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Bolivia: opposition demands release of leader with blockades

A group of people arrive in Santa Cruz walking through roadblocks set up by protesters to protest against the imprisonment of opposition leader and Santa Cruz Governor Luis Fernando Camacho, on the outskirts of Santa Cruz, Bolivia, on January 3, 2023. (AP Photo/Juan Karita)
A group of people arrive in Santa Cruz walking through roadblocks set up by protesters to protest against the imprisonment of opposition leader and Santa Cruz Governor Luis Fernando Camacho, on the outskirts of Santa Cruz, Bolivia, on January 3, 2023. (AP Photo/Juan Karita)

SAN CARLOS, Bolivia (AP) — On the outskirts of Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s most populous city, the highway begins to resemble a parking lot with dozens of trucks laden with goods standing in a long line while their exhausted drivers wait to the side. of the way Some of them hang wet clothes from the windows.

Vehicles cannot move due to large mounds of sand piled up on the road as it passes through the town of San Carlos, 110 kilometers (68 miles) from Santa Cruz. Only motorcycles carrying passengers circulate between the mounds.

The measure is intended to make the government realize that it cannot live without Santa Cruz, according to Micol Paz, a 32-year-old activist with Creemos, the party of Santa Cruz region governor Luis Fernando Camacho.

Camacho, the country’s most prominent opposition leader, was arrested in December on terrorism charges, sparking a series of protests in this eastern region, Bolivia’s economic powerhouse and agricultural center. Roadblocks to demand their release, like the one in San Carlos, have wreaked havoc on the distribution chain, skyrocketed prices and aggravated tensions between the leftist government in the capital, La Paz, and the right-wing opposition in Santa Cross.

Camacho’s arrest stems from the mobilizations that led to the resignation of then-President Evo Morales in 2019. Morales’s party, which has returned to power, accuses the governor of orchestrating protests that it describes as a coup. Those riots caused 37 deaths.

Camacho’s supporters maintain that the protests were a legitimate response to a rigged election intended to keep Morales in power and that his arrest amounts to kidnapping.

The governor, who came third in the 2020 presidential elections, is in a maximum security prison on the outskirts of La Paz after a judge ordered his preventive detention for four months, agreeing with the prosecution that there was a risk of flight.

Caught in the middle of the dispute are truckers and consumers affected by rising prices.

Edgar Quispe Solares, 47, was visibly angry sitting in the semi-trailer in which he transports cars. He said they had been without basic services for a week, without being able to bathe or shop, as he watched anxiously as activists prepare to move the barricade to a nearby town, an indication that he could move his truck for the first time in eight days.

Rómulo Calvo, head of the powerful Santa Cruz Civic Committee that called for the blockades, said that while the protests should continue until Camacho’s release, he could not guarantee that would actually happen.

The actions will continue as long as those carrying them out go ahead, said Calvo, who acknowledged exhaustion after a 36-day strike against the government last fall to demand a national census that could bring more tax revenue and legislative representation to the region.

Santa Cruz plays a key role in the Bolivian economy: it represents around a third of its economic activity and produces 70% of the country’s food.

“Santa Cruz is a fundamental bastion of the Bolivian economy and that is why it has the power to exert muscle against the government,” said Jaime Dunn, an economic analyst in La Paz.

It is difficult to quantify the direct economic effect of the mobilizations, partly because some trucks manage to circumvent the blockades.

“The impact will not necessarily be monetized in terms of quantities, but it will be in prices and in the decrease in Central Bank reserves,” Dunn added.

In the markets of the capital, customers are scarce. The price of chicken has skyrocketed 29% while that of beef has risen 8% since the start of the blockade, according to Marina Quisbert, leader of a group of butchers from Mercado Rodríguez.

But it’s not just the meat. The same thing happens with vegetables, and what used to cost 100 pesos now costs 120, said Rubén Mendoza, a 65-year-old retired teacher.

The government of leftist President Luis Arce has downplayed the economic repercussions of the blockade. Economy Minister Marcelo Montenegro told reporters this week that prices have risen due to “speculation and price gouging.”

Amid debate over the economic consequences of the protests, thousands of people took to the streets in the capitals of eight of the country’s nine regions on Tuesday to demand the release of Camacho and other imprisoned opposition leaders. There were also smaller countermobilizations in favor of his arrest.

Karine Flores, a 49-year-old executive assistant who protested in Santa Cruz, said she feels uncertain and helpless. “We can all go to jail because we don’t agree with the government,” she added.

Some have spoken out against the agents confronting the dissatisfied in the frequent nightly demonstrations in downtown Santa Cruz.

“They send the police to fire tear gas at us,” said Pablo Vaca, a 37-year-old vendor.

The Arce executive accused those who participate in these calls of fomenting violence and burning public vehicles and offices.

There are also those who, despite agreeing with the goal of the protests, said the blockades go too far, such as Elvis Velázquez, a doctor who lives near San Carlos and works in Yapacaní, about 40 miles (65 kilometers) away.

The roadblocks, which affect their daily lives, “are not productive because they paralyze us as citizens,” Velázquez said as he hurried to board a van for his office after crossing the barricade on foot.

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Associated Press writer Paola Flores contributed to this report from La Paz, Bolivia.

Supporters of opposition leader and Santa Cruz Governor Luis Fernando Camacho protest at a burning barricade, in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, on January 3, 2023. (AP Photo/Juan Karita)
Supporters of opposition leader and Santa Cruz Governor Luis Fernando Camacho protest at a burning barricade, in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, on January 3, 2023. (AP Photo/Juan Karita)
Supporters of opposition leader and Santa Cruz Governor Luis Fernando Camacho kneel during a protest at a barricade, in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, on Jan. 3, 2023. (AP Photo/Juan Karita)
Supporters of opposition leader and Santa Cruz Governor Luis Fernando Camacho kneel during a protest at a barricade, in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, on Jan. 3, 2023. (AP Photo/Juan Karita)

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