Friday, January 12, 2007


It turned ugly yesterday in Cochabamba, a major Bolivian city. Groups loyal to President Evo Morales clashed with angry Cochabambinos committed to their elected governor Manfred Reyes Villa. Over a 100 people were injured and 2 deaths were recorded. Rioting campesinos, 2 days earlier, stormed the regional governor's offices and set it on fire. This act of vandalism stunned the nation because it enjoyed the tacit approval of elements within the central government. A cabinet minister relieved the Police commander in Cochabamba who tried to break up the actions of the campesinos. She was roundly condemned and had to rescind her decision.


At issue is Manfred wanting regional autonomy through a state wide referendum. Santa Cruz successfully pushed through a similar process 3 years ago. The central government headed by Evo Morales view regional autonomy as an erosion of not only their authority but also the loss of funds to finance various government based socialist programmes. Regional autonomy and a strong socialist orientated central government, 2 irreconcilable forces, clash intermittently within the Bolivian socio-political landscape. The movements behind the government headed by Evo Morales view any call for regional autonomy as a veiled attempt to derail the socialist dream of equal opportunities and a just distribution of wealth.


The centre of President Evo's support is amongst the campesinos of rural Cochabamaba; they also form the militant wing of Evo's political party and were behind most of the blockades that brought down the previous government. And so when Manfred, the governor of Cochabamba, began using the language of regional autonomy, the campesinos reacted. They blocked off all the routes leading to and from the city of Cochabamba and demanded the resignation of Manfred. Commerce came to a standstill. People could not move freely. It was only a matter of time before the city's food supply would be affected. After nearly 4 tense days of living under such conditions, the city dwellers of Cochabamba took matters into their own hands. They streamed into the streets and fought the campesinos with sticks, chains, shields and knives. Never before has the nation seen civic groups taking on the campesinos. It was a bloody affair!


Sensing a major disaster, the Vice President, Garcia Linera, quickly sent troops to bring order to Cochabamba. Although he sounded conciliatory and was critical of the campesinos, Linera blamed Manfred for the violence. A Senator from the ruling party pointed the finger at radical elements in Santa Cruz for inciting the violence and the clashes. There is some fear the turmoil might spill over into the other major regions of Bolivia. The other governors, together with Manfred, roundly condemned the government and are meeting in the capital city, La Paz, to plan a response. The main civic organization in Santa Cruz is calling for a state wide strike next Tuesday.

The President is due to address the nation today.

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