Two powerful unions and civic groups announced strikes and marches to protest an 83 percent hike on gasoline prices that went into effect over the weekend.
Bolivian President Evo Morales, faced with widespread complaints after the gasoline hike triggered rises in public transport fares and some staples, quickly announced a 20 percent minimum salary increase in hopes to quell the unrest.
“We’ve already signed a supreme decree to increase the national minimum salary by 20 percent. Salary increases for the police, armed forces, the health and education sector will also be 20 percent in 2011,” Morales said in a nationally televised address.
Morales also announced economic improvements and incentives for farmers.
Street protests against the gas price hike were reported on Wednesday in state capitals Oruro and Potosi. In El Alto, a city close to La Paz, irate demonstrators blocked off some main roads.
Franklin Duran, head of the Confederation of Drivers union representing the country’s bus drivers, called a nationwide strike against the price hike and in demand of a 100 percent bus fare increase. The government has authorized a 30 percent increase.
Workers in the Andean mining cities of Oruro and Potosi were also to strike yesterday, and the head of the powerful Bolivian Labor Central union said a nationwide protest could be in the works.
Supporters of La Paz Mayor Luis Revilla, a Morales opponent, were organizing a protest march, as were neighborhood groups in other cities.
Morales, in his televised speech, also ruled out a rumored bank freeze in the country, after thousands of people queued outside private banks around the country to withdraw their funds.
“There will be no bank freeze,” Morales said from his office.
Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia decreed the price increases — which also involve a 73 percent hike in diesel prices — on Sunday by removing subsidies that cost about US$380 million per year to keep fuel prices artificially low.
It was the sharpest price increase since 1991, when prices went up 35 percent, and follows six years of stable prices.
The government says the price increase was necessary in part because subsidized fuel was being smuggled across Bolivia’s borders to neighboring countries.
Exempted from the fuel price increase was natural gas for household use and for vehicles.
The government is encouraging city buses to modify their vehicles to run on natural gas, but less than 3 percent of public transportation vehicles have been converted so far.