Sun, Jan 02, 2011 - Page 7 News List

Bolivian president rescinds fuel decree

BACKTRACK:Evo Morales bowed to widespread anger — even from some of his strongest supporters — over removing subsidies that keep fuel prices artificially low

AFP, LA PAZ

Faced with spreading civil unrest, Bolivian President Evo Morales late on Friday rescinded a government decree that significantly raised fuel prices and provoked violent protests that left 15 people injured.

Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia had issued the decree last Sunday removing subsidies that keep fuel prices artificially low, but cost the Bolivian government at least US$380 million per year. According to economists, the Morales government spent US$666 million in the past year to keep fuel prices artificially low. This year, the cost of the subsidies are projected to top US$1 billion.

Removing the subsidies sent fuel prices up by as much as 83 percent in the sharpest increases since 1991.

“Answering to the wishes of the people, we have decided to rescind Decree No. 748 and other measures that accompanied it,” Morales told reporters at the presidential palace. “These decisions will not take effect,” the president added. “There is no justification for raising transportation fares or food prices right now. Nor do we want to fuel speculation.” Earlier in the day, Morales decided to cancel his trip to Brazil for the inauguration of its new president, a government official said.

He was presiding over back-to-back government meetings aimed at crafting a strategy for quelling civil unrest in La Paz, Cochabamba and other major Bolivian cities sparked by the decision to remove price controls. Fifteen police officers were injured on Thursday in clashes with rock-wielding protesters near La Paz, as major cities in the Andean nation were crippled by a transport strike protesting huge fuel price hikes.

Initial reports from El Alto said police officers came under attack by rock-wielding demonstrators and responded by lobbing tear gas.

The residential area surrounding the La Paz international airport saw thousands of protesters throwing up barricades across access roads, burning tires and hurling stones at government buildings to vent their anger.

The crowds tried to set a monument to Cuban revolutionary hero Ernesto “Che” Guevara on fire, broke the doorway to the vice president’s residence, torched highway toll booths and damaged offices of state-run BoA airlines and the Central Obrera union.

Morales’s palace in La Paz was besieged by angry demonstrators, who were also repelled by police using tear gas.

The president attempted to stem the growing public discontent late on Wednesday by announcing a 20-percent minimum salary increase, but powerful unions and civil groups still promised further strikes, marches and disruptions.

Erecting barricades in El Alto as tires and cars burned around her, an unrepentant Patricia Coyo said the poor “suffered the most” with serious knock-on effects such as hikes in transport fares and food prices.

“We put him in power, we can also bring him down,” the 30-year-old laundry worker said, as protestors waved Bolivian flags and set off firecrackers.

“We have to repeal this decree of starvation by this damn government!” Coyo said.

Demonstrators muttered the word “treason” to describe Morales’ actions, compared him to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, his political mentor, and called for immediate elections.

Even Morales’s strongest base, the coca growers union, voiced their disdain at the price hikes. Union protesters even halted truck routes by barricading a key road linking the country’s center to the south.

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