Bolivia: Opposition Demands Release Of Leader With Blockades

SAN CARLOS, Bolivia (AP) — On the outskirts of Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s most populous city, the highway begins to resemble a parking lot with dozens of trucks laden with goods standing in a long line while their exhausted drivers wait to the side. of the way Some of them hang wet clothes from the windows.

Vehicles cannot move due to large mounds of sand piled up on the road as it passes through the town of San Carlos, 110 kilometers (68 miles) from Santa Cruz. Only motorcycles carrying passengers circulate between the mounds.


“This measure is to let the government know that they cannot live without Santa Cruz,” said Micol Paz, a 32-year-old activist with Creemos, the party of Santa Cruz region governor Luis Fernando Camacho.

Camacho, the country’s most prominent opposition leader, was arrested in December on terrorism charges, sparking a series of protests in this eastern region, Bolivia’s economic powerhouse and agricultural center. Roadblocks to demand their release, like the one in San Carlos, have wreaked havoc on the distribution chain, skyrocketed prices and aggravated tensions between the leftist government in the capital, La Paz, and the right-wing opposition in Santa Cross.

Camacho’s arrest stems from the mobilizations that led to the resignation of then-President Evo Morales in 2019. Morales’s party, which has returned to power, accuses the governor of orchestrating protests that it describes as a coup. Those riots caused 37 deaths.

Camacho’s supporters maintain that the protests were a legitimate response to a rigged election intended to keep Morales in power and that his arrest amounts to kidnapping.

The governor, who came third in the 2020 presidential elections, is in a maximum security prison on the outskirts of La Paz after a judge ordered his preventive detention for four months, agreeing with the prosecution that there was a risk of flight.

Caught in the middle of the dispute are truckers and consumers affected by rising prices.

Edgar Quispe Solares was visibly angry sitting in the semi-trailer in which he transports cars.

“One week we are without basic services. We can’t bathe, we can’t shop,” lamented Quispe, 47, as he watched anxiously as activists prepare to move the barricade to a nearby town, an indication that he could move his truck for the first time in eight days.

Rómulo Calvo, head of the powerful Santa Cruz Civic Committee that called for the blockades, said that while the protests should continue until Camacho’s release, he could not guarantee that would actually happen.

“The blockades are going to hold out until the very people who are taking the actions can hold on,” said Calvo, who acknowledged exhaustion after a 36-day strike against the government last fall to demand a national census that could yield more tax revenue. and legislative representation to the region.

Santa Cruz plays a key role in the Bolivian economy: it represents around a third of its economic activity and produces 70% of the country’s food.

“Santa Cruz is a fundamental bastion for the Bolivian economy, which is why when Santa Cruz meets forces with the government, it can do so,” said Jaime Dunn, an economic analyst in La Paz.

It is difficult to quantify the direct economic effect of the mobilizations, partly because some trucks manage to circumvent the blockades.

“You are not necessarily going to see the monetized impact in terms of amounts, but you will see it in prices and in the decrease in Central Bank reserves,” Dunn added.

In the markets of the capital, customers are scarce. The price of chicken has skyrocketed 29% while that of beef has risen 8% since the start of the blockade, according to Marina Quisbert, leader of a group of butchers from Mercado Rodríguez.

But it’s not just the meat.

“Even vegetables have gone up. If before I used 100 pesos, now I have to use 120,” said Rubén Mendoza, a 65-year-old retired teacher.

The government of leftist President Luis Arce has downplayed the economic repercussions of the blockade. Economy Minister Marcelo Montenegro told reporters this week that prices have risen due to “speculation and price gouging.”

Amid debate over the economic consequences of the protests, thousands of people took to the streets in the capitals of eight of the country’s nine regions on Tuesday to demand the release of Camacho and other imprisoned opposition leaders. There were also smaller countermobilizations in favor of his arrest.

Karine Flores, a 49-year-old executive assistant who protested in Santa Cruz, said she feels uncertain and helpless. “We can all go to jail because we don’t agree with the government,” she added.

Some have spoken out against the agents confronting the dissatisfied in the frequent nightly demonstrations in downtown Santa Cruz.

“They send police to gasify us,” said Pablo Vaca, a 37-year-old vendor.

The Arce executive accused those who participate in these calls of fomenting violence and burning public vehicles and offices.

There are also those who, despite agreeing with the goal of the protests, said the blockades go too far, such as Elvis Velázquez, a doctor who lives near San Carlos and works in Yapacaní, about 40 miles (65 kilometers) away.

“I support some measures, but the blockade is not productive since it paralyzes us as citizens,” Velázquez said as he hurried to get into a van to get to his office after crossing the barricade on foot. “They cut us off from ourselves.”


Associated Press writer Paola Flores contributed to this report from La Paz, Bolivia.