December 29, 2010 / 10:16 PM / 8 years ago

Bolivia fuel hike sparks tensions, government wary

LA PAZ (Reuters) - Bolivia’s largest trade union called for a day of national rallies to denounce an increase in fuel prices, joining powerful citizen groups in criticizing President Evo Morales in a protest with roots in his leftist support base.

A man protests against President Evo Morales' government, in El Alto December 29, 2010. REUTERS/David Mercado

Morales’ government cut state fuel subsidies on Sunday, pushing up prices by as much as 83 percent and triggering a strike by truckers and bus drivers in the poor Andean country.

Morales, who is popular among the country’s poor, indigenous majority, was expected to announce a wage increase later on Wednesday but has not indicated that he could reverse the fuel price measure.

The country’s largest trade union, the Bolivian Workers Central group known by its Spanish acronym COB, called for “a national day of rallies against the fuel hike” on Monday.

COB, an umbrella organization that covers all of Bolivia’s trade unions, including workers in the mining, manufacturing and energy industries, called for rallies in all of Bolivia’s major cities and protesters were expected to block major roads.

Other groups, including opposition parties and citizens groups, plan to stage protests in all major cities.

“What the government has to do is to revoke the fuel price increase and stay with the people who have supported them,” said Fanny Nina, the head of FEJUVE, which groups neighborhood associations in El Alto, a city of nearly 1 million people and traditionally a Morales stronghold.

MEETS WITH LOCAL LEADERS

Local media said Morales met grass-roots leaders to explain the government’s decision to cut fuel subsidies and listen to complaints. He also held a special meeting with government ministers late on Tuesday.

Two Bolivian presidents from 2003 to 2005 were toppled amid social protests in which El Alto citizens groups played a key role. But the historically volatile country has been relatively stable since Morales was elected in 2005 as the nation’s first indigenous president.

Miners, teachers and peasant farmers often take to the streets to press specific demands, although most continue to back Morales because of his efforts to redistribute the wealth from the country’s vast natural gas reserves.

But opposition to the fuel price increase has brought together a wide variety of groups who fear that food, transportation and consumer goods will soon be out of the reach of many poor Bolivians.

The decision to cut fuel subsidies is part of a plan to encourage more investment in the energy sector. State energy company YPFB has said it will pay more for crude oil.

After winning re-election by a landslide in 2009 Morales, vowed to deepen leftist reforms to give the state a bigger role in the economy.

He nationalized the energy industry in 2006, which is centered on natural gas exports. Bolivia has the second-largest natural gas reserves in South America, after Venezuela, and it supplies Brazil and Argentina.

Brazil’s Petrobras, Spain’s Repsol and France’s Total are among the biggest foreign investors in the Bolivian energy industry.

Writing by Eduardo Garcia; Editing by Bill Trott

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