Tourists have been left stranded and roads gridlocked as Bolivian freight drivers block routes ahead of the country’s stand-out cultural event: Carnaval.
Freight drivers protesting high taxes have blocked roads at the country’s borders and in major cities in an effort to force the government to respond to their demands.
The Bolivian Chamber of National and International transport confirmed to Latin Correspondent that blockades included the major cities of Santa Cruz, Cochabamba and Sucre, as well as along the country’s borders.
“[The current system] doesn’t favor freight transport,” protesters in central Cochabamba said. Drivers are demanding more state support for their costs, which they say at present only cover some of the most basic vehicle expenses.
“All of us would like more money from the State,” one local observed wryly.
Many tourists headed to Oruro to celebrate Carnaval have been unable to travel. Alba Romina Quispe Sosa organized a trip from Cochabamba to Oruro for 50 people. “We were hoping to leave at 3p.m., in the hope that it would sort itself out. Now we’re just waiting for news, because people are afraid. Buses are being attacked with stones,” she said. The tour agency had some 300 people waiting to travel, including her group, she added.
Oruro’s Carnaval celebrations are one of the most famous cultural events in Bolivia, and an international draw for tourists. Held on the weekend before Shrove Tuesday each year, dance troupes in vibrant costumes act out Andean folk tales and history in a parade that lasts for many hours, followed by late-night revelry and water fights.
The Monday and Tuesday following Carnaval weekend are national holidays. UNESCO recognizes the event as a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.
Roadblocks are a common protest tactic in Bolivia, used by a variety of social groups. Protesters often set off dynamite charges at the blockades, and the sound of explosions is common in many cities. However, locals did not expect the demonstrators to interfere with Carnaval, a big money spinner in the otherwise quiet town of Oruro. They say the economic disruption resulting from the blockades is unlikely to win people over to the demonstrators’ cause.
Óscar Reynolds, a representative of National Heavy Transport, told Cochabamba newspaper Los Tiempos: “We are going to continue [protesting], including during Carnaval. And we will continue the blockades in six departments of the country.”
Popular protest has played an important role in Bolivian history: between 1999 and 2000, there were mass protests held in the city of Cochabamba after its water supply was privatized. Such was the intensity of the protests that the privatization was reversed, an event which drew international attention.
In 2003, the army shot 67 people dead and injured over 400 in the city of El Alto in an attempt to squash protests over plans to export Bolivian gas, leading to the fall of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s government.
This protest puts pressure on the government just over two weeks before a controversial referendum on February 21, determining whether to allow President Evo Morales to run for another term at the next election.