WASHINGTON -- U.S. human rights groups are calling on the government and armed forces of Bolivia to exercise restraint in dealing with a popular tide of protests that have swept much of the country and left as many as 80 people dead over the past several weeks.
The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), which has monitored conditions in Bolivia for some 25 years, is also calling on the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush to press for an immediate dialogue between the government and opposition forces to resolve the crisis.
The group said Washington bore "no small responsibility for the crisis now enveloping Bolivia," primarily because of its pressure on successive governments in La Paz to liberalize the economy and eliminate coca production.
People have had it.
(The gas project is) a symbol of globalization, frustration, and the feeling that the government is not interested in the welfare of the people.
Andean Information Network
"Unyielding U.S. stances with respect to economic austerity measures and coca crop eradication have constantly put Bolivia's elected leaders at odds with the Bolivian people and have narrowed the political space in which Bolivians themselves can seek their own solutions to their problems," WOLA said.
The current crisis, which clearly threatens the tenure of the strongly pro-U.S. president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, continues to intensify, despite his offer announced late Wednesday to hold a referendum on a US$5 billion natural-gas project designed to export gas from the Bolivian Andes through Chile to Mexico and the United States. The project has strong support from Washington.
Large sectors of the population, particularly indigenous groups, are dead set against the project, particularly due to its dependence on Chile for a seaport. Chile seized Bolivia's coastal areas in the War of the Pacific in 1879, leaving the impoverished Andean nation without a route to the ocean.
While the government's determination to go ahead with the project was the immediate spark for the protests, which have been going on since mid-September, the opposition to several of Sanchez' other major policies, as well as the violence that has accompanied his efforts to preserve order, have brought tens of thousands more into the streets across the country. Many grassroots and indigenous groups and some opposition parties are now demanding that he step down.
The Bush administration and the Organization of American States (OAS) have rallied to Sanchez' side, insisting that the crisis be resolved in a manner consistent with the constitution. Dismissing demands that he resign, Sanchez claims that the opposition is aiming "to thwart the constitutional order."
Thousands of Bolivians march through the center of La Paz to demand the resignation of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, October 16, 2003. Sanchez de Lozada's latest attempt to defuse the crisis that has left nearly 80 dead was rejected by Bolivia's major Indian leaders who said his promises were too little too late. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
The 73-year-old millionaire president, who speaks Spanish with an American accent due to his many years in the United States, may be fighting a losing battle.
Popular demands that he resign have spread to every major city in the country over the past four days, and members of his government are beginning to take measures to distance themselves from Sanchez, who won the presidency with under 25 percent of the vote last year.
The violence committed by the armed forces, which has used tanks and, according to some accounts, even heavy machine guns to break up crowds, is fueling yet more opposition, according to numerous reports. Indeed, Sanchez's own vice president, Carlos Mesa, broke publicly with the president Wednesday when he accused him of responsibility for the indiscriminate use of force against demonstrators.
New York-based Human Rights Watch called Wednesday for the government to carry out an immediate investigation into the circumstances in which some 50 civilians were killed during rioting on Sunday and Monday in El Alto, a poor industrial suburb of La Paz, and in La Paz itself.
It reported that 25 civilians and an army conscript were killed Sunday in El Alto, which was placed under martial law Monday. Most of the deaths, it said, occurred when army units backed up by tanks tried to gain safe passage for convoys of gasoline tankers headed for the capital, which has been cut off by road blocks for several days. Troops fired tear gas at homes and used live ammunition to break up the protestors, who included women and children.
Most of the dead were shot at close range, according to the coroner, and one conscript soldier was shot dead by his commanding officer for refusing to fire on the protestors, some of whom were armed only with sticks, stones, and slingshots. There have been reports that sticks of dynamite have also been used by demonstrators at roadblocks.
On Tuesday, some 26 more protesters were reportedly killed in La Paz at the conclusion of a march from El Alto.
In both cases, said HRW Americas director, Jose Miguel Vivanco, "the large number of deaths strongly suggests that security forces failed to exercise proper care in responding to the protests."
"With violence escalating," he added, "Bolivia is at the brink of catastrophe. To avoid further tragic consequences, the government must order the army to act with restraint and must carry out a thorough and impartial investigation into the deaths of the last few days."
According to Doctors Without Borders (MSF-Medicins Sans Frontières), a Paris-based humanitarian group, the armed forces have also impeded access by medical personnel to thousands of people who have been wounded by gunshot during the demonstrations.
"This lack of respect for the medical mission clearly goes to the detriment of providing care to the injured," said MSF Bolivia director Silvia Moriani.
Bolivian networks of human and social rights non-governmental groups have also strongly protested measures taken by the government, including the temporary closure of several media outlets around the country.
With an annual per capital income of under $200 a month, Bolivia's eight million people are the poorest in South America despite almost two decades of economic reforms under the guidance of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.
The ongoing popular turmoil is only the latest in a series of crises that have afflicted the entire Andean region over the last several years, spurring growing concern about the region's long-term stability and the viability of the kinds of economic reform favored by Washington and the major multilateral financial institutions.
"People have had it," Kathryn Ledebur, a U.S. analyst with the Andean Information Network in La Paz, told the Wall Street Journal Thursday. The gas project, she said, is "a symbol of globalization, frustration, and the feeling that the government is not interested in the welfare of the people."
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