(IPS) – It wasn’t easy to get to the Bolivian city of Riberalta from Brazil. The adventurous journey included potholes on the Brazilian highway, a rickety boat that ferried us across the Mamoré – the border river – and an unnerving ride on a motorcycle taxi. But the biggest complication was the roadblocks.
On Apr. 14, a week-long strike by teachers and other government employees in Bolivia took a radical turn, when the strikers blocked streets in major cities and highways across the country, demanding a raise.
Leftwing President Evo Morales, who used to organise roadblocks as the head of the largest coca growers union, thus got a taste of his own medicine.
“Evo taught us to put up roadblocks,” said Nacira Limpias, a rural schoolteacher who with dozens of her colleagues closed the road a few kilometres outside Guayaramerín in the northern department (province) of Beni, on the Bolivia-Brazil border.
We were planning to attend a workshop for journalists about the Cachuela Esperanza hydroelectric project, a meeting organised by the Centre for Applied Studies on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CEADESC) and the Bolivian Confederation of Press Worker Unions (CSTPB) which was scheduled to start at 7:30 PM local time in the Bolivian town of Riberalta.
According to the bus company, it would only be possible to drive to Riberalta after 6:00 PM, the time the Guayaramerín strikers had announced the roadblock would be lifted for the night.
The three of us hoping to participate in the workshop, who found ourselves trapped in Guayaramerín – this correspondent, lawmaker Juan Carlos Ojopi and engineer Walter Justiniano, who was to give one of the presentations – decided to hire a taxi, and leave just before 6:00 PM, to drive on to Riberalta as soon as the traffic blockade had been cleared away.
But the teachers in Riberalta, 93 kilometres west of Guayaramerín, decided to block traffic through the night, using their motorcycles and piled-up tree trunks. So although we made good time on the road from Guayaramerín, which was unpaved but in decent condition, our journey came to an abrupt halt at Riberalta.
We got around the problem by leaving our taxi, walking through the roadblock and taking another car, sent from Riberalta, on the other side. The saga was repeated in reverse the following day, when we had to return to Guayaramerín for the second part of the workshop. Although we started out early, before traffic had been blocked again in Riberalta, the way was barred again at Guayaramerín.
The teachers’ base salary of 1,200 bolivianos (170 dollars) a month “is not enough to eat on,” Limpias complained.
(Since Morales first took office in 2006, the overall minimum salary has nearly doubled, from 62 to 114 dollars a month.)
After five days of roadblocks and protests, the government offered some categories of government employees a pay increase of 12 percent, agreed by negotiation with the Bolivian Workers’ Federation (COB). Teachers were demanding 15 percent, but agreed to suspend industrial action for the time being, while reserving the option of resuming it later on.
There are 120,000 teachers in Bolivia, the vast majority of whom are women. In Guayaramerín there are nearly 1,000, of whom 165 teach in rural schools, according to Castulia Solares, a member of the strike committee who has put her post as head teacher at risk by taking on the leadership of the local movement.
Climbing the teaching career ladder depends on passing “complex exams,” but even if one succeeds in reaching the top of the scale, the pay is only double the entry level salary for novice teachers, Solares said. There is no recognition or reward for the effort teachers put into acquiring additional qualifications, such as earning a university degree, she complained.
Teachers at rural schools, who have their own trade union, earn a little more and get transport expenses, because “conditions in the countryside are such that one cannot live there,” said Francisco Noza, who chose this profession because he “was aware of the needs of children in rural areas.”
Inflation has decimated teachers’ pay, which is why roadblocks have become more frequent than at any time in the last 12 years, he said. Furthermore, teachers are angry at “President Evo’s false promises,” such as to provide every teacher with a computer, and increase salaries.
In Noza’s view, women provide the majority of the workforce in education and in “many Bolivian institutions, because of the wars that took place in the past and migration abroad,” both of which affect men to a greater extent.
Brazilian dam in Bolivia
The Cachuela Esperanza hydroelectric project on the Beni river, 44 kilometres from Guayaramerín, could be another instance of the boomerang effect felt by Morales in the roadblock campaign launched by the unions.
A study commissioned by the Bolivian government from TECSULT, a Canadian engineering consultancy, indicates that the most profitable course of action would be to export all the electricity produced at Cachuela to Brazil, and use the revenue to purchase diesel fuel for the thermoelectric power plants that currently supply the project’s area of influence, including the towns of Cobija, Guayaramerín and Riberalta.
Clearly, the dam will only be viable if virtually all the electricity produced is sold to the huge Brazilian market. Total domestic demand for electricity in Bolivia is only slightly higher than Cachuela Esperanza’s projected 990 megawatt capacity, and the three nearest municipalities consume less than 20 megawatts in total.
Other large markets for energy in Bolivia, like Trinidad, the capital of Beni, are at least 1,000 kilometres away, and the cost of building transmission lines would be prohibitive.
In effect, therefore, the hydroelectric project would be a Brazilian utility located on Bolivian soil. In all probability its execution and finance, as well as its consumer market, will be Brazilian.
This is tantamount to renouncing Bolivia’s “energy sovereignty,” said Justiniano, an engineer working as an independent consultant with the Ministry of the Environment and Water.
This view could carry a great deal of weight in this country, where oil and gas were nationalised in 2006 with massive popular support. The nationalistic pride fostered by Morales at that time may backfire now against the plan to build a hydroelectric plant that will be largely controlled by a foreign power.
Organisations like the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Eastern Bolivia (CIDOB) have also protested the environmental impact that the dam will have.
Brazil, threat or opportunity
Along the border, Brazil’s overwhelming economic power is palpable everywhere, and can be seen as a threat or as an opportunity.
The real, Brazil’s monetary unit, is worth four bolivianos, the Bolivian currency, on the streets and in the shops, but the official exchange rate is 4.40 bolivianos to the real. By a 2008 law, teachers in Brazil won a salary floor equivalent – as it happens – to 4.4 times the remuneration of their Bolivian colleagues.
The economic disparity is boosting trade in Guayaramerín, where Brazilian buyers flock daily to the shops, even though the legal limit to cross-border purchases is 300 dollars a month.
José Rodrigues, a Brazilian, came with his wife to a Guayaramerín hospital for a free cataract operation, performed by Cuban doctors. He regrets not being able to buy a motorcycle in Bolivia to take home with him, because the cost is three times higher in Brazil.
But the clothing and other goods he is buying on the Bolivian side, to sell in his home town of Cerejeiras, will earn him enough to pay for his trip.
The fare on the ferry across the Mamoré river from the Brazilian side is double the fare from the Bolivian side, and the crossing also offers eye-opening social contrasts.
Motorcycles abound in the streets of Bolivia: whole families, including babes in arms, ride around freely with no helmets in evidence, whereas in Brazil, helmets are compulsory and failure to use them is penalised by a heavy fine.
However, the many motorbike accidents that are constantly and tragically increasing in number in Brazil, do not occur in Bolivia. According to Bolivians, the slow speed of local traffic explains the difference. They regard motorcycles as a cheap and practical form of transport, whereas Brazilians like to go fast and get ahead of the cars, in solid jams in the streets, by weaving dangerously in and out between them.