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Bolivian anti-government blocs have entered their second week amid escalating political tensions, violent confrontations and government allegations that protesters are causing deaths by stopping deliveries from reaching coronavirus patients.
The protests deepen the crisis as a nation already struggling to cope with a pandemic that officials say has so far killed more than 3,700 people and infected more than 91,600.
The highway blockades are being organized by unions along with rural and indigenous groups affiliated with the Socialist Party by the ousted former President Evo Morales.
Last week, they launched an open campaign of strikes, marches and barricades in an attempt to pressure Bolivia’s unelected interim government to hold presidential elections after the election authorities twice postponed them, citing coronavirus.
Bolivia has become increasingly polarized since November, when Morales, its first domestic president, was ousted after nearly 14 years in power amid mass protests and still controversial allegations of electoral fraud. An interim government took over and promised that new elections would take place two months later, in January. Under the constitution, the presidency fell to Jeanine Áñez, a conservative Christian senator from a smaller right-wing party.
Bolivia’s electoral authorities have announced that voting will now continue on October 18, but this failed to allay the opposition’s suspicions that Áñez and her ministers are trying to stay in power indefinitely, or at least buy time to unite the divided right wing. The opposition protest movement demands that the elections take place on a previously agreed date, 6 September.
“We have a government that is illegal because we have not elected it,” said Heidi Motiño, 22, an accounting student who took part in protests in El Alto, the city bordering the administrative capital of La Paz.
“Many of us know the risk [voting] means because of the pandemic, “she tells NPR,” but we want to hold elections … We can no longer stand it. “
The Bolivian government has accused protesters of causing the deaths of at least 30 COVID-19 victims by blocking vehicles transporting oxygen and other emergency supplies to hospitals.
On Monday, it instructed police and the military to secure the passage of these supplies, although blockade organizers say they have already allowed medical supplies to pass through their barricades.
Pictures have surfaced on social media of sporadic clashes involving police and protesters and also pro-government and pro-opposition paramilitary groups.
Some in the opposition ranks demand that Áñez resign immediately, as they accuse him of missing Bolivia’s pandemic response.
The pandemic has overwhelmed much of the country’s health system. Two weeks ago, according to Reuters, Bolivian police revealed that since April, they have collected more than 3,300 organs from homes or public places in La Paz and El Alto. They said that 80% of those whose bodies they picked up are believed to have had COVID-19.
Áñez’s critics accuse her of exceeding her mandate – which was mainly to organize new elections – and of leading a government that has committed widespread human rights abuses.
A six-month study by Harvard Law Schools International Human Rights Clinic and the University Network for Human Rights concluded that Bolivia has seen “an increase in human rights violations” since taking office. They said this included deadly “state-sponsored violence, restrictions on freedom of expression and arbitrary detention.”
President Áñez initially said she would not run in the election, but later changed her mind. An opinion poll in July showed a narrow lead for the candidate from Morale’s socialist movement, Luis Arce, by 24%, followed by former president Carlos Mesa at 20%. Áñez had 16%.
Morales himself has sought refuge in Argentina and claims that he was the victim of a coup. The Áñez administration accuses him of sedition and treason and says he has orchestrated anti-government demonstrations in Bolivia.
But this week, he publicly called for dialogue and suggested that those behind the blockade protests consider accepting the October 18 election.