Bolivian Protests: Concessions Fail to Meet High Expectations

Throughout 2012, Bolivian unions, social movements, and civil organizations have staged marches, road blockades, and strikes.  Following a customary pattern, the period after Carnaval (end of February) these measures have escalated, particularly around May Day, a traditional time for labor demands.

Various unions and organizations reject legislation or measures implemented by the Morales administration.  Most notably, since March 28, public health workers, doctors, and medical students have protested a supreme decree, increasing their workday from 6 to 8 hours. Although the Bolivian government promised on May 6 to suspend the measure until it meets with workers and medical students at the end of July, protests continue.  Bolivia’s central labor union, the COB has joined these protests, asking for their own agenda including increasing the minimum wage.

Other protests include another TIPNIS march, which left Trinidad for La Paz on April 27.  Protestor demands include revoking plans to build a highway through the territory and rejecting the “previous consultation” law, creating a referendum on the issue, as insufficient.  As marchers pass through communities in the Bení Department they have been met with counter-protests from pro-road supporters who want more attention to their own development needs.  This TIPNIS march has thus far received far less attention and support than last year’s march.

Starting on Monday May 7, national universities have called a strike to support health workers and demand more state resources. The COB plans to begin a 72-hour national work stoppage starting on May 9.  Protests are likely to continue through May during a key time to get government attention.

Recurring, sustained protests are taking their toll on Bolivians.  For example, constant roadblocks have interrupted shipping and transportation routes causing inconvenience and economic damage.  These protests have lasted longer than previous years of the Morales administration.  The strikes and blockades have also exacerbated discontent within the Bolivian police force, already struggling with further erosion of their reputation from a corruption scandal which may involve the national commander, shrinking income and budgets, and the forced resignation of several hundred officers as a result of promotion schedules as well as resentment over key Morales concessions to the armed forces.

The government has made some significant concessions – such as cancelling the contract with OAS, raising the minimum wage to 1000 bs, (about $140 USD), expanding maternity and paternity benefits, suspended the supreme decree for the doctors, budgeting money for the victims of dictatorship – but these measures generally do not occur as a result of agreements with protestors or social movements or dialogue.  As a result, protesting groups feel marginalized because this top-down leadership goes against the Morales’ discourse on key role of unions and social movements.  Since the administration frequently dismisses demands or characterizes them as “selfish,” and tends to pass unpredictable measures, some protesting groups mistrust its motives and fear that concession will be temporary in an effort to demobilize protest.

Given the history of the current administration, widespread protest is not surprising.  Since MAS grew from social movements, Bolivian civil society has higher expectations and the belief that the Morales administration has an obligation and is more likely to accede to their demands. MAS struggles to deal with multi-sector demands, which often contradict each other.  The administration also often choses to postpone making concessions in favor of establishing other initiatives on its agenda.

Current protests focus on sectorial demands, not a change of government.  Unlike past periods of widespread protest, no social movement leader with political potential has emerged to challenge the president. MAS continues unrivalled in the political arena.  The outcome of these multiple protests are unclear.  The security forces must avoid excessive use of force in intervening in order to avoid protestor deaths.

For an updated list of protests, see AIN’s Calendar of Bolivian Blockades and Protests.