Bolivia: Strike paralyses Santa Cruz department for over a month
#CIDH y @RELE_CIDH llaman a propiciar un diálogo efectivo para prevenir la violencia en contextos de protestas sociales en #Bolivia. #DerechosHumanos https://t.co/Bs63hbh3ER pic.twitter.com/kP4QnN265E— CIDH - IACHR (@CIDH) November 3, 2022
From 22nd October 2022, civilian groups in the Santa Cruz department launched an indefinite strike against the postponement of a population and housing census. As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, these groups argue that outdated data impacts the country’s development planning and budget allocation. The census results also determine the allocation of seats in Bolivia’s parliament, and it is expected that the next census will show a significant growth in the population of Santa Cruz. The Pro-Santa Cruz Civic Committee, a conservative group convening the strike, has claimed that the delay is politically motivated.
One person was killed on the first day of the strike in Puerto Quijarro, which saw clashes between strike supporters and groups aligned with Bolivia’s central government and governing party Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS). Over the following weeks, strikers blocked roads around the department to demand that the census be held in 2023. Throughout the period, there were several reports of violence taking place between those supporting the strike and groups opposing it. There were cases of attacks on civil society organisations and journalists, which are detailed in the ‘Association’ and ‘Expression’ section of this report. On 2nd November 2022, at least eight people were detained after clashes between protesters and police in La Guardia.
Violence escalated on 11th November 2022, as these groups clashed after MAS supporters organised a counter-march against the strike. As reported by news outlet DW, some of the pro-MAS demonstrators carried sticks to unblock the points that had been closed off by strikers for several days, and there are allegations that they assaulted strikers and the media. Both sides set tyres on fire and threw stones and firecrackers at each other, leading the police to intervene with tear gas. On Twitter, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) condemned violent incidents and called on all those protesting to avoid violence. The government reported that at least four people were killed and 170 people injured in 23 days of the strike.
On 25th November 2022, the strike came to an end after lawmakers approved a census law guaranteeing that a population census will be held in March 2024, which will enable the use of updated population data to define congressional seats. The legal guarantee was negotiated as a condition for the end of the strike.
Civil society groups affected by strike in Santa Cruz
#Alerta Organizaciones, redes, colectivos y activistas de la sociedad civil condenan ataques amenazas contra la Casa de la Mujer en el contexto del paro cívico en Santa Cruz. Demandan garantías para el trabajo de defensa de #DDHH pic.twitter.com/rueSGVw9vh— Fundación CONSTRUIR (@fconstruir) November 9, 2022
On 9th November 2022, staff of the women’s rights organisation Casa de la Mujer were harassed because the organisation did not adhere to the departmental strike. Casa de la Mujer is a feminist organisation which, among other things, provides safe houses for women experiencing situations of violence. When staff arrived at the organisation’s shelter in Santa Cruz with a victim of violence, they were met with strike supporters who had covered the area with ropes. After members of the organisation cleared the area they were insulted by the strikers, who also threatened to surround the institution and take over their office. One woman human rights defender was attacked.
The Ombudsperson’s Office later intervened and strike supporters said they would allow entrance into Casa de la Mujer’s office for four hours a day. However, attacks on the group continued. At one point, about 50 men reportedly stationed themselves in front of the office, threw firecrackers at the building and shouted at the workers. “We cannot abide by any strike. The ethics and commitment we have to defend women’s freedom and human rights, as well as the best interests of the victims to have access to public services, cannot be further restricted,” said Ana Paola García, the group’s director. She said the strike has affected care services for women in Santa Cruz, and that the groups organising the strike are associated with the far-right and have not respected the need to continue providing urgent care.
In another, separate case, on 11th November 2022 the offices of campesino trade union CSUTCB in Santa Cruz were torched by supporters of the Civic Committee’s strike. The fire severely damaged the office, affecting furniture and other materials. The demonstrators also raided the building, removing some objects such as flags and documents. Police used tear gas to disperse the demonstrators. Offices of departmental labour union COD were also attacked. Several people were detained for these attacks.
On 11th November 2022, a workshop for Indigenous land defenders in La Paz was interrupted by members of a mining cooperative who entered the meeting and created unease among the attendees. About eight miners with the 28 de Octubre cooperative attempted to join working groups that were taking place but were quickly identified by the people present. Indigenous groups said this was an attempt to intimidate leaders from Valle de Zongo, where Indigenous communities have mobilised against mining contamination for over 20 years. “We asked them to leave, because they came to scare people, to intimidate them,” said an Indigenous leader who was present. Land defenders in Valle de Zongo have reported facing intimidation and judicial harassment for exposing abuses and pollution resulting from mining.
Separately, during a national meeting of civil society groups in November 2022, organisations in Bolivia created a National Committee to advocate for a public policy for the protection of human rights defenders. Currently Bolivia lacks a framework establishing guidelines and mechanisms to ensure the State fulfills its obligations to respect, protect and provide guarantees for the work of defenders and civil society organisations. The national meeting gathered over 130 human rights defenders from every department of the country.
Condenamos la violenta agresión contra Mario Rocabado, periodista de @unitelbolivia, durante el enfrentamiento en el municipio #LaGuardia; exigimos al #MinisterioPúblico una pronta investigación para sancionar este hecho y el robo de sus pertenencias que habría sufrido. pic.twitter.com/mQTi9F7cX1— Defensoría del Pueblo Bolivia (@DPBoliviaOf) November 2, 2022
On 2nd November 2022, a reporter and a camera operator with Unitel were attacked while covering the Santa Cruz departmental strike in the municipality of La Guardia. Mario Alberto Rocabado Román and Enrique Sánchez were reportedly beaten and attacked with sticks and stones. While Sánchez was able to get away, Rocabado was severely beaten and had his wallet and two mobile phones stolen. He ended up with multiple bruises, and fractures to two fingers and an ankle. While there were police officers nearby, they allegedly did not intervene and refused to provide help to Rocabado. The Bolivian Press Association (ANP) called this attack an “attempted lynching.” Two people were later detained in connection with the assault.
On 3rd November 2022, journalists from Santa Cruz de la Sierra protested against attacks on members of the press covering the strike in the Santa Cruz department. They called on police to speed up investigations on the attacks that took place, including the serious assault on journalist Mario Rocabado of Unitel. The ANP registered four separate attacks affecting seven communication workers between the beginning of the strike on 22nd October and 2nd November. The organisation said that in most cases the attacks were perpetrated by MAS supporters who were marching in counter-protests or attempting to clear blockades.