Protests intensify in Bolivia over fuel prices increase

Protests against a sharp increase in fuel prices intensified and turned violent in Bolivia on Thursday, as thousands of demonstrators demanded President Evo Morales’ government repeal the hike.

Demonstrators filled the streets in La Paz and other cities to protest the higher prices, which were announced suddenly on Sunday. Gasoline prices immediately soared by 73 percent and diesel prices went up by 83 percent, leading to a rapid increases in transport and food prices in the Andean country.

Some demanded the resignation of Morales, a close ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. It has been the most unpopular measure of Morales’ five-year presidency.

Taxi drivers held a strike that largely paralyzed La Paz on Thursday, and protests were also held in the cities of Cochabamba, Santa Cruz, Potosi and Oruro.

The march in the capital began peacefully but clashes with police erupted when demonstrators tried to enter the main plaza where the government palace is located. Police used tear gas to disperse the protesters, who hurled stones at officers, the vice presidential office, a union headquarters and two ministry buildings.

In El Alto, a city neighboring the capital, demonstrators set afire a car and toll booths. People lined a bridge while protesters raised fists demanding the measure be repealed.

Interior Minister Sacha Llorenti said disturbances in La Paz, El Alto and Cochabamba left 15 police officers injured, two seriously. A group of protesters burned a Venezuelan flag.

“We make a call for calm, for tranquility; there are police on patrol to guarantee security,” Llorenti told a news conference.

Fuel prices had been frozen for six years, but the government said it could no longer afford to subsidize them, especially since much is smuggled across the border to neighboring countries.

Responding to the protests, Morales’ government has announced steps aimed at mitigating the economic effects — including 20 percent salary increases for public workers aimed at offsetting higher fuel prices. The government also announced new assistance to rice, corn and wheat farmers intended to increase production and bring down prices.

Demonstrators have called their protest the “gasolinazo.”

Neighborhood protest leader Claudio Luna said in La Paz that the government’s “message hasn’t met the expectations of the population, and for that reason we’re going to continue the protests.” He said demonstrators want prices lowered back to their former levels.

Bus drivers have also held sporadic protests this week, demanding the government further increase fares. Authorities ordered raises of 60 to 80 percent in public transport fares, but bus drivers argue that isn’t enough to offset the higher costs.

Food prices have also risen 15 percent in subsidized government markets, but that remained much less than in private supermarkets. People seeking bargains lined up at a state-run food store in La Paz on Thursday.

Morales, meanwhile, said in a news conference that he is inviting advisers from Paraguay’s government to help formulate additional measures to lessen the blow of eliminating fuel subsidies.

Source: AP

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