Bolivia on Fire - 14 February, 2003 - News

Toll rises to 20 killed and 100 wounded, as the Government cannot control the situation on main cities' streets

La Paz, Capital City of this Andean South American country, turned into a battlefield on Wednesday when a demonstration against an unpopular measure adopted by the neo-liberal administration of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada ended in tragedy. Clashes turned deadly after students and civilians joined striking police officers gathered in the main square of La Paz to protest against Government.

Government's troops repressed the protest provoking chaos all over the city. Rioters burned seven public buildings, including the Ministry of Labor, Vice-President's office and the headquarters of the main political parties. In the outskirts of La Paz and other major cities as Cochabamba, Sucre and Santa Cruz de la Sierra, starved people looted supermarkets, factories and shops.

Country's long running social crisis, duly reported by PRAVDA.Ru and other main international information resources, exploded when President Sanchez de Lozada introduced a new 12.5% tax on worker's skimpy salaries. Such legislation had been imposed by the International Monetary Fund to reach an agreement with the impoverished country.

As per the last reports from La Paz, the Government and the striking police officers had reached to an agreement to stop violence. However, the majority of the rebel forces did not acknowledge the deal and pledged to keep on fighting.

On Thursday, the leader of the coca growers and second in the last elections, Evo Morales called on a national blockade of roads, while the national confederation of unions announced a general strike. Many sectors in La Paz asked President Sanchez de Lozada for his immediate resignation, only six months after assumption.

Sanchez de Lozada escaped in an ambulance from the besieged presidential palace and gave a nationally televised speech in which he suspended the tax increase and ordered the withdrawal of government troops. "I plead with all Bolivians to put an end to the violence and to begin honest negotiations," Sanchez de Lozada said. "I ask one more thing from our father above God save Bolivia."

The riots appeared to be protests that had spiraled out of control and there was no sign that they threatened government stability. But with no police force, the president's call to peace had little effect as the city descended into chaos.

The continuous aggravation of the social situation and the increasing in the number of protests were not enough for a Government that insisted on looking for monetarist solutions to a deep social crisis. The imposing of a new tax on salaries spread out a violent reaction of a population usually very modest and peaceful, but with signs of saturation.

Washington funds a program to eradicate coca farms, as says it is used to produce cocaine. However, peasants survive thanks to this production and say the coca is intended for traditional uses. Their indigenous ancestors have chewed coca leaves for centuries and have been resisting eradication attempts for half a decade.

To keep on funding programs and the National Treasury, the IMF imposed to the Government, recessive measures as the reduction of 12% on salaries. Now, the Government was forced to nullify the rule, but it is be probably too late. President Sanchez de Lozada has lost the confidence of his electorate and cannot control the situation on the streets.

Sanchez de Lozada is trying now to save his Government in the middle of chaos. Riots, lootings, strikes, the burning of public buildings and police's strike give him little space to do so. However, Evo Morales warned on a Government's plan to shut down the congress and rule with Army support, taking advantage of the critical moment Bolivia lives. Morales quoted reports from "patriot Army Officers" to sustain his vision.

Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in South America. Whereas wealthy city elites, who are mostly of Spanish ancestry, have traditionally dominated political and economic life, the majority of Bolivians are low-income subsistence farmers, miners, small traders or artisans.

Hernan Etchaleco PRAVDA.Ru Argentina

Photo: Rioters set fire to Vice-President office in the center of La Paz.

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