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Cochabamba social unrest of 2007


The Cochabamba social unrest of 2007 is an event in Bolivia. The policies of the socialist President Evo Morales had caused many politicians in other political parties to speak out openly against his goals. Especially notable among them is the Governor of Cochabamba Manfred Reyes Villa. The governor's opposition to Morales' policies angered the President's supporters, and early in 2007 demonstrations in Cochabamba escalated into violence.

Reyes Villa and Morales

The pro-autonomy Governor Manfred Reyes Villa of Cochabamba Department (which is "a geographic and cultural bridge between the pro-autonomy lowlands and Morales' Andean base") has been a major opponent of Morales' policies. Reyes Villa is "a former presidential candidate still widely considered to harbor national political ambitions". While Reyes Villa is one of Morales' most outspoken political opponents, Morales is still very popular with many in the region because of his leading protests of coca leaf growers (he was once the head of Cochabamba's coca growers confederation).

In December 2006, Reyes Villa denounced Morales position on the assembly rewriting Bolivias constitution. He maintained that each of the new charters articles should be written by two-thirds of the assemblys delegates, while Morales, (whose MAS party holds just over half of the seats) holds that the document should be written by a simple majority of the delegates with only the final draft being held to a two-thirds nation-wide vote.

Also in December, Reyes Villa called for Cochabamba to hold a second referendum to give Bolivias nine states greater autonomy from the central government. The first referendum was defeated in July 2006 with Cochabamba, and five western highland states rejecting the measure, while the four eastern lowland states favored it. Reyes Villa claims that the measure was only defeated before because the Morales government misled voters, saying "People thought autonomy meant you would need a passport to travel from one province to another."

Demonstrations mount

Reyes Villa's political resistance to Morales' policies caused demonstrators demanding his resignation to pack the tree-lined central plaza of the city of Cochabamba several times in December 2006 and January 2007. In early January 2007 his opposition led the "peasant movements supporters of President Morales to block roads and move into Cochabamba province attacking elected authorities."

Tear-gas and Fires

Angry over Reyes Villa's resistance to Morales' policies on January 10, 2007 demonstrators took control of the regional capitol building. When police tried to disperse the crowd by using tear-gas, the demonstrators set fire to its historic heavy wooden doors and allowed the blaze to spread "charring furniture and destroying some government records." Two nearby parked cars were also set on fire. Protestors also threw stones at the police and rolled flaming tires into the nearby police station. Bolivian media reported that 22 were injured in the protest, several of them journalist covering the event. Morales' cabinet called the police response excessive, and fired the newly appointed state police commander who had only assumed the office two hours beforehand. Government Minister Alicia Munoz, said "we will not permit any more acts of violence or acts of repression against the social sectors who, in this case, were demonstrating peacefully." She asserted that Reyes Villa had no right to call out the police and that he had done so as part of a conspiracy, "When a minister is in charge, a prefect cant give orders There can be no repression; you cant use the police to provoke social movements."

Resignation demanded, violence escalates

On January 11, 2007 in an unsuccessful attempt to "force Reyes out of office and instill a 'revolutionary committee' headed by an ex-guerrilla leader once known as Comandante Loro -- Commander Parrot", demonstrators opposed to Reyes Villa "Wielding guns, sticks and machetes" fought with the governor's supporters . Over 100 people were wounded and two were slain in the violence. Morales sent in police and soldiers to end the violence.

Aftermath

Morales blamed the bloodshed on Reyes Villa accusing him of supporting "separatism in Bolivia". Morales called for calm and for his supporters not to seek revenge for the slain demonstrator, saying "It's not about humiliating anyone, or about winning against anyone, it's about finding solutions through dialogue." Morales accused Reyes Villa of corruption and violating human rights. He proposed a "people's law" that "would allow him to call for a public vote to remove Reyes Villa." Reyes Villa declared that he would not resign. Reyes Villa accused Morales of undermining democracy, saying "They're trying to impose a totalitarian regime. Democracy has taken a blow in Cochabamba." Morales' call for calm did prevent further violence, but the passion of supporters of his policies was still high. This can be seen in a statement by Omar Fernandez, a coca growers' leader, "If Bolivia's elites want more people to die, then more people will die. But we want a united Bolivia, not one divided like this country's oligarchy wants." The situation reminded the governor of La Paz, Jose Luis Paredes, of the days of the Luis Garcia Meza Tejada military dictatorship (when his opposition was told to carry their wills with them), Luis Paredes said "Things are so bad now that the governors have to carry their wills under their arms."

On the central government and the police

The Morales administration's critique of the police during these events is seen as am mark of further polarization in the country. The forces of the military are increasingly seen as loyal only to the central government, who enacted "broad concessions granted to the armed forces, including [in 2006] the largest salary raise given to any group for the military officer corps." That same year no raises were given to local police. The governor's of the regions have "been reaching out to the police, both out of a true need to address citizen security issues, and as a way to curry their favor to strengthen their positions." In the past the governors always held control over local police action, but as they were (until 2005) appointed by the President, this had never been an issue before.

Signs of flexibility on the Constitutional issue

On January 24, 2007 the Bolivian Senate broke a deadlock and elected Jose Villavicencio (the lone Senator of the National Unity Party) as its president by a 15-12 vote. This unseated a close ally of Morales. With the loss of control of the Senate, Morales has backed down from his position that a simple majority of assembly members should determine the wording of individual articles in the new Constitution . As a compromise measure with those in the opposition, like Reyes Villa, Morales called for any issue that can not be resolved with a two-thirds vote in the Constituent Assembly should be put before the people in a referendum, saying "Let the people decide with their vote, without fear." The 12 senators of Morales' Movement Toward Socialism voted as a block. Besides the MAS and Villavicencio of the National Unity Party, the Senate consists of one member of the National Revolutionary Movement, and 13 members of the Social Democratic Power party (Podemos). The head of Podemos former President Jorge Quiroga praised Morales' suggestion, saying "It's an important advance. It's a sign of flexibility." On February 8, 2007 MAS announced that with the support of 18 members of the Podemos that they had reached the two-thirds requirement for their policy and objectives in the Constituent Assembly.

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