La Paz is not always peaceful

Around the corner from our hostel is the Presidential Palace. Across the square from there is a building littered with bullet holes a monument to the political crisis in 2003 which saw about sixty die in violent confrontations between military, police and civilians.

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In 2003 Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada was serving his second term as President. There was mounting decent about a range of issues: a new tax levied on all but military wage earners to service an IMF loan, increased restrictions on coca farmers and, most significantly, disputes about the approach that Bolivia should take to its gas resources.

A plan to export gas via Chile’s ports was met with wide public rancor and massive protests.  Violent clashes followed between the military – still loyal to the President – and police and civilians (still smarting about tax increases). Eventually the President fled to the US, allegedly with a large amount of Bolivian currency. Attempts to extradite him back to have so far failed.

A tumultuous history

Bolivia’s political history is complex and colourful. Historians have recorded more than 150 successful or attempted coups since Bolivia’s independence from Spain in 1825. And it’s not just the military that throws its weight around. Strikes and blockades, like the kind that forced Sánchez de Lozada’s resignation in 2003 are common too. El Alto, a working class city on the high plane above La Paz is particularly noted for blockades that effectively block all major routes into the country’s capital starving it of fuel and food. From reading what other travelers say it seems there is a good chance some strike or other will interrupt our plans here.

All this adds up to a very high turnover of Presidents. They currently have an average term of about two and a half years when they’re elected for four.

In this context the current President Evo Morales is doing pretty well. Cut from similar leftist cloth as Rafael Correa in Ecuador, he was a ring leader in the 2003 crisis. When he came to power in 2006 he gave foreign companies 180 days to renegotiate gas contracts or leave the country. Then he nationalised a bunch of power companies. He also made widely reported comments that eating too much chicken will turn you gay and was signed by a professional Bolivian football team.

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