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Behind the Blockades in Cochabamba, Bolivia

Behind the Blockades in Cochabamba, Bolivia
Cochabamba, Bolivia

When the Government of Bolivia announced last week a tax hike which would further depress the poorest of this nation into poverty, the masses of Bolivia took to the street to demand the resignation of both the tax and the Bolivian president Goni Sochez de Lozada. Heres a glimpse into the scene in Cochabamba, Bolivias 3rd largest city, where the streets have been blockaded, a strike has been declared, and civil strife rises.

Cochabamba is shut down. Gone are the taxis that line the block, the colorful street vendors, and the laughing school children. For a city well known for its vitality and traffic the streets of Cochabamba are eerily empty. You can tell something is wrong here. Very wrong. Silence pervades, and like the like the quiet before another storm breaks, it just cant be trusted.

The television downstairs blares images of police tear-gassing blockades on street corners only a few blocks away. Large gangs of thieves are running through the streets looking for stores to loot since the police have all been called away. In the dead air you can hear them coming. You can hear the chants of protestors demanding their rights and the loud engines of police vehicles passing by.

"Don't worry, nothing is going to happen," says the owner of an internet cafe as he walks the street with a baseball bat in hand. In La Paz, the nations capital, things are much worse and more deadly, with violence widespread and buildings burning. Yesterday in the Plaza Principal of Cochabamba speakers with microphones called for all segments of Bolivian society to join together in the fight against government-induced poverty. In La Paz, the police did just this, joining the side of the people and fighting against the national military.

Don't be fooled--these are not guerrilla outlaws that are blockading the streets, but the people of Cochabamba themselves. In Bolivia, a nation where 80% of the population falls under the poverty line, when different social sectors--the workers, the campesinos, the women, the youth, the indigenous, and more--take to the streets, they represent a true popular movement.

The majority of the people with whom Ive spoken in Cochabamba are in support of public mobilization to protest the continued efforts of their government and outside forces to deepen the devastating economic crisis that has left Bolivia the poorest country in South America.

This is not to imply that the masses of Bolivia are in favor of the violence which has tragically resulted from escalating public upheaval. Yet the decision to take to the streets is the only choice that many of these downtrodden, disheartened people have left. Here in a country where the graffitied walls read "your vote is null" and rumors abound that the recent elections were rigged by the United States, a much more real, more effective democracy takes place in the streets.

Public demonstrations and protests are common throughout Bolivia as a normally peaceful means through which to express popular discontent and affect political decisions. Yet, when too many people gather, the government sends in tear gas and troops to disperse the crowds. Sadly these popular social movements are most effective only when taken to more extreme measures such as general strike and blockading. And so, in their desperation and frustration, the Bolivian people have come to this.

The national government, in response to the chaos gripping this impoverished country has temporarily repealed the tax and agreed to dialogues with social leaders. Will the lives cost in Bolivias blockaded urban centers buy alleviation from government policies that, as one taxi driver put it, "continue to make the rich richer and the poor poorer"? I asked one 15 year old Bolivian boy in Cochabamba's Plaza Principal if he thought the government would listen to the pleas of its people in the streets. "Oh, they listen," he responded, "but they don't understand."


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