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Weekly Report - 14 May 2020 (WR-20-19)

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BOLIVIA: Pandemic policies under fire

Interior Minister Arturo Murillo condemned the “stupidity” of those protesting against Bolivia’s interim government in the midst of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, referring to the crowds that gathered in various parts of the country on 10 and 11 May. Murillo accused protesters of “playing politics” at a time of national emergency. Cries of “elections now” were indeed heard during the demonstrations, but these were in the context of broader criticisms of the interim government’s handling of the pandemic, decrying job losses and food shortages.

The interim government had previously announced that it intended to implement an economic reactivation plan from 11 May, but offered few concrete details. The revelation that restrictions would be lifted only in areas not deemed ‘high risk’ by the ministry of health prompted anger in cities across the country, especially in poorer areas, where the disease has been spread by people unable to bear the financial burden of quarantine. The military was deployed to suppress the larger protests, most notably in the K’ara K’ara area of the city of Cochabamba in central Bolivia, where the use of tear gas and rubber bullets was condemned by the left-wing opposition Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) in the senate.

Murillo once again held the MAS responsible for this outbreak of opposition to the interim government’s pandemic response, attributing the protests to the party’s efforts to “create political violence in Bolivia” [WR-20-16]. Interim president Jeanine Áñez’s administration has itself faced criticism for taking advantage of the health emergency to take action against its political rivals, most recently from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), whose special rapporteur for freedom of expression, Edison Lanza, voiced concern on 12 May about the latest efforts to crack down on ‘misinformation’ during the pandemic.

  • Decree 4231

As well as the IACHR, criticisms of Bolivia’s interim government’s misinformation crackdown were levelled by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, who claimed that the measures sought to “threaten journalists or silence criticism”; by Bolivia’s national press association (ANP), which warned that the decree “penalises the human and fundamental right to freedom of expression”; and by human rights ombudsman Nadia Cruz, who pledged to take action against these “unconstitutional” actions.

The controversial ‘decree 4231’, issued on 7 May, threatened criminal charges against those who “disseminate information of any kind…that puts at risk or affects public health, or generates uncertainty in the population”. This was an extension of an earlier decree targeting misinformation specifically in the context of quarantine restrictions.

Both provisions drew criticism for relying on a subjective, loosely defined vision of ‘misinformation’. The assertion by the minister of the presidency, Yerko Núñez, that action will be taken only against “small groups and sectors that try to distort information, to create uncertainty and fear in the population”, will do little to reassure political opponents fearing persecution.

Corruption claims

A challenge that the interim government has been less able to deflect onto the MAS – though not for want of trying – is of the growing difficulties faced by various state-owned companies. The workers of oil company Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB) declared a state of emergency within the oil sector on 11 May, after a corruption scandal saw its presidency change hands for the second time since the interim government came to power, with Herland Soliz replaced by Richard Botello on 8 May.

Soliz was removed after irregularities were identified in various contracts signed by YPFB. This followed several days of confusion and speculation, as Soliz offered and then subsequently withdrew his resignation on 6 May, highlighting a tense relationship with the hydrocarbons minister, Víctor Hugo Zamora.

Likely influenced by these developments, Áñez also made two ministerial changes on 8 May, as part of an ongoing effort to bring more trusted allies into her cabinet, compared to the conciliatory initial offering in November 2019. Fernando Vásquez picked up the mining portfolio from Carlos Fernando Huallpa, while Senator Óscar Ortiz, who was the presidential candidate for the opposition party ‘Bolivia Dice No’ in last October’s elections, took over as minister of productive development. Ortiz, who replaced Wilfredo Rojo, will also head the newly created Consejo Nacional de Reactivación, comprising the energy, hydrocarbons, public works, mining, rural development, labour, and environment and water ministries.

The MAS’s Sergio Choque, the president of the chamber of deputies, attributed this “cabinet crisis” to economic mismanagement and corruption, “leading to an economic crisis”. Interim government officials, including Soliz and Zamora, had accused their MAS predecessors of bankrupting state-owned companies, but the YPFB workers sided against the new management, with their statement, accusing officials of embezzlement and mismanagement, as part of a strategy to privatise public sector companies.

Opponents of the interim government have argued that its economic agenda goes far beyond its remit to simply organise new elections. This was demonstrated once again through Vásquez’s inaugural speech as mining minister, in which he pledged to promote “intensive exploration” to strengthen Bolivia’s extractive industries.

Similar concerns were raised following Áñez’s 9 May presidential decree authorising the use of genetically modified seeds in the country’s agricultural sector, which was resolutely opposed by the previous MAS government. This decree was justified by the need to bolster food supplies in Bolivia, with problems of hunger currently felt more strongly than ever. But critics claim this measure could put genetic diversity and human health at risk.