EspañolWednesday was a challenging day for Bolivia’s government officials. Protests enveloped the nation’s cities to reject state measures that control prices and the media.
“It’s not unusual that there are protests in Bolivia, since a big part of the Bolivian culture is to resort to the streets to protest, to make claims for the respect of their rights and liberties, just as the [people who are in the] current government did in previous years. Nonetheless, after almost a decade of failed populism led by Evo Morales, the government’s limitations have started to surge,” explains Roberto Ortiz, a Students for Liberty coordinator in Bolivia.
Price Controls Pit Commuters against Unionized Workers
Since Tuesday, the city of El Alto — in the west of Bolivia — has been isolated from the rest of the country due to a major transport strike that has suspended all services and blocked the access to every major route. The reason: the local government forbade a 50 percent increase on fares, so unionists called for an “indefinite” strike to demand the abrogation of this measure.
Commuters, who have been left out with no means of transportation, have rejected the strike, and have even gotten into fights with the unionists who protest on the streets. Motorcyclists and private minibuses that were trying to overcome the barricades and take people to the capital were even stoned by protesters. Police had to step in to settle the disputes, to the point of using tear gas to disperse the commotion.
An extensive police deployment in El Alto tried to contain the protesters, but even more violent clashes erupted. According to Vice-Minister of Security Jorge Pérez, police agents detained 102 people, and some street blockades were dismantled.
Price Controls in Bolivia before Exports Elsewhere?
Meanwhile, in the capital, representatives from the meat industry protested the government’s recent measure to prohibit any further beef exports until domestic prices are regulated. José Luis Ramos, spokesperson for the Departmental Federation of Butchers of La Paz, denies the government accusations that they were “hiding the beef” so that the price would rise. He contends that price increase stems from the lack of cattle. During the last few months, Bolivia has also suffered major floods, particularly in the department of Beni, where over 60,000 cattle died.
“The Bolivian government continues its efforts to regulate beef prices and keep public transportation prices on the line. The harms that these measures cause to a booming market of entrepreneurs — mostly marginal — are beyond repair,” Ortiz from SFL comments.
You Cannot Protest without the Media!
But Wednesday wasn’t all about price controls; violations on free press were also among the main motivations. About 100 journalists and members of Bolivia’s Confederation of Press Workers took to the streets of La Paz, Cochabamba, Chuquisaca, and Oruro to claim for their right to protect sources.
The motive was a lawsuit filed by the state general attorney, Héctor Arce, against two journalists from newspaper La Razón. Reporter Ricardo Aguilar was accused of “espionage” and “disclosure of secrets,” and the newspaper director Claudia Benavente for “complicity,” all due to an article that revealed details of Bolivia’s maritime claim with Chile.
“The fight has just begun, not only in La Paz, but in all Bolivia,” stated Hugo Bellido, head of the protesters. “We will continue to defend our two colleagues from La Razón, and defend the protection of sources.”
The newspaper in question asked for the trial to be taken to a press court. However, the judge dismissed the request, and both journalists will face trial in a regular court. According to Yolanda Herrera, president of the Permanent Assembly of Human Rights in Bolivia (APDHB), to reveal the confidentiality of a source will only lead to self-censorship.
According to Ortiz, SFL coordinator, “human rights in Bolivia are violated every day by the state, and freedom of speech has been reduced year after year… There’s no longer a right to protect one’s sources in Bolivia. Thousands of journalists march the streets to demand that a deaf government respect their right to write under protection.”
What About Morales and the October Election in Bolivia?
According to Ortiz, these protests are run-of-the-mill for Bolivia, and they will not affect Morales’s chances of a third presidential term. As of December, he had 56 percent constituent approval, after his triple-pay Christmas bonus.
“Despite all the problems, Evo Morales’s leadership is still high. His administration has never solved the country’s problems; nonetheless, he has known how to cover these holes, with bonuses, giveaways of public works, nationalizations, and any kind of media smokescreen that can heighten his name among poor Bolivian groups and cause the population to forget their real problems.”
Bolivian economist Javier Paz explains, “the government’s violations towards the press have been continuous since its beginnings, and the journalist’s union has protested against this. However, the government’s levels of approval hasn’t decreased, which shows just how little the citizenry values fundamental civil rights such as press freedom.”
“Evo Morales may be wearing out, however, the effects are minimal and for the moment, he doesn’t run any risks of losing a future reelection,” Paz asserts.