HNP Friars Live Amidst Cochabamba Violence

Jim McIntosh, OFM Features

The city of Cochabamba, Bolivia, has been torn by violence the past two weeks. Several friars, HNP alumni Ignacio Harding and Tomás Kornacki and recently assigned HNP friar Jim McIntosh, live a block from the main square of Cochabamba. They have experienced daily protests and occasional tear gas. Though the protests and blockades continue, fortunately the violence of Jan. 11 has not reccurred, according to Jim who submitted the report below.

COCHABAMBA, Bolivia – The U.S. State Department issued an advisory on Jan. 12 saying, in part, “Protesters took over the main square and avenue in Cochabamba on Jan. 8, demanding the resignation of Cochabamba’s prefect (governor). On Jan. 11, violent confrontations resulted in three confirmed deaths and over 100 injured. Local authorities restored order, but the situation remains volatile. Demonstrations continue in Cochabamba’s main plaza and could occur in other public areas with little notice and possible violence….

“Grocery stores in Cochabamba reportedly are empty and roadblocks are preventing resupply. Roadblocks at bridges and on major thoroughfares may occur at any time throughout Cochabamba. On Jan. 8, protestors interrupted the city’s water supply for several hours; shortages continue, particularly near the main square….

“The U.S. Embassy in La Paz has restricted travel by U.S. Government personnel to Cochabamba and directed U.S. Government personnel in Cochabamba to remain in their residences except for emergencies.”

The cause of this situation is somewhat complex.

The majority of the population of Bolivia is of indigenous origin, but, since the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, they have been repressed and faced constant discrimination. The president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, is the first indigenous president in the history of Bolivia. At his inauguration a year ago, he pledged to end 500 years of injustice against his people. This was good news to the indigenous people here, but a threat to those who have traditionally been in power.

For years, the mountainous parts of the country supported the lower parts with their mineral wealth. The town of Santa Cruz de la Sierra was a backwater town sitting down in the Amazon basin, until massive amounts of money were invested to develop it.

In 1954, Santa Cruz had a population of 20,000 people; it now has 1.5 million people (in a country of only eight million). More importantly, a vast field of natural gas has been found near Santa Cruz that could provide much needed wealth to this poor country – the second poorest country in the hemisphere after Haiti.

However, Santa Cruz and the other low-lying departments are now talking about “autonomy” — which some have suggested is a synonym for division of country. This is partly a desire to keep the income from the gas for themselves and partly to free themselves from the increasing influence of the indigenous people now gaining more power. The effect of autonomy would leave the mountainous parts, where most of the indigenous live, even poorer than they are now.

So, in this environment, the prefect of the department of Cochabamba, Manfred Reyes Villa, called for an election to gauge the popularity of autonomy among the people of Cochabamba. This threatened the indigenous people from the countryside who started protesting in the city of Cochabamba, demanding that Reyes Villa resign. They have marched on the city almost every day for the past two weeks and have blocked major streets and highways.

On Jan. 8, a group of young city residents who support Reyes Villa broke through police lines and began to attack the indigenous protestors – most with sticks and poles, but some with more deadly weapons. The protestors reacted to defend themselves and a riot broke out. One protester was shot and killed, and one young man from the city was beaten to death.

It seems that the extent of the violence shocked people on both sides. Since that time, the protests have continued but in a much more peaceful manner. Reyes Villa cancelled his referendum on autonomy, but the protestors are still calling for his resignation. The blockades on the major roads have been lifted, intercity travel has resumed, and the food markets are again being restocked.

The pope has also appealed for “frank and respectful dialogue” to resolve these conflicts. He made his appeal in a telegram sent in his name by the Vatican secretary of state to Cardinal Julio Terrazas, archbishop of Santa Cruz.

In the telegram, Benedict XVI expressed his sadness over the incidents “as well as his special closeness to the pastors and all those making efforts to maintain the citizenry’s harmony and peaceful coexistence, by engaging in frank and respectful dialogue to resolve eventual discrepancies.” The Holy Father prayed that the Lord will “give all a heart full of fraternity and simplicity so that violence is transformed into cooperation and the common good is truly promoted.”

Such is life in Bolivia these days.