Bolivian Government Negotiates Internal Conflicts

Written by Erin Hatheway, The Andean Information Network

New Human Rights Ombudsman finally sworn in

Congress swore in the new Human Rights Ombudsman (Defensor del Pueblo), emeritus Methodist Bishop Rolando Villena, on May 13. According to the 2009 Constitution, Villena will serve a six year term, without the possibility of reelection. Congress chose Villena amidst debate and unfounded accusations of legal violations from the previous Defensor and opposition leaders. Vice President Garcia Linera, presiding as head of the Senate, urged Villena to “defend, watch over and protect the integrity of Bolivian society’s individual and collective human rights.” Booing and insults exchanged between different parties led to the session’s premature conclusion. As a result, Villena gave his acceptance speech outside the legislature. He affirmed, “I am a servant to the people and we will provide an unfaltering defense of human rights from different scenarios so that the exercise of authority will dignify relations between the state and the community.”

Agreement reached in avoidable Caranavi conflict

Blockades and protests in Caranavi (La Paz Yungas) turned violent after almost two weeks of tension in April and in early May. Caranavi residents demanded that the Bolivian government build a citrus fruit processing plant in their region. They claimed the government had promised them this project, but then announced construction of the plant in the adjacent Alto Beni region. Two young men, aged 16 and 19, died from gunshot wounds in the conflict, although details of their deaths remain unclear. The Human Rights Commission of the Bolivian legislature called for an exhaustive investigation, and announced on May 13 that it would request the participation of the UN High Commission of Human Rights Office. The president of commission, MAS representative Marianela Paco, emphasized that a thorough investigation into the actions of both civilians and security forces in this conflict is crucial. 

On May 12, after president Morales personally led negotiations, the government signed an agreement with protest leaders, agreeing to build two citrus plants, one in Caranavi and the other in Alto Beni. The government did not cede to protesters’ secondary demands, including the release of detainees during the confrontation and additional development projects. It is regrettable that the Morales administration, like its predecessors, only made demanded concessions after the death of protesters. 

Agreement with Labor Union quells tension, but fails to solve worker protests

On May 11th, workers started a march near Oruro heading toward La Paz, protesting the Bolivian government’s decision to grant a 5 percent wage increase without option for negotiation. (Last year, the Morales administration granted the same workers a 12 percent increase preceding national elections, creating high expectations for 2010.) Two days later in Panduro, The Bolivian Workers Union (COB) and the central government negotiated and signed an agreement, met with mixed reviews from different COB affiliates. Internal differences and conflicts have long characterized COB politics. 

The agreement stipulates a reduced retirement age for Bolivian workers, from 60 to 58 years. Average life expectancy in Bolivia is approximately 65 years. The accord sets a lower limit of 56 for miners who tend to die younger, and 51 for deep miners, who face even greater health hazards. The accord also set proportional salary increases, awarding a greater percentage to lower paid workers. Workers who earn more than 1,000 Bolivianos (about $US 145) per month will receive an increase of 3 percent, and those who earn below that margin gain 8 percent. In a speech at a Cochabamba school on May 13, President Morales recognized the challenge of negotiating with different groups, stating: “We will never be able to satisfy everyone.” 

Members of the factory workers’ union claim that COB leadership excluded them from the talks and consequently reject the accord. The factory workers plan to continue an indefinite labor strike, organize a march to demand a 12 percent wage increase, and possibly apply other measures such as hunger strikes. It is interesting to note that factory workers hope that these protests will help them win upcoming COB internal elections. 

The teachers’ union also opposes the agreement. The leader of this group, Vilma Plata, affirmed, “We reject the agreement the COB signed with the government, so, we will continue to pressure and strike indefinitely.” The Ministry of Education announced on May 13 that it will sanction public school officials who choose to strike. Approximately 20 schools closed their doors in solidarity with the teachers’ union strike. “These institutions will be sanctioned and the teachers will face withdrawals from their pay [for time un-worked] as the Departmental Education Services will be concluding strict control in all nine departments,” stated Ivan Villa Bernal, the Vice Minister of Education. However, Villa clarified that the Ministry is available to receive complaints and demands from all public school employees. 

Purchase of Manchester United plane sparks debate

Despite recent protests and conflicts related to wage increases and national spending, President Morales maintains a busy international travel schedule and on May 11 announced plans to purchase an airplane that was specially designed for the Manchester United soccer club. The official presidential plane was made in the 1970s, and on several occasions President Morales had to cancel trips and make emergency landings due to technical problems. Finance Minister Luis Arce argued that the plane is a bargain, and is available immediately. Disgruntled union leaders nevertheless voiced concerns about the $38.7 million dollar purchase. 

Strange, but trueThis may sound strange and gruesome to an international audience, but it’s true: Bolivian public cemeteries charge rent for burial niches. The maximum amount of time that a body can occupy a rented space is eight years. After that, the family of the departed must move the remains to another permanent location. In La Paz, the municipal cemetery is currently calling for families of over 800 deceased individuals to cancel rental fees unpaid since 2002. The incurred debt is approximately 237 Bolivianos (almost $US 35) per body, a significant expense for most families. Until the families step forward to pay these fees, the bodies are temporarily being kept in three storerooms on the cemetery property, in plastic bags on shelves. Cemetery administrator, Victor Hugo Criales, stated that none of the families cited to pay the fees stepped forward in the past four months since he publicized the debt notices. If the rent is not paid by June, all of the remains will be cremated and placed in a common grave, according to municipal order. The La Paz cemetery reportedly receives 12 to 15 burials per day.

Source: The Andean Information Network

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