LA PAZ — Bolivia’s main cities were plunged into chaos Thursday as a public transport strike triggered by an 83 percent hike in gasoline prices threatened to cripple daily life in the Andean nation.
Faced with widespread complaints after his government announced price hikes that include a 73-percent rise in the price of diesel, President Evo Morales announced a 20-percent minimum salary increase late Wednesday in hopes to quell unrest.
But two powerful unions and civic groups in the South American nation nonetheless announced strikes and marches in a bid to derail the hikes.
Public transport in the capital, La Paz, was almost at a complete standstill.
In nearby El Alto, a residential area home to the international airport, demonstrators threw up barricades and burned a car on a main highway Wednesday to vent their anger.
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.
Workers in the Andean mining cities of Oruro and Potosi were getting ready to protest, while the head of the powerful Bolivian Labor Central union (COB) said a nationwide protest could be in the works.
In the business hub of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, on the mostly mountainous country’s low-lying eastern plains, the strike was slowing business as usual.
In Cochabamba, truckers used their vehicles to block traffic on main arteries.
Vice President Alvaro Garcia decreed the price increases on Sunday by removing subsidies that cost about 380 million dollars per year to keep fuel prices artificially low.
It was the sharpest price increase since 1991, when prices went up 35 percent, and followed 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.
Bus drivers were quick to respond. They raised fares by as much as 100 percent, while the government is trying to bring them down to 30 percent.
Morales, long a harsh critic of free markets, said the market would help set the price for public transport fares. “There will be competition among drivers, and they will lower fares,” Morales added. “I urge you to be fair with our people.”
Government spokesman Ivan Canelas told AFP that private sector workers could use the government’s 20 percent pay raise as a basis to negotiate their own raises.
Opposition hardliner and former vice president Victor Hugo Cardenas said Morales, a socialist, was behaving like a neo-liberal reformer.
“Adjusting prices to international levels is a typical neo-liberal recipe,” Cardenas said.
Juan del Granado, a former Morales ally who is now a member of the opposition, urged the government to hold a referendum on the unpopular gasoline price hikes.