Bolivia slams armed protesters as international bodies urge dialogue

Bolivian authorities denounced the actions of armed protesters as the country entered a 10th day of road blocks that have prevented vital medical supplies needed to fight the coronavirus pandemic from reaching hospitals.

Supporters of exiled former president Evo Morales have set up 142 road blocks throughout all nine Bolivian departments, Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Javier Issa said on Wednesday.

The demonstrators — mostly indigenous people and farmers — are angry that a general election has been delayed for a second time.

Fired up by Morales from his exile in Argentina, they’re demanding it be restored to its previous September 6 date rather than October 18, as set by the Supreme Electoral Court.

On Tuesday, the United Nations, the European Union and the Catholic Church joined forces to call for a de-escalation of political tensions.

On Twitter, Morales backed the call but then accused his political opponents of “racism” and carrying out “massacres,” charges he regularly levels at the government of interim President Jeanine Anez.

His supporters believe the election delay — it was originally due to take place in May but was postponed due to the pandemic — is aimed at preventing Luis Arce, who represents Morales’s Movement for Socialism (MAS) party, from becoming president.

Arce has consistently led opinion polls since he was picked as the MAS candidate in January.

Experts, though, believe Bolivia’s coronavirus spike will hit in early September.

‘Undue pressure’

The joint UN, EU and church statement did not single out MAS supporters but urged “the lifting of all undue pressure measures within the framework of a society that wants to live in peace and respect the rules of the democratic game.”

The statement added that this was a time to work towards the common good and “not to put at risk the peaceful, democratic and institutional coexistence between all Bolivians.”

Interior Minister Arturo Murillo said the government supported the move to bring social movements and political parties to the negotiating table to avoid “a civil war.”

Last week Murillo threatened to deploy police and military personnel to clear the road blocks.

On Monday, top military and police chiefs condemned the “terrorism” of armed people manning road blocks and called on political leaders to hold a “dialogue, avoiding confrontational action that could increase the levels of conflict.”

Armed forces General Sergio Orellana and deputy police commander General Ronald Suarez warned against following in the footsteps of other countries in the region like Peru and Colombia that suffered from decades of internal strife.

“There are consultations, certain approaches have been made with one side and the other” to open discussions, said Ricardo Centellas, president of Bolivia’s Bishops Conference.

The move from the Church, the UN and EU came after a mediation request from Anez, parliament and the Supreme Electoral Court, a Church source told AFP.

Centellas said the central theme of the dialogue should be confronting “altogether” the coronavirus pandemic that has infected more than 91,000 people and killed 3,700 amongst the population of 11 million.

‘Terrorism and genocide’

Authorities say the road blocks have severely limited the ability of trucks carrying oxygen to reach hospitals where coronavirus patients are in desperate need of treatment.

The health ministry said 31 people died this week from COVID-19 because of a lack of oxygen.

On Monday, the executive filed a complaint against Morales and Arce for “terrorism and genocide,” accusing the pair of being behind the road blocks, which began on Monday of last week.

Bolivia has been in political crisis since an October 2019 election won by Morales was annulled after an Organization of American States audit found evidence of fraud.

Morales had been constitutionally barred from standing but was still seeking a fourth term in office.

His victory led to three weeks of protests before he resigned and fled the country after the OAS audit was published, leading to the military withdrawing its support for Morales.

The 60-year-old was his country’s first ever indigenous president and ruled for 14 years.

He is barred from standing in the next election, even for the legislature.