NYTimes.com Article: Bolivian Tension Mounts As Roadblock Talks Continue

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Bolivian Tension Mounts As Roadblock Talks Continue

October 3, 2000


Filed at 2:18 p.m. ET

LA PAZ, Bolivia (Reuters) - Tension mounted in Bolivia Tuesday as
the government repeated threats to deploy troops if coca growers,
peasants and teachers do not abandon roadblocks set up 16 days ago
that have paralyzed big cities.

``We're talking, we're working on solutions, but if we stop talking
and stop seeking solutions then we'll clear the roadblocks,''
Government Minister Guillermo Fortun said, according to radio news

A government-imposed noon (1400 GMT) deadline came and went as
ministers huddled with peasants in La Paz without soldiers being
deployed in the stalemate with coca growers and teachers. Fortun
said as long as talks continue with one of three protest groups no
troops would be sent to clear highways.

Ten protesters died last week in clashes with security forces over
their demands for higher teachers' pay, abolition of a water tax
and opposition to the eradication of coca -- the raw material used
in the production of cocaine.

``As long as the government is unwilling to discuss the coca issue
we won't have an agreement,'' said Congressman Evo Morales, head of
the coca growers union.

The situation in Bolivia has become increasingly tense as the
blockade of all roads leading into the capital La Paz and the
agricultural hubs of Santa Cruz and Cochabamba has caused food
prices to skyrocket.

The Bolivian air force said it has flown two million pounds of food
to La Paz, Cochabamba, Santa Cruz, San Borja and Cobija to restock
supermarket shelves.

``These flights are a guarantee that food stocks in La Paz won't be
drawn down,'' said La Paz Mayor German Velasco.

While coca growers welcomed a government offer not to build three
army barracks in the coca-growing Chapare region, they refused to
lift roadblocks until the region's 40,000 families are allowed to
grow 2.5 acres (1 hectare) each of coca for traditional use.

Andean Indians use the bitter leaf for religious and medicinal
purposes, including easing the pangs of hunger and thirst and
coping with altitude sickness. Some coca production is legal.

At the height of coca production about five years ago, one in every
eight Bolivians made a living off coca. Bolivia is the world's
third largest producer of coca after Colombia and Peru.

But Bolivia, one of the Western Hemisphere's poorest nations, has
significantly reduced coca production in the past five years in
exchange for U.S. aid.

The government of President Hugo Banzer, a military dictator of the
1970s who was elected president in 1997, has vowed to rid the
nation of illegal coca fields.

Bolivian government ministers have tried to present a $63 million
rural development package to the peasants which includes crop
diversification as well as the extension of electrical and
telephone services to remote areas.

But coca growers are skeptical of government suggestions they grow
pineapples and bananas instead of the bitter leaf.

Meat prices have doubled and the cost of some vegetables quadrupled
since the roadblocks began. Some foreign tourists have been
stranded by cut-off roads or fear of protesters.

While the government negotiated with coca growers and peasants,
talks with teachers failed after an agreement in principle with
rural teachers was reversed by about half of the 50,000 union

Teachers were the government's best hope of dividing the coalition
of strikers but the rejection of the plan by Bolivia's 80,000 urban
teachers seemed to turn the tide.

The government offered them a $40 raise for the remainder of this
year and a $200 pay hike over all of next year. Teachers earn
$150-$200 a month in this Andean nation of eight million people,
where average annual income is about $1,000.

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