Bolivian workers strike in challenge to Morales

LA PAZ, May 10 (Reuters) – Bolivian workers began an indefinite strike on Monday to demand higher pay in a challenge to leftist President Evo Morales, who has previously enjoyed strong support from the poor country’s unions.

Miners and other workers in the mineral-rich Andean country joined the walkout called by the leading COB umbrella union to protest a 5 percent government pay offer, but the impact of the nationwide strike appeared limited.

“This is a struggle for our basic rights,” said Pedro Montes, a COB mining leader, at the head of a 200 km (125 miles) protest march from the highland town of Caracollo to the capital La Paz that began just before midday.

Morales’ government played down the effect of the strike. “There’s no stoppage in the country. Things are proceeding normally,” said Presidency Minister Oscar Coca.

The protest underscores some of the challenges faced by Morales, the country’s first Indian head of state, who began his second term in January after a resounding election victory and remains among Latin America’s most popular leaders.

“Morales is probably paying the price for generating high expectations of economic improvements among his supporters, for setting an example by using violent protests to advance his own political goals, and for taking a relatively soft stance on previous protests,” wrote Eurasia Group analyst Erasto Almeida in an emailed note to clients.

The conflict increased the possibility that the government would target foreign investors in an effort to boost political support, he said.

Morales accused rightist rivals and the U.S. Embassy of fueling the strike and called on other workers to shun it.

Strikers want a bigger raise than the 5 percent decreed by the government, as well as long-delayed changes to labor laws.

Elsewhere, protests by residents demanding the building of a citrus-fruit plant in Caranavi province erupted into violence, adding to the tension between Morales and groups that had, until recently, given him almost unconditional support.

At least two people were killed and 30 were detained during the unrest, local media said. Police denied responsibility for the killings and accused the protesters of using guns.

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