Six months ago, Miguel Nunez Saenz thought he would spend November 16 at home in Santa Cruz, eastern Bolivia, patiently waiting for census officials to knock on his door and write down his personal information.

Instead, the 47-year-old teacher spent the day on a barricade made of stones and tires, flying the green and white flag of Santa Cruz. He and his neighbors are taking part in a long-running strike to protest a government decision to postpone the national census until 2024.

“It is very important because it means resources for our department and our communities,” Nunez Saenz told Al Jazeera via WhatsApp from the blockade. “We need schools, hospitals and much more to improve the quality of life of the inhabitants [here].”

The Left Government President Luis Arce decided to push back the date of the census after local authorities raised concerns about COVID-19the challenge of integrating Bolivia’s indigenous languages ​​and the fact that many rural workers travel in November for the sugar cane harvest.

But the Pro Santa Cruz Civic Committee, the powerful right-wing group leading the strike, believes the postponement is politically motivated. Members predict the census will show population growth in cities like Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s most populous city and an important agricultural center.

Voters in Santa Cruz are more likely to oppose the current administration. In the 2020 general electionsthe ruling party, Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), achieved 55 percent nationally, but only 36 percent in Santa Cruz.

Meanwhile, Creemos, a Christian conservative coalition led by former citizens’ committee chairman Luis Fernando Camacho, won 45 percent of the vote there.

In Bolivia, census data is used to determine the distribution of public resources. The number of legislative seats allocated to each of Bolivia’s nine wards in the lower house is also based in part on population size. The last census took place in 2012.

The strike has turned violent in some areas as protesters block roads and clash with police and opponents who try to clear the routes. For many in Bolivia, the dispute bears echoes of the conflict that forced the long-running leftist president Evo Morales out of power amid controversial allegations of fraud in 2019.

Presidency Minister Maria Nela Prada said on Nov. 10 that four people had been killed in the strike, which began Oct. 22. has registered 42 cases of human rights violations, including murder, assault and attacks on journalists.

A police line approaches a street in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, where tear gas has been used to disperse protesters
Tear gas fills the streets of Santa Cruz, Bolivia, as police and protesters clash after census-related protests [Ipa Ibanez/AP Photo]

On Saturday, President Arce approved a decree stating that the census would be conducted by the country’s National Institute of Statistics on March 23, 2024.

An earlier decree had said that the census would be conducted no later than May or June of that year, but a committee set up in response to the strike concluded that it would be possible to conduct the survey in March or April 2024 instead. to keep. The new decree also states that the government will redistribute public funds in September 2024 based on the results of the provisional census.

archery bow tweeted that the decree “meets the request of more than 300 of the country’s elected authorities and the recommendations of the technical committee”.

But lawmakers have already introduced bills that contradict the decree and offer alternatives that they hope will be adopted by the Bolivian Congress.

At a rally at the Christ the Redeemer monument in Santa Cruz following the decree, Civic Committee leaders said the strike would continue and called on other cities in Bolivia to support their demands.

“We have already achieved significant achievements. Today we have to keep fighting,” said Romulo Calvo, president of the citizens’ committee, via a recorded video. He is currently under house arrest on charges related to his work at a health insurance fund.

A protester holds the edges of a multi-colored flag as it burns on a Santa Cruz street
A protester in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, burns a Wiphala indigenous flag as part of protests led by the right-wing Pro Santa Cruz Civic Committee [Ipa Ibanez/AP Photo]

Ana Paola Garcia Villagomez, director of the Casa de la Mujer women’s home in Santa Cruz, told Al Jazeera that nearby protesters tried to prevent survivors of domestic violence of passing the roadblocks and harassed the workers of the shelter for not adhering to the strike.

“The women who come looking for guidance or help or to report [violence], how do they know we are open when all sides are closed?” she said.

When Casa de la Mujer staff cut a rope blocking the last open route to the women’s shelter, a large group of men came up and yelled at them, threatening to occupy the building, Garcia Villagomez said.

Since then, protesters have fired fireworks and missiles outside every 15 minutes to disrupt the shelter’s activities. “It is an expression of the extreme right that exists in Bolivia, along with a point of view that is even fascist,” she said.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights sent a tweet condemning the harassment of Casa de la Mujer staff and customers, as well as denouncing other acts of violence arising from the protests.

Strike organizers have periodically held “supply days”, allowing movement through the blockades to allow locals to stock up on food, gasoline and other basic goods. But many of the city’s poorest residents, who depend on their day jobs for income, are struggling to survive, Garcia Villagomez said.

Protesters in Santa Cruz, Bolivia run past a burning gate
Protesters in Santa Cruz, Bolivia run past the broken gate of a farmer’s union during a strike linking the government to human rights violations [Andrea Martinez/Reuters]

Nunez Saenz said he believes the strike is justified despite the impact on the poor and most vulnerable. He worries that elsewhere in the region “zurdos” – loosely translated as “Commies” or “leftists” – are “destroying” countries like Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. Civilians there “don’t have jobs or good food,” he said.

“It is better to experience lack for a few days than to live a miserable life all your life,” added Nunez Saenz.

According to Carlos Cordero, a political scientist at the Catholic University of Bolivia, the strike is not just about the national census, but is also a struggle for political and economic power.

Data from municipal governments, universities and other sources indicates that Santa Cruz’s population has indeed grown, he said. This would present the administration with the politically unpalatable task of cutting budgets and congressional seats in some areas and allocating more money and representation to Santa Cruz as the 2025 presidential election approaches.

“To give Santa Cruz the seats it needs as a function of population growth, they’re going to have to get those from a department or multiple departments,” Cordero said. “It’s a zero-sum game. The winner gets them at the expense of someone who loses.”

The citizens’ committee demands a legally binding commitment to the date of the census, the allocation of funds and the congressional seats, and proposes a possible solution to the conflict. Meanwhile, almost a month has passed and Santa Cruz is still paralyzed.

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