Conflicts, clashes plunge Bolivia into severe crisis : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Published Thursday, October 5, 2000, in the Miami Herald

Conflicts, clashes plunge Bolivia into severe crisis Striking teachers, upset farmers bring poor nation to a standstill BY JIMMY LANGMAN Special to The Herald

LA PAZ, Bolivia -- Roadblocks, strikes and protests rooted in a multitude of controversial economic policies, have wracked Bolivia, South America's poorest country, creating one of its most severe crisis in decades.

Farmers throughout Bolivia have brought the nation to a standstill in a protest over land reform, water rights, and eradication of coca leaf by blockading the nation's highways and roads with massive piles of rocks, bricks, glass, wire and numerous other objects.

Teachers have joined farmers by leaving their classrooms in a nationwide strike over salaries.

The roadblocks have cut off virtually all traffic to Bolivia's largest cities, forcing the air force to fly in well over a million pounds of food to prevent shortages. Prices of meat, chicken and some vegetables have doubled or tripled. The government says that it will take at least $60 million to repair damage done to the roads, and that more than $15 million in export products are currently paralyzed.


In nationwide clashes, soldiers have pounded protesters with tear gas grenades and at times live ammunition, leaving 10 persons dead and hundreds more injured.

At the root of this conflict, analysts say, is a country increasingly questioning the benefits of its neo-liberal, free-market economic model.

``This is a conflict between two Bolivias, between the nation of the economic statistics and reports of international institutions, and the country of the excluded and the very poor. If the government does not respond to the people, this crisis will only deepen,'' said Jorge Lazarte, a leading political analyst in La Paz.

Bolivia currently owes $4.57 billion to international lenders, equal to about half its gross national product. Last year, the government repaid $340 million to those lenders, an amount equal to what it spent on education, health and other social programs.

In 1985, many economic reforms were introduced to Bolivia by the International Monetary Fund in exchange for debt relief. As a result of the free-market policies espoused by the IMF, economists say Bolivia has lowered its inflation rate, sparked steady economic growth, and through privatization of public services, lowered spending.


But the critics say that those same free-market policies have also created a myriad of social and environmental problems, including a widening gap between rich and poor, price hikes for such essential goods as water and gasoline, and greater unemployment.

More than 70 percent of Bolivia's eight million people continue to live below the poverty line. Government statistics say that at least 26 percent of Bolivians are unemployed, but the real number is believed to be much higher.

``Neo-liberalism is creating a world of exclusion in Bolivia. The technocrats are trying to apply their ideas to a country with a very different reality,'' said Alvaro Garcma, a sociologist in La Paz.

On Tuesday, Garcma was served with an arrest warrant for espousing such ideas on national television. The warrant said in part that Garcma had made ``a series of arguments that are publicly instigating the society to continue the delinquency that they are now committing against the State.''

A warrant also was issued for Felipe Quispe, an Aymara leader and leader of Bolivia's main farmer organization that initiated the road blockades.

At negotiations between farmers and the government Tuesday, farmers threatened to walk out unless the arrest order was rescinded. The government quickly agreed to suspend it.

Quispe, popularly known as Mallku, which means Great Condor in the Aymara language, said he does not believe that talks with the government will be favorable for their principal demands: free access to water and greater land ownership for indigenous communities, who represent more than half of the nation's population.

``I don't believe this dialogue [with the government] will work because the white man always betrays the indigenous people. We don't want to suffer for 500 years more, so we will keep on fighting,'' he said.

Government talks with coca farmers already have broken down. The government had agreed to a demand to halt plans for three new army bases in the Chapari, the country's main coca growing area. But they categorically refused the cocaleros demand to allow each of the estimated 40,000 families in the Chapari to possess coca plots of 2.5 acres for traditional coca uses.


Coca, the raw material used to make cocaine, is drunk legally in Bolivia as a tea and is chewed to ward off hunger and combat stomach ailments and altitude sickness.

A government eradication program, heavily supported by the U.S. government, has speedily reduced coca cultivation in the Chapari to less than 5,000 acres, down from 92,500 acres just three years ago. The government says before the end of 2001 there will be no more coca grown in the Chapari.

Information Minister Manfredo Kempff said that if the talks with the farmers do not produce concrete results in a few more days, the government will send troops to remove the road blockades by force.

-- Martin Thompson (, October 05, 2000

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