Thousands in Bolivia anti-government protest


La Paz (AFP)

Thousands of demonstrators defied quarantine restrictions and marched on the Bolivian capital La Paz on Tuesday to protest against the government of interim President Jeanine Anez.

"The people are expressing their needs, they are expressing their voice in protest," said Juan Carlos Huarachi, leader of the country's biggest trade union, Central Obrera Boliviana.

The demonstration, held over worker grievances about health and education policies and massive layoffs, was the biggest since the coronavirus pandemic reached the South American country in March.

"There are many layoffs," said Huarachi, "because of the fall in the economy."

Marchers also called for the resignation of Education Minister Victor Hugh Cardenas, as thousands of pupils in rural areas have no access to the internet for virtual classes while schools remain closed.

"We are asking for free internet, because there are children who do not have mobile phones with internet and cannot study," said Feliciana Quesucala, 46, an indigenous Aymara woman from El Alto.

Around 4,000 people marched into La Paz from the neighboring city of El Alto, both of which are under quarantine due to the pandemic that has infected almost 50,000 people in Bolivia and killed 2,000.

- 'Elections now' -

"What do we want? Elections now!" chanted the protesters in reference to the September 6 general election that Anez has sought to postpone over COVID-19.

Almost all the protesters wore masks.

Anez and five members of her cabinet have contracted the virus, as well as Congress president Eva Copa and other top officials.

In a televised message coinciding with the protest, Anez warned the country it faces "a very difficult moment."

"We are reaching the peak of the pandemic, but I am sure that united, with all of us collaborating, we will come out ahead," said Anez, who is in quarantine at her official residence.

Anez and other right-wing presidential candidates, such as former president Jorge Quiroga, have advocated postponing the elections until the pandemic subsides.

According to official forecasts, Bolivia would have some 130,000 infections by election day.

- Virus struggle -

Huarachi said a key protester demand was for the government to authorize the use of chlorine dioxide for COVID-19 patients, a treatment which the authorities have already disavowed.

"The government should make the Bolivian people aware of a treatment protocol to combat COVID-19 with the use of chlorine dioxide, ivermectin and traditional medicine and other drugs that are important. It should be distributing it free of charge to the population," said Huarachi, a mineworkers' leader.

A government scientific committee warned in June against the use of chlorine dioxide, a powerful oxidizing agent used as a bleach and disinfectant.

However, doctors in some Bolivian regions are using it to treat COVID-19 patients.

Anez, a 53-year-old conservative, assumed the interim presidency in November after socialist former leader Evo Morales resigned and fled the country following three weeks of unrest over his controversial re-election.

Anez is running third in the opinion polls behind Luis Arce -- the candidate of Morales's Movement for Socialism Party -- and centrist former president Carlos Mesa.