1. Health workers escalate protests, strikes called by the COB 2. May Day nationalisation of electricity network 3. Indigenous march to La Paz begins 4. Summit of the Americas ends without agreement
1. Health workers escalate protests, strikes called by the COB
Strikes and mobilisations by health workers, doctors and medical students have been growing since January in rejection of proposed government reforms to reinstate an 8 hour working day (up from 6) for public health workers. A strike was initially called for 28 March, however this was called off after representatives of the Colegio Médico de Bolivia (Bolivian Doctors’ Association) entered into an agreement to negotiate with the Minister for Health, Juan Carlos Calvimontes. The strike was reinitiated on 10 April after negotiations broke down.
Protests subsequently intensified as health workers and students took to the streets and blocked roads in La Paz, Santa Cruz, Sucre and Cochabamba, amid clashes as police attempted to disperse them. Some doctors in La Paz organised a march in defence of “the right to health”, arguing that while the protests were legitimate, health workers have a duty to provide services to the population. On 4 May an investigation was opened by the public prosecutor after a woman in El Alto claimed that her son had died because he was unable to receive medical attention to treat a case of diarrhoea.
Attempts were made by the government to initiate dialogue by offering additional pay to compensate for longer working hours, though this was immediately turned down. Differing positions also began to emerge between the health workers and health professionals, with workers willing to compromise on the issue of working hours but demanding more pay, while the leaders of the associations of health professionals remain intransigent in their rejection of an 8 hour working day.
On 4 May, President Evo Morales suspended the decree calling for the extension of the working day, so that these issues and others can be discussed at a health summit, called for the end of June.
Meanwhile, the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB – Trade Union Confederation) called a 48 hour strike during negotiations over salary increases after leaders of the COB abandoned talks. Workers marched through the centre of La Paz on the 24 and 25 April, however, the strike was not supported by some sectors – a split was seen between urban teachers who supported the strike and departmental-level teachers’ leaders who called on their affiliates to travel to work as usual.
Negotiations have been ongoing over annual salary increments, with the government offering up to an 8% increase to general salaries, saying that anything greater would lead to a fiscal deficit (this is more than 1% over last year’s inflation rate). On 1 May the president announced an increase in the minimum wage of nearly 23%, up from 815 to 1000 Bolivianos per month. The COB called an emergency meeting on 3 May saying that the grass-roots would decide whether to accept the government’s offer. The offer was rejected and they announced that they would call a 72 hour national strike in solidarity with striking health workers, as well as street protests and marches in cities across the country.
2. May Day nationalisation of electricity network
President Morales announced in his annual May Day speech that the government would be nationalising Transportadora de Electricidad SA, Bolivia’s national energy grid, which was owned by the Spanish electric company Red Eléctrica de España (REE). Morales said that the company had not invested sufficiently in the energy network, and for this reason it would be returning to state hands (it had been privatised during the Banzer government in 1997). The move follows other nationalisations of previously privatized companies as the Bolivian state regains control of the country’s energy supply.
The terms of the nationalisation are that the Bolivian national electric company ENDE will buy REE shares at an independently valued price within a time-frame of 180 days. The Bolivian operation represents a small portion of REE’s investments worldwide, its US$16.4 million annual profits are less than 3% of the Spanish company’s total yearly net profits. After initial criticism, the Spanish foreign minister, Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, conceded that the takeover was legitimate.
The announcement coincided with a visit to Bolivia of the president of the Spanish oil company Repsol to inaugurate a natural gas processing plant at the Margarita gas field.
3. Indigenous march to La Paz begins
The IX indigenous march to La Paz began on Friday 27 April, as around 300 indigenous marchers set out on the route from Trinidad in the Beni. This is the second march rejecting the road through the TIPNIS national park and indigenous territory, and follows the same route as previous indigenous marches that took place during the 90s and early 2000s in defence of the rights of lowland indigenous peoples.
Led by the lowland indigenous federation, CIDOB, with participation by representatives of highland indigenous organisation CONAMAQ, the march aims to gain wide popular support for indigenous and environmental rights and respect for the Bolivian constitution. One of the principal demands of the march is to oppose the consultation process which would decide whether a road project through the park should go ahead or not. The marchers argue that the consultation process is flawed because it is not “prior” consultation since the contract to construct the road had already been signed with Brazilian company OAS.
The situation was further complicated when the government cancelled the OAS contract earlier in April, saying that progress on other sections of the road had not been satisfactory. This did not appease the demands of CIDOB and other opponents of the consultation who argue that regardless of the contract, building has already begun at both ends of the road project and the government still intends to build the road through the TIPNIS.
A more conciliatory approach by the government was in evidence when Interior Minister Carlos Romero negotiated with local authorities in San Ignacio de Moxos to disband a blockade which aimed to detain the march. Romero said that the government would guarantee the rights of the marchers to protest and would provide security for the marchers if necessary. Also, following a request by president Morales and advice from the UN OHCHR, the Plurinational Legislative Assembly has drafted a law which will postpone the consultation another 90 days, meaning it will now be scheduled for 10 September.
4. Summit of the Americas ends without agreement
The VI Summit of the Americas, held in Cartagena, Colombia, concluded on 15 April without a final declaration due to a lack of consensus on the issues of the participation of Cuba (an issue which had led Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega to boycott the meeting) or Argentina’s claim of sovereignty over the Malvinas/Falklands.
In spite of this, positive steps were made in opening a debate around the future of drug policy in the region, as proposed by Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, who proposed decriminalisation of drug consumption as one possible way forward. This is a proposal that has been gaining support from, among others, ex-Latin American presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil), Ernesto Zedillo and Vicente Fox (Mexico) and César Gaviria (Colombia). President Santos of Colombia, presiding over the summit, also made clear his view of the need to re-examine drug policy in the region.
Prior to the summit Evo Morales had been invited, along with Santos, to close the Social Forum leading up to the summit which brought together civil society organisations from across the region to discuss issues such as climate change and food security. Bolivian civil society had a strong presence at the forum with 68 delegates, including leaders from cooperative miners, oil workers, campesinos, transport unions and cocaleros.