Bolivia: deadly unrest over autonomy plan

Two people were killed and more than 70 injured Jan. 11 as supporters and opponents of President Evo Morales battled with guns, sticks and rocks on the streets of Cochabamba. Fighting broke out when supporters of Gov. Manfredo Reyes Villa entered downtown Cochabamba, which has been occupied since Jan. 8 by thousands of protesters demanding he step down. Reyes Villa is at odds with the national government over his plans to call a referendum on regional autonomy.

State-owned TV7 said two people, including a coca grower, were killed, but it was not immediately clear how. Images showed hundreds of men running through the streets of Cochabamba, some armed with sticks, as onlookers applauded from windows of buildings and police in riot-gear fired tear gas. One of Cochabamba’s main hospitals, Viedma, was overwhelmed with more than 70 injured, two with bullet wounds. The central government is reprtedly sending in the army.

Reyes Villa told a press conference that Morales was directly responsible for the bloodshed for not asking his supporters to end their protest. The protesters had blocked off roads to Cochabamba for three days and set fire to the governor’s office, sparking scuffles with the police that injured more than 20 people.

“I don’t have a reason to resign. I demand the will of my voters be respected,” Reyes Villa, one of Bolivia’s first elected governors, told ATB television network. Six of the country’s nine governors, including Reyes Villa, belong to opposition parties, and most have joined in a call for greater autonomy from the central government. (Reuters, Jan. 12)

The six opposition governors have also joined in blaming Morales for the violence in Cochabamba.

“Up to now, everything which has ocurred in Cochabamba, as in the rest of the country, is the responsibility of the national government, which had time to avoid what has happened today,” said Mario Cossío, prefect (governor) of the departament of Tarija.

Cossío joined in La Paz with Reyes Villa and his counterpart from Santa Cruz, Luis Paredes, to insist that Morales restore order in the region. “In the face of the social chaos caused by the government’s tolerance of radicalism and irrationality, the president must impose his authority to preserve the integrity of Cochabamba,” said Cossío .

Reyes Villa called on Morales to instruct “the cocalero federations of Chapare” to end the protests, saying the president has control of the coca-growing region’s social organizations.

Meanwhile, the Pro-Santa Cruz Civic Committee announced that it will hold a popular assembly Jan. 12 to decide what actions to take “in defense of the rule of law [etsado de derecho],” and is calling for a regional strike next week “in solidarity with the people of Cochabamba.” (EFE, Jan. 11)

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