero accused the press of lying and sensationalizing the case and denounced Boyán as an “aggressive, violent person” who was liable for her actions. The La Paz human rights Ombudsman’s office has launched an investigation into the case.
- Sedition and Wire Tapping Scandal: Minister of Government Carlos Romero has accused Congresswoman Marcela Revollo of the opposition party Movement Without Fear (MSM) of sedition and trying to destabilize the government by funding the TIPNIS march. However, he apparently obtained this information by wiretapping Revollo’s cell phone, although this practice is forbidden by Bolivian law [i]. In response, Revollo formally accused Minister Romero of violation of privacy with eavesdropping and interception of telephone calls. Later that day, Romero filed a complaint against Revollo for sedition and public incitement to commit a crime, calling her “anti-democratic and anti-patriotic” and trying to undermine the government. He claimed her party Movimiento Sin Miedo is “’opportunistic and servile’ to transnational companies and imperialism.” Revollo admitted readily to having funded the TIPNIS march through the sale of cards in coordination with a non-profit organization based in Beni (CPEMB – Ethnic Center for the Beni Mojeño People), which does not appear to be an act of sedition.
MAS congressional representatives announced that that they will demand that Revollo and four other MSM representatives to give up their seats, because they were initially elected as MAS representatives, and accused them of violating the Ethics Rules. At the time of their elections in 2009, MAS and MSM were allies, but the parties broke their alliance just before the municipal elections in 2010. The legal grounds of the demand are unclear, although Revollo did run on the MAS ticket for her current position.
Beginnings of dialogue and resolution:
- Dialogue between protesters and government: On Saturday evening of May 12th, the government invited the Executive Committee of Bolivian Universities (CEUB) to a dialogue to discuss the recent strikes, including the demands of health workers, universities, and COB in general. The dialogue began at 10am on Sunday, May 13th in the office of the vice-presidency. Although many issues were brought to the table, the Executive Secretary of COB, Juan Carlos Trujillo, said they prioritized the “reactivating the productive apparatus” and labor rights. Issues discussed include university autonomy, pay increases, the designation of 8% of hydrocarbon incomes to the universities, and demands for more resources for minors to explore new deposits. Most issues were not resolved, but the government did promise to suspend Supreme Decree 1126 at least until the health summit in July. After twelve hours of negotiation, a preliminary agreement was signed and they decided to continue the dialogue at 3pm on May 15th. The agreement was reviewed on May 14th by at a National Universities Conference in Oruro.
The Bolivian government is grappling with extensive, overlapping demands from university students and staff, doctors and health workers, medical students, transportation workers, TIPNIS marchers and counter-marchers, miners, and other interest groups. The initiation of dialogue between a large faction of the protesters and the government indicates progress, but does not necessarily mean a respite from conflict. Resolving these issues will be complicated and protracted, and strikes and demonstrations are likely to continue in the meantime. It is unclear how much the government will concede, and to whom.
Please see AIN’s Calendar of Bolivian Protests and Blockades for daily updates.
For photos of protests from around the country, click here.
[i] The Bolivian Criminal Code states: Art. 300: Any person who opens a letter, a closed document, telegraph, radio or telephone communication intended for another person, or who, through the use of technology without opening this correspondence, imposes content, will be imprisoned for three months to a year or fined 60-240 days…. The maximum sentence is increased to two years when the author of these incidents divulges the contents of the correspondence or dispatches.Art. 301 (VIOLATION OF CONFIDENTIALITY IN CORRESPONDENCE NOT INTENDED FOR PUBLICATION)“Anyone who tapes the words of another person without their consent that are not meant for the public or who, through technological means listens to private statements that are not intended for them., or who does the same using private documents that are not addressed to them…if this act can do any damage, will be sanctioned with three months to a year in prison.” (AIN Translation)
[ii] Art 123 of the Bolivian Criminal code states “Any person who, without denying the authority of the legally constituted government, publically and with open hostility rises up to depose any authority or public employee, impedes their swearing in or oppose compliance with laws decrees, judicial or administrative rulings, or carries out any act of hate or revenge against people or property of any authority or of private citizens or disturbs or creates tumult in the public order in any way, will be sentenced from one to three years. Public officials who do not resist rebellion or sedition by all means at their disposition with be sentenced to one to two years. Art. 124 (Usurpation of the rights of the people) any person that forms part of an armed force or a meeting of people that usurps the rights of the people and attempts to exercise these rights in their name will receive the same sentence…Art. 125.(Common dispositions of the crimes of rebellion and sedition) If the rebellious or seditious individuals turn themselves upon the first request of public authorities, without causing any damage besides a momentary disruption of the[public] order, only the leaders or instigators will be given the penalty stipulated for the attempted offense. (AIN Translation)