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Extortion - Andean Style

BOLIVIA | Monday, 26 June 2006 | Views [1979]

Having in the last year been marooned in a town in Ecuador for a week by protesters blocking the main roads and having just escaped the same thing near Cusco, I thought that the days of being held hostage by indigenous people was over, especially as I was now in Bolivia. Bolivia used to be the road block capital of South America until Evo Morales got elected, a man of the people, the road blockers are still seeing if he produces results before manning the barracks again, or so I thought.

I have just been on a tour of the Salar de Uyuni, a three day trip out into some very pretty wilderness and one of the ‘must see’ sights in Bolivia. On the last day our Land Cruiser stopped at a small relocated mining village called San Cristobal which has an interesting thatched church that was moved along with the villagers to the new location. While we were there our guide heard in the market that the road ahead had been blocked. We were then only 60km from Uyuni, the home base and the first shower for days and dusk was only an hour away. So our switched on guide phoned ahead and arranged for another Land Cruiser to be on the other side of block to pick us up. We then set off into the night. After about an hours driving we started to pass Land Cruisers from other tours, and Lorries parked up at the side of the road. The road blockers had chosen a bridge to put the block, as the area was so remote there was no way to get around it. We stopped and our driver walked ahead to see if our transport was on the other side. It was, so we got our kit down and started walking, it was a crisp, cold night with a wonderful display of stars. On the other side of the bridge there were about thirty Lorries parked up, as the road is one of the main routes into Chile. The drivers had to spend the night in them and had wrapped large plastic tarps around the cabs in an effort to keep the heat in. Our car was waiting so we were soon back in the comforts of Uyuni.

The big question was, why were the people blockading? At the block itself there was no one to ask not even the police. One rumor was that the people in San Cristobal were protesting about the mine lorries going through the village, so that instead of taking this up with the village council and the mine owners, they just blockaded the road. The next day I discovered that the San Cristobal road was not the only one that had been closed; all the roads all around Uyuni had been blockaded and they had been for a day or so. Only a few buses had managed to get out at night, and there were concerns that the town would run out of fresh food. The rumor now was that the local people were protesting about the state of the roads out of the town. Like most of the roads in Bolivia, none of them are sealed.

I was due to leave Uyuni on a night bus to La Paz so I went to the Police Station to ask what the possibilities were of the bus getting out of the town. Of course they didn’t know why the roads were blockaded but they said we would not have a problem leaving. Why? Because the driver will pay a bribe.

In Ecuador and Peru, the people were protesting to stop a  Free Trade Agreement with the US, and earlier in the year the Bolivians had been protesting to bring down the government and reverse privatization. In Ecuador they have been partially successful as the Americans have called talks off but Peru are already members, so their protests looked a little futile (so what was the real reason?). In Bolivia it seems that even with Evo in power, busy nationalizing the gas industry and spending billions, his people still like to get out there and block roads. Legitimizing ‘primitive protest’ is a double edged sword. The real reason the locals are out there ‘exerting their rights ‘ is that have got used to the easy money to be made, extorting money from companies and drivers to allow them to continue their journeys. The night I left Uyuni, we were delayed for only a few minutes at the road block as the driver paid up. Political realities can’t be allowed to get in the way of a nice little earner.

Tags: Observations

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