Bolivia: Potosi Protesters Negotiate Under Threat

Sucre locals beat Potosí journalists and obligated negotiators to return to Sucre. Yesterday (Friday) a group of about 100 enraged rural inhabitants of Sucre armed with sticks changed the course of negotiations over the conflict in Potosí, Bolivia.


After numerous attempts to negotiate with the government (over a border dispute between Oruro and Potosí and six additional points of contention) negotiations once again broke down, this time in Sucre where Potosí protest leaders had agreed to meet with government ministers only if President Evo Morales were present.

Potosí and Oruro are disputing where the border between these two Andean departments actually is. This is a long-standing dispute spanning many decades, but tension has heightened as both Potosí and Oruro claim to own the Cerro Pahua, a mountain located in the border region between Coroma and Quillachas that is said to be rich in limestone (used for making cement), marble and uranium. Both departments are demanding a cement factory be constructed in this area. Separately, Potosí has placed 6 additional demands on the table including the construction of a road, a refinery, and several others.

The Potosí negotiating committee had traveled to Sucre on Thursday, where it waited for President Morales to arrive. He didn?t and on Friday the negotiators began their return to Potosí along the Sucre-Potosí highway.

However, about 15 kilometers from the Millares toll both, near the tiny town of Pampasoico, the negotiating committee and Potosí journalists that accompanied them were met with a road block and a group of locals armed with clubs, who refused to let them pass. When journalists got out of their vehicles to report on this, they were pursued by people wielding their clubs and barely escaped a lynching. The locals, after beating Potosí press leader Benigno Castillo with their sticks, took their rage out on the vehicles, obligating the Potosí negotiating committee to return to Sucre.

Thus, at about 5:30 p.m. on Friday afternoon, the country was surprised to hear the Potosinos had returned to the negotiating table.

The Minister of Autonomy, Carlos Romero, thanked the people of Potosí for returning to the dialogue and urged the leaders to "put their political conspiracies aside".

The news making its way to Sucre from Potosí wasn't good. The population of Potosí was getting antsy. Some sources reported the entire population had gathered in the plaza, waiting for the committee to return and demanding to know why they hadn't returned immediately when they found out Evo Morales wouldn't be present at the negotiations.

Others reported more rural inhabitants were marching toward the toll booth in San Antonio, where there is a 5-kilometer long line of vehicles waiting for the road block to be lifted. They also reported that members of mining cooperatives and university students had mobilized to reinforce this group. The committee returning from Sucre to Potosí, finding itself with its back against the wall, had been forced to return to Sucre.

Minister of the Presidency, Oscar Coca, was in charge of putting the government's cards on the table. First, regarding the border dispute between Potosí and Oruro, he indicated a referendum (suggested by Potosí) was out of the question because a referendum is only applicable for municipalities within a single department.

As to the construction of a road between Bellavista and Vitachi-Cotagaita (another of Potosí's demands), Coca indicated the government had already paid Brazilian company OAS in full for this work and that construction would begin very soon.

As to the Karachipampa refinery (the second of six demands), he explained that in 2007 the refinery had been given to a company called Atlas Precious Metals under a concession contract, and that the company had committed to investing $85 million. To date it should have already invested nearly $79 million of that amount, but has actually invested on $2.3 million.

Regarding the construction of two cement factories, one in Oruro and one in Potosí, (demand number three) Coca assured that Bs. 6.18 million had been invested in technical studies. The findings of these studies indicate that the municipality of Uyuni is the most apt region for a cement factory as this area has six times the limestone found at Cerro Pahua (the mountain on the border which has caused the border dispute).

The government thus believes, he said, that it has fulfilled all of Potosí's demands. However, Potosí leaders states their demands will be satisfied when everything has been put in writing.

Meanwhile, Oruro civic leaders awaited the results of the dialogue in Sucre and announced that the would either march or go on strike this coming Monday (Aug. 16).

Oruro threatens to destabilize the government

The Secretary General of the Autonomous Government of Oruro, Edgar Sánchez, warned yesterday that if Oruro's representative and civic organizations mobilize in defense of this department's borders, President Evo Morales' administration would be destabilized.

Sánchez stated to the media that they hope the border dispute with Potosí will be solved with justice; otherwise, Oruro will begin its own measures to put pressure on the government. "If Oruro mobilizes, we really will destabilize the Government," he said. The Oruro Civic Committee gave the government time over the weekend to find a solution to the border conflict "otherside, as of this coming Monday Oruro will also begin to take measures to apply pressure," warned Civic Committee Chairman, Lino Rocha Céspedes.

The Oruro leader also repudiated the inhuman attitude of Potosí civic leaders, stating that in applying their radical measures they have not measured the negative consequences they will have on their department, especially since in practice, they have 'kidnapped' the over 100 tourists who are stranded in Potosí, by not allowing them to leave.

106 hunger strikers require medical attention

As this indefinite stoppage enters its 16th day, and hunger strikes in Potosí enter their 7th day, 106 people have already been removed from the strikes and hospitalized. Local hospitals don't have the medications they need to treat victims. There are over 100 separate hunger strikes in various points of Potosí. Among those hospitalized in the governor of Potosí, Félix Gonzáles.

70% of Potosí voted for Evo Morales

Potosí locals announced they will radicalize their measures with massive crucifixions "if President Evo Morales continues to show himself insensitive" and if he continues to refuse to participate in the dialogue in Potosí, and if he continues to choose other activities rather than attending to the demands of the people of Potosí.

"It can't be possible that the people that voted for Evo should now have to suffer the arrogance of the government and its ministers who won't respond to our demands. If you want deaths, there will be deaths," said Silvio Fernández, a supporter of the mobilizations.

Potosí, is one of President Morales' M.A.S. party strongholds. Over 70% of Potosí voted for Evo Morales during December 2009 presidential elections.

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