In Cochabamba, class, race and urban or rural residency now define more than political affiliation —they also determine the blunt instruments you take to protests. Social groups supporting MAS continue to carry sticks, two by fours and a few machetes in the main plaza.
In contrast, MAS opponents marched today with baseball bats, lead pipes, billy clubs and even a hockey stick. Although there were no major confrontations, this new dynamic suggests an almost inevitable escalation of the week-long conflict.
A day of relative calm followed the most dramatic clashes yet between protestors and police in Cochabamba on Monday, January 8. Social groups supporting MAS have blockaded all the major roads outside Cochabamba, demanding the Cochabamba governor’s resignation and within the city; protestors have formed a "union police" security ring around the city’s main plaza. The "union police are members of campesino organizations who usually act as an internal monitoring group for meetings, protests and marches. In this case, they have formed a barrier between the police and the people apparently to prevent further confrontations, which the protestors claim were produced on January 8 by "infiltrators," or undercover agents hired by the opposition, to instigate violence. The new social movement security could actually lessen the possibility of further clashes, but it has been interpreted as an affront by urban residents, who feel like the regular police have been blocked, and now the unions have even greater authority.
On January 9, members of the irrigation union (regantes) threatened to permanently turn off the water supply to Cochabamba, but then backed down after shutting off the city’s water valves for several hours. The departmental Prefecture is pressing charges against the protestors, who burned part of the prefecture’s office on Monday, and is also demanding the resignation of MAS Senator Omar Fernandez (who is also head of the regantes) for alleged direct participation in the protests.
The police office of professional responsibility, the equivalent of an office of internal affairs, has initiated an investigation of Monday’s events and has reinstated the Cochabamba Police Commander Obleas, at least until the inquest concludes. The Bolivian mainstream press interpreted this decision as executive slap on the hand for Minister Munoz after the rash firing. The police force has officially promised to obey the dictates of the central government, but there have been complaints from officers of a lack of institutional respect for untenable conditions for the force as well as unsubstantiated rumors of possible strikes or insubordination.
Initial attempts at dialogue between Cochabamba’s Prefect (like a state governor) Manfred Reyes Villa and the central government failed and both sides remain firmly entrenched in the positions. Minister of the Presidency, Juan Ramon Quintana traveled to Cochabamba on January 10 to continue negotiations. Reyes Villa refuses to back down from the proposed referendum on autonomy which supposedly has been approved by the electoral court. While the Prefect legally has a right to call for a department-wide referendum, this appears to be a tactical move to heighten regional tensions and gain middle and upper class support. The department voted down the legally binding national referendum on autonomy in June 2005 with the details to be determined by the Constituent Assembly. Assembly proceedings continue to be bogged down in entrenched procedural debates. Autonomy proponents in Cochabamba, and the lowland departments that approved the initiatives in the referendum, threatened to declare autonomy on their own terms in mid-December. Lowland Prefects from Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija took out a full-page ad in major newspapers demanding an end to "state terrorism."
Although the Catholic Church and human rights organizations have urged all parties to seek productive solutions, polarization, insults and inflexibility continue to reign.
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Photo Credit: Emily Becker