Bolivia’s bishops offer to mediate destabilizing political crisis as pandemic worsens

Bolivia’s bishops offer to mediate destabilizing political crisis as pandemic worsens

People take part in a July 14, 2020, demonstration in La Paz, Bolivia, called by Bolivian workers unions demanding the economic reactivation of their sectors during the coronavirus pandemic. (Credit: Credit: David Mercado/Reuters via CNS.)

Bolivia’s Catholic bishops have once again offered themselves as mediators in the country’s ongoing clash between the government and sectors of society who still support former president Evo Morales.

ROSARIO, Argentina — Bolivia’s Catholic bishops have once again offered themselves as mediators in the country’s ongoing clash between the government and sectors of society who still support former president Evo Morales.

Protestors have blocked several main roads in the South American country, heavily affecting transport.

In a statement released on Monday, the bishops of Bolivia say that, “seeing the grave social conflicts and health crisis” the country is going through, they offer themselves to once again “facilitate dialogue where it’s needed.”

“The life of human beings has an absolute value, that must never be used to achieve any other objective,” write the bishops, who said the use of the ongoing crisis due to the global pandemic of COVID-19 coronavirus to “destabilize the institutions of the country” is “irrational” and “immoral.”

The statement from the bishops comes as dialogue efforts between Bolivia’s Electoral Supreme Tribunal and the mining and field workers unions failed to reach an agreement. At the core of the clash is the postponement of the elections set for Sept. 6 – the tribunal wants to move to Oct. 18, reportedly due to the pandemic.

Middle class youth groups – who identify themselves as “not indigenous” – clashed this weekend with peasants and others from poorer sections of the country who have been mobilizing under the flag of “elections now” and demanding the resignation of Jeanine Áñez, the interim president.

Áñez has been serving in the role since November 2019, after the resignation of the government of Evo Morales, who was forced to step down after more than two weeks of protests stemming from allegations of electoral fraud. By the time he stepped down, Morales had lost the support of the the police, the military and his former political allies. His vice president was also forced to step down, leaving Áñez in charge.

She is a member of the political opposition and has vowed to change course from Morales’s leftwing agenda.

The ongoing clashes are similar to the ones that forced Morales’s hand, but now the roles are reversed, with labor unions and peasants taking to the streets.

There have been fights with sticks and non-lethal-explosives used by both sides in La Paz, Cochabamba and in the department of Santa Cruz, all key regions of the country.

Áñez has been recognized as the serving president of Bolivia by several governments, including that of Canada, Brazil, the European Union, Russia and the United States. Morales has fled the country, first to Mexico, and then on to Argentina, where he was given refuge by left-wing President Alberto Fernandez.

Yet, five days after Morales resignation, protests continued, violence was rampant in several cities and there were food shortages in key regions in the country. Hence Áñez issued a controversial decree to enlist the police and army to pacify the country, including an article that exempted them from criminal liability when they acted in legitimate defense or out of necessity, which was described by Amnesty International as a “carte blanche” for human rights abuses.

The ongoing dialogue efforts didn’t include the two leading candidates from the opposition, nor the leaders of the Senate or the Central Obrera Boliviana (Bolivian Workers Union). The last meeting failed on Monday.

Those who oppose Áñez – including presidential candidates who want the elections to be held Sept. 6 –  call her a “coup monger” who brought down Morales and accuse her of wanting to delay the elections to further use her interim term to strengthen her hand during the election.

However, things are made all the more complicated by the fact that there are other candidates who oppose both her and Morales, such as Fernando Camacho, who led the 2019 protests. This faction is demanding Áñez “control” the Morales supporters.

Protesters also claim that Áñez’s intention to stay in power what is preventing the legislative and executive powers in Bolivia to focus on addressing the health crisis. An estimated 3,700 people have died due to the COVID-19 coronavirus, and over 91,600 cases have been confirmed.

On Friday, Áñez’ interim government went to the Organization of American States to declare that between Thursday and Friday, 31 people had died due to the lack of oxygen tanks. The tanks, they claimed, were in the country, but the barricades along several main roads by Morales’s supporters have prevented the lifesaving equipment from reaching the hospitals.

Without a clear solution in sight, the bishops called for an end to the “violent attitudes and the blockages” of the roads and called for a “peaceful dialogue in search of solutions.”

“Don’t place the health and life of the Bolivian people in danger by serving political mottos and demanding the fulfilment of elections while there’s a growth of the spread of the contagion, leading to so many fellow countrymen dying, aggravating even more the already difficult economic situation we’re living,” they write, adding that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal is the only entity impartial enough to determine the date for the elections.

The bishops also write that they are concerned that the violence is “getting worse” in the country, noting that “hatred is not the solution to any problem. We condemn violence, regardless of where it’s coming from.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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