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Crisis in Bolivia hits our staff and partners

It is the middle of the night in Bolivia and our staff in La Paz are unable to sleep, racked with fear and uncertainty. Outside in the streets, armed and violent groups are whipping up havoc, committing random acts of vandalism across the city, including in the neighbourhoods where our staff and their families live. Buses and homes are burned, and hospitals are attacked with dynamite while people, including our staff, huddle in back rooms with the lights turned off, waiting for the mobs to pass. The children of our staff have not been at school for more than three weeks.

The living nightmare comes after Evo Morales resigned from the presidency over the weekend, after the Organisation for American States (OAS) announced the verification of fraud in the elections of 20 October that gave Morales the victory.

His widely debated resignation came after the Organisation for American States (OAS) announced the verification of fraud in the elections of 20 October that handed Morales the apparent victory. Faith actors in the country are desperately calling for peace and democracy. The Catholic Bishops of Bolivia issued a statement demanding “that the voices of the people are heard and calls to respect for the will of the people to preserve democracy, only system that guarantees freedom, the common good and progress of the nation.”

Yes, there is an inevitably political dimension to the violence, but the origins and cause of the chaos divide opinions wildly. Much of the international media has followed the narrative that Morales was removed illegitimately – with US-based liberal magazine The Nation stating, “It’s difficult to see this as anything but a coup”. But our partner UNITAS insists that there was no coup because there was no direct military intervention and adds in its statement:

“You [Morales] lie to the international community about the violence perpetrated by your own group of supporters and militants of MAS (political party) which you called to incite violence.”

UNITAS has called for a meaningful investigation into the elections and urged all Bolivians to voice their opinions peacefully, demanding that their rights are maintained in order to maintain social cohesion.

Either way however, what everyone can agree on, is that it is the most marginalised group in the region – the indigenous people – who are paying the highest price. To be fair to The Nation, it, too, has charted this, pointing out:

“Bolivia’s far right has exploited the power vacuum and stoked anti-indigenous sentiment.”

As someone who has worked in Latin America for several years, I have seen first how the unfair distribution of power exacerbates inequality for many people in the region. No more so than for indigenous people, who experience worse poverty levels and are excluded from access to quality basic services, land, decent employment opportunities and the political system.

One root cause of their anger stems from the prevailing system that sees their rights ignored, their interests overlooked and their voice silenced in favour of wealthy, powerful, corporate interests. A prime example of this the way indigenous populations in Bolivia have been victims to predatory models of development in which mining, logging, dams and environmentally unsustainable megaprojects are created at the expense of vulnerable and marginalised groups.

Christian Aid has worked in Bolivia for more than 30 years, focusing on the most vulnerable and marginalised communities in the Amazon region and seeking to strengthen their fight for rights, their ability to combat gender injustice and their resilience to climate change. In practice, this means working primarily with the local indigenous people, of whom, Morales was the first to become president.

That’s why our partners in Bolivia continue to echo indigenous people’s call for effective participation, accountable leadership, transparency and an inclusive economic model that respects their land, rights and resources.

As Morales flew out of the country to political asylum in Mexico this week, thousands of Morales supporters marched towards La Paz from the nearby city of El Alto. According to Reuters, this caused panic among police in La Paz. Around Murillo square in central La Paz, opposition protesters reportedly put up roadblocks made from metal scraps.

Amid this crisis, our role is to provide practical help for the most marginalised. Another of our partners, CIPCA, works primarily on protecting the territorial rights of indigenous people, assisting more than 200 families in the southern Amazon area to look after in excess of 1,893 hectares of forest sustainably. This involves protecting them from constant threats, from land grabbing, illegal logging and cattle ranchers.

We pray that this weekend, unlike last, peace will reign and our staff who have an important job to do, will be able to sleep.