Thousands of Bolivians heeded the call of trade unions for a 48-hour general strike Feb. 17-18, to demand the resignation of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. They were protesting the government’s handling of the country’s worsening economic crisis, and protesting the deaths of at least 22 people in protests last week.
The entire cabinet resigned on Feb. 18 as a result, and the president was expected to announce a new cabinet later in the day.
The farmers and trade unionists gathered in La Paz’s downtown Plaza San Francisco at the call of the Central Bolivian Workers Union – the country’s largest labor organization. They denounced the military’s use of force during a protest by thousands of police. The officers, who are seeking a 40 percent pay raise, had walked off the job over an unpopular tax plan the government sought to implement under pressure from the International Monetary Fund.
Evo Morales, the indigenous leader who forced Lozada into a runoff in last year’s elections, called on farmers and peasants to join the strike. “We will march until the president resigns,” he said.
Bolivia’s budget deficit reached 8.5 percent last year, but international lenders are demanding it be cut to 5.5 percent before they will provide bridging loans.
Though Bolivia was the first South American country to adopt IMF and U.S.-sponsored free-market reforms, the measures have met with great resistance.
Three years ago an IMF program to privatize water utilities – selling them to a foreign firm – brought on violent protests in which five were killed and 30 injured. The contract with Britain’s International Waters was cancelled after three months.
Lozada claimed the tax increases were unavoidable to cut the deficit. But the protests forced him to cancel the increases and give the police a raise. On Monday, during the protests, Lozada was reported to have met with top aides to try to identify other ways to cut costs – among them a reduction in the number of cabinet positions and tightening staff expenses.
Six out of 10 Bolivians are poverty-stricken, and in rural areas, nine of 10 are poor.