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Agreement ends week-long conflict in Bolivia

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
La Paz, Bolivia

With mediation by the Catholic church, an agreement was signed April 14 ending a week of conflict throughout Bolivia that followed a government declaration of a state of emergency April 8.

Confrontations, largely between rural farmers and the government, left five dead and eight injured; 22 people were detained.

Under the agreement the government is withdrawing troops to barracks, and in return the main peasant organization, the CSUTCB, agreed to call off roadblocks. The government has also promised to review long-standing grievances of rural communities, notably its water privatization bill and the complicated land titling procedure under agrarian reform law, and to improve rural infrastructure and increase technical and financial support to small farmers.

The guarantors of the agreement were Msgr. Jesús Juárez, secretary of the Bolivian bishops’ conference; government-appointed People’s Defender Ana María Romero de Campero; and the president of the Bolivian Permanent Human Rights Assembly, Waldo Albarracín. There is pressure for the government now to lift the state of emergency, due to run until July 8.

The government of Gen. Hugo Banzer, military dictator of Bolivia 1971-1978, but president by election since 1997, decreed the state of emergency after widespread protests, including roadblocks, by rural communities against proposals for water privatization and reduction of worker rights. Protests escalated throughout the country and were met with violence by the army.

In Cochabamba on the day the state of emergency was decreed, a 17-year old demonstrator, Víctor Hugo Daza Argandoña, was shot dead in a confrontation between the army and community groups protesting the takeover of the local water supply by Bechtel Corporation, a British-led international consortium. A man in civilian clothes filmed firing at demonstrators from among army ranks was later identified as army captain Robinson Iriarte.

The other flashpoint was the highland region around the Bolivian capital, La Paz. Also on April 8, in Achacachi, two men were killed by army fire at a roadblock, allegedly after the commander of the Ayacucho Battalion, Lt. Col. Armando Carrasco Nava, ordered his troops to shoot to kill after being struck by a stone thrown by the protesters. Enraged demonstrators captured Carrasco and his deputy. Carrasco managed to escape, but the demonstrators stabbed the other officer. Later demonstrators dragged the wounded officer from a hospital and killed him. A 15-year old boy was killed by a shot in the throat in Achacachi the following day.

The government’s actions during the demonstrations were widely criticized as an authoritarian and insensitive response to longstanding social problems. Juárez of the bishops’ conference described the rural unrest as the result of extreme poverty and demands that had gone long unheard. “The movement is not political. It is the result of dire poverty. The demands of the rural population must be listened to if we want lasting peace,” he said.

National Catholic Reporter, April 28, 2000