Oct 02

Bolivia playing dead: when the only power is the power to do nothing

by in Bolivia

Jhonny Llally Huata, president of the Potosí's Comité Cívico, holds up the flag of the Department of Potosí in his office in Potosí | photo by brandon c janes iv

Jhonny Llally Huata, president of the Potosí’s Comité Cívico, holds up the flag of the Department of Potosí in his office in Potosí | photo by brandon c janes iv

During the 24-hour strike in Potosí Wednesday, Jhonny Llally Huata, president of the Potosí Comité Cívico, answered a call from an assistant to the Governor of the Department of Potosí at the desk of his second floor office.

“This is not for me, this is for Potosí,” he said and hung up before giving the caller a chance to respond.

Then he turned to me and said, “There are always critics.”

Llally is kind of like the John Boehner of Potosí, Bolivia. Frustrated with his country’s executive government – and trying to make his mark on politics – this nighttime taxi driver, daytime politician has used his power with local transportation syndicates to stage a shutdown of all the roads in Potosí.

For 24 hours Wednesday traffic going to and from Potosí was blocked by 18-wheelers, taxi cabs and buses spreading their chassis across the major highways and gates of the city.

In the narrow cobblestone streets of Potosí organizers placed bricks, rocks, bundles of wire, torn-down street signs and telephone poles to keep cars from driving on them.

As a result this city of about 240,000 inhabitants did nothing for a day. All businesses were closed – except the bank – children played soccer in the street, families went for walks together, but only around 20 residents had the time to attend the rally, held by Comité Cívico or COMCIPO at the city’s central market.

COMCIPO’s demands were not simple.

On Tuesday, when two ministers from La Paz visited Potosí to try and stop the strike, Llally gave them the committee’s laundry list of grievances: Where was the international airport promised to the city in 2010? and the concrete factory? the preservation of Potosí’s famous mountain Cerro Rico?

Silver mines in Cerro Rico – which is today a UNESCO world heritage site – bankrolled the Spanish colonial empire for nearly 200 years. Many of the over 100 mines in Cerro Rico are still working today and the mountain is one of few attractions in the Bolivia’s fledgling tourist industry.

Trucks blocked the entrance to the city of Potosí during a 24-hour strike on Wednesday | photo courtesy of El Potosino

Trucks blocked the entrance to the city of Potosí during a 24-hour strike on Wednesday | photo courtesy of El Potosí

Bolivian Federalism – not what it sounds like

Latin Americam governments are known for concentrating power over their presidents, much more than other democracies, such as the U.S. In Bolivia, departments – equivalent to states in the U.S. – have little say in the policies which most affect their residents.

On Wednesday – the same day of the strike – a commission led by President Evo Morales’ MAS party in La Paz eliminated a senator from each of the western Departments of Potosí, Beni and Chuquisaca, and gave three new senatorial seats to the fast-developing eastern Department of Santa Cruz, where President Morales has his political stronghold.

Talk of the cutback was curiously absent from the chants of the COMCIPO in Potosí’s central market Wednesday.

Instead Llally chose rally behind what he called “Federalismo Potosino” – a term which means the opposite of federalism in the U.S. Llally wants the Department of Potosí to have more autonomy from the federal government – more like the power that states have in the U.S., he said.

“A minister said that Potosí can’t live without Bolivia,” Llally said before his crowd of supporters. “But what we say is Potosí can support Bolivia for more than 100 years, because we have the riches.”

After the speeches Wednesday, I followed Llally into his office at COMCIPO. He picked up my camera from his desk and asked how much it cost.

I said around $1,000.

“You know, I don’t think I will ever be able to buy one of these,” Llally said.

Although the seats on the COMCIPO are elected, Llally confirmed Wednesday that the nonpartisan organization has no money and no real power to influence public policy, outside of staging strikes and public demonstrations.

“The power comes from me,” Llally said.

“When the government doesn’t attend to things, doesn’t do what it is supposed to do, the city puts on a strike and organizations are obligated to obey.”

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