On the frontline: Bolivians face upheaval and uncertainty

La Paz (AFP) –


Weeks of protests, blockades and food shortages rocked Bolivia's sprawling cities of La Paz and El Alto, making daily life difficult and dangerous.

The country's worst political crisis in more than a decade was ignited by a disputed October 20 election. Incumbent president Evo Morales claimed victory, but opposition groups accused him of rigging the results. He ended up resigning and moving to Mexico.

Dozens of people were killed in the ensuing violence, deepening divisions between indigenous people loyal to Morales and Bolivia's mostly urban middle and upper classes.

As the Andean country prepares to hold new elections, AFP spoke to three people about the unrest.

- Mercedes, the retiree -

Armed with a metal pipes and shovels, Mercedes Viricochea and her neighbors spent several nights defending their homes in El Alto, a stronghold of the ex-president.

Viricochea, a critic of Morales and his Movement for Socialism (MAS) party, says "terrorists" had threatened to burn down their houses if they did not join demonstrations against right-wing interim President Jeanine Anez, who took power after Morales stepped down on November 10.

Around 100 neighbors blocked off their wide streets with wire and burning tires. Anyone wanting to enter had to be physically checked.

"We had to go out and stay there until three in the morning, almost the entire night, in rain and everything," Viricochea, 57, tells AFP at her modest home.

"It has really taken a toll on me psychologically. I felt really bad, locked up in my house."

Viricochea, who worked as a secretary in the La Paz local government until she retired this year, favors new elections.

"After a lot of struggle, we have achieved democracy and we feel very calm," she says.

- Grover, the entrepreneur -

Grover Cardozo, who runs a video production company in La Paz, is a staunch supporter of Morales.

He worked on the ex-president's 2005 campaign and now worries that the indigenous leader's achievements over the past 14 years could be eroded by the next government.

Cardozo wants Morales, who fled to Mexico after losing the support of the security forces, to return to Bolivia and take on an advisory role for the next generation of MAS leaders.

"We cannot be ungrateful and ignore what they (the old guard) have done for Bolivia," Cardozo, 57, tells AFP in his cramped office.

Protests and blockades since the ballot have disrupted daily life in the seat of government, which has been plagued by food and fuel shortages.

"The past three or four weeks have been terrible. We have had to totally change our work routine, life routine," Cardozo says.

Cardozo fears for the future of Bolivia.

"I'm very worried, almost anxious, about what's coming," he says.

- Esteban, the student -

After voting for the first time, Esteban Guillen, 19, was furious when Morales -- who had ruled Bolivia for most of his young life -- claimed victory without going to a second round.

Opposition groups accused Morales, who had been seeking a fourth term, of cheating to avoid a runoff, sparking weeks of protests.

Guillen and other students from the private Bolivian Catholic University in a middle class neighborhood of La Paz were among them.

"I wasn't trying to rock the government," Guillen tells AFP.

"We went with the idea of defending our vote. We were very angry, but also frustrated, furious and sad."

Night after night Guillen and his group joined thousands of protesters outside the electoral tribunal.

They were tear gassed in confrontations with police.

"Another thing that made us mad was how they underestimated the youth," says Guillen, during a break at the leafy university campus.

"Perhaps they thought because this was our first election, we would let it go. It wasn't like that."

While the future of Bolivia is uncertain, Guillen is sure about one thing: Anez was right to fill the power vacuum left by Morales.

Guillen has a warning for politicians planning to contest the next election.

"If they decide to do what Morales did, we will be there and active," he says.