Bolivia’s Unexpected Blockade: Oruro on strike over “Evo Morales Airport”

Today is the third day of highway blockades in the Department of Oruro, the culmination of what is already 29 days of pressure backed the department’s Civic Committee and its labor federation (the Central Obrera Departamental of Oruro; COD). The form and schedule of the strike follows the standard Bolivian pattern: participants declared themselves on alert to press their demands, and have held 24-hour, 48-hour, and 72-hour general strikes before proceeding to an indefinite period of pressure, which began on Monday. Road blockades are common means of ramping up pressure in the country, and in fact Oruro’s blockades coincide with blockades by peasants in La Paz department, neighborhood organizations in El Alto, and a municipal organization pursuing a border dispute outside the city of Cochabamba.

However, the topic of Oruro’s mobilization is quite unusual. Over four weeks of protests have been waged on what is a symbolic issue: the naming of the newly expanded airport (the expansion and new routes require it to be redesignated as an international airport). The pre-established name, Juan Mendoza Airport honored an aviation pioneer from the department. But on February 7, the region’s parliament chose to honor a different native son, President Evo Morales Ayma, by re-naming the airport after him. Surprise and discontent about the sudden renaming accompanied the airport’s re-opening the next day. The first strikes on the issue took place on February 27 and 28, endorsed by both the COD and the Civic Committee. Unions of miners (notably from the famous mines in Huanuni) and the ever-strident teachers have been vocal participants.

The conflict is particularly surprising given the strong and consistent backing from the region for President Morales and his Movement Towards Socialism (MAS-IPSP) political party. The department gave 79.46% of its votes to the MAS-IPSP in the 2009 general elections, and all but one of its representatives in the Plurinational Legislative Assembly belong to the party. Evo Morales migrated with his family out of Oruro to the Chapare valley region in Cochabamba, but he is a highly respected native son. During the 2010 regional strike by Potosí, Oruro’s Civic Committee was one of the counterweights to a mobilization that was highly critical of the president.

Criticisms from the Civic Committee had already begun by last December, when the national government kicked off construction a museum of the “democratic and cultural revolution” in Morales’ hometown, the village of Orinoca, Oruro. Then, Civic Committee President Sonia Saavedra questioned the  priorities for investment from national government funds:

We need projects that are truly icons for tourist development. I don’t deny the value of the museum that will be built in Orinoca, but we also would like to see that the things that are really necessary to be built are built. What should be more at hand is to ensure that people of the country and from abroad come and see the richness of our department. “Necesitamos proyectos que realmente sean íconos de desarrollo turismo, no desvaloro el museo que se va construir en Orinoca, pero también quisiéramos que se construyan los que realmente van a ser necesarios y están más a la mano para que venga gente del interior y exterior del país para que vean la riqueza de nuestro departamento”

Saavedra urged funds for the Museum in Oruro commemorating the city’s world-famous festival, and suggested that water and irrigation were more important priorities for Orinoca than a stadium with 8,000 seats for a town of 2,000 people.

The past month’s discontent has been met by a series of accusations from the departmental government, who have variously accused “a press bought by the right,” conspiratorial actors intending to produce a coup, and other figures as standing “behind” the campaign. However, many mobilization are attempted in Bolivia, while only a few reach this scale. To gain this level of adherence requires a real willingness of people to stay away from work and join in mass efforts at pressure. However surprising, there is little doubt that this willingness is genuine. Moreover, the region’s political leanings are not in doubt. Rejecting the accusations of right-wing ties, Orureño journalists issued a statement declaring:

We journalists have never been from the right, to the contrary we have always been of the left, but from the humble left, wich fights for justice and equality among all, for seriousness and responsibility; on the other hand, the supposed leftists are taking on the poses of the right: self-important, irrational, and unwilling to dialogue. “Los periodistas nunca hemos sido de derecha, más por el contrario, siempre hemos sido de izquierda, pero de la izquierda humilde, que lucha por la justicia, la igualdad entre todos, la seriedad y la responsabilidad; en cambio, los supuestos izquierdistas están asumiendo poses de la derecha, soberbios, irracionales y faltos de diálogo”

More recently, Saavedra rejected the renaming in this way: “It’s a servile act by the [departmental] Assembly members who want to erase the history of Oruro. Juan Mendoza was the first Bolivian pilot born in this land.” “Es una actitud servil de los asambleístas que quieren borrar la historia de Oruro. Juan Mendoza fue el primer piloto boliviano nacido en esta tierra.”

So the current strike can best be understood as an act of resistance to the symbolic centralization of power, and the beginnings of a personality cult emerging around the president. That this resistance is coming from his own home region reflects the critical and diverse currents that make up Bolivian political culture.

The president himself has tried to remain aloof from the conflict, noting that he had never asked for any public works to bear his name and urging Orureños to work out the conflict among themselves. However, as the conflict enters a second month, national officials have begun to disqualify participants in the protest, repeating local accusations, and suggesting that the preference for Mendoza over Morales has an anti-indigenous, racial component. The Observatorio on Racism reacted skeptically on twitter.

Several proposals have been floated to resolve the conflict, including referring the matter to the Constitutional Tribunal (there are legal restrictions on naming works after living people), naming the airport Juan Mendoza and the terminal after Evo Morales, and simply calling the place Oruro International Airport. Today, however, the strike goes on.

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