The Miami Herald
Tue, May. 04, 2004

In Bolivia, strike fails to shut down the nation

A strike called by labor unions and Aymara Indians failed to paralyze Bolivia, as government leaders call the public's reaction `a clear rejection.'


LA PAZ - A national strike called for this week began with a whimper Monday, providing a short-term boost for Bolivias beleaguered President Carlos Mesa.

The Bolivian Workers Union and a contingent of Aymara Indians managed to march through downtown La Paz at noontime, forcing the diversion of traffic, but that was a far cry from the strikes original goal of shutting down the capital and the two-lane highways leading into it.

''The publics response has been a clear rejection,'' Foreign Minister Juan Ignacio Siles told The Herald. ``A strike only creates uncertainty and a lack of confidence in the countrys future. People want to work in peace and tranquility. The extremists dont have much support.''


President Mesa declared Monday a holiday to diminish the strikes potential impact, although the stated reason was that doing so compensated for Labor Day falling on a Saturday.

Nonetheless, it seems clear that the leftist workers and Aymarans, who were at the vanguard of the street protests in October that toppled Mesas predecessor, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, have far less political strength today.

''Theres not a single, concrete objective that allows the different opposition sectors to rally behind,'' said Alvaro García, a leftist sociologist. ``This government still has public support. It still has legitimacy.''

Mesa is a historian and political independent who had never held office previously, a plus in a country distrustful of politicians.

''Sánchez de Lozada counted on the support of the political parties -- he had a congressional majority -- but didnt have the support of the public,'' Siles said.

''Mesa has no allies in Congress but counts on 70 percent popularity. Its a paradox,'' he said.

Jaime Solares, the Communist leader of the workers union, vowed to continue the strike and predicted that it would gain strength.

Siles predicted otherwise. ''The public understands that no one other than Mesa could overcome the current crisis,'' he said.


Bolivia is virtually bankrupt these days, having to depend on foreign governments for handouts to meet its bills, despite huge natural gas reserves.

Whether to tap the reserves for export continues to polarize the country.

Supporters say it offers the only hope to create jobs and reduce the huge budget deficit and that only a fraction of the reserves are needed for domestic consumption.

Opponents say the gas exports will help only foreign companies and that the gas instead should be used to help rural farm laborers who still cook over wood fires.

Mesa has called a July 18 referendum to settle the question. His government could fall if it loses the vote.

Some 3,000 protesters -- accompanied by men playing Andean horns known as pututus and women shooting off firecrackers -- carried banners and marched into downtown La Paz from El Alto, the city on the plain above this bowl-shaped city.

The marchers passed a downtown movie theater that remained open.

''We have to work,'' said Guido Lazo, the theater's manager. ``If we dont work, well never move forward.''